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Arts & Culture Israel’s Top Doubles Tennis Team Builds Pride in Jewish State at the Net

Israel’s best ambassadors are personable, passionate and proud of their country. It doesn’t hurt if they’re world-class tennis players.

Andy Ram, 25, and Jonathan “Yoni” Erlich, 28, close friends since their teen years and doubles partners for the past three years, have been traveling around the world together, entertaining crowds and sharing their love for Israel.

Ram, ranked 24th in the world for mens doubles, and Erlich, ranked 22nd, are the No. 11 seeds in the men’s doubles draw of the U.S. Open tennis tournament. Each was entered in the mixed-doubles draw as well.

The past year has been successful but somewhat bittersweet for Ram and Erlich: Representing Israel in the 2004 Olympics in Athens last summer, they advanced to the quarterfinals before losing to Germans Nicolas Kiefer and Rainer Schuettler, who went on to take the silver medal.

In October, Ram and Erlich won the Grand Prix de Tennis de Lyon, in France, and hoped for success in the Australian Open in January. But they lost a heartbreaking third-round match to No. 2 seeds Bob and Mike Bryan, twins from the United States.

In February they won the ABN Amro World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Pleased with their fourth career title, Ram and Erlich geared up for May’s French Open, but Ram received bad news two days before the tournament — his 60-year-old father had died of a heart attack.

The duo dropped out of the tournament and returned to Israel, where shiva was observed in Ram’s mother’s home in Jerusalem.

Ram speaks warmly about his family, who moved from Uruguay to Israel when Andy was 5.

“I still have grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in Uruguay,” he says. “I love when they come to Israel to see us.”

Ram grew up in Jerusalem and at age 14 was invited to study at the Wingate Institute, Israel’s National Center for Physical Education and Sport, near Netanya. Ram stayed at Wingate until age 18, when he entered the Israeli army.

“They treated me and the other athletes like special sportsmen, and we were allowed to play tennis and travel, even during our army service,” he says.

Ram enjoys the company of other Israeli players on tour, such as Harel Levy, Noam Okun and Amir Haddad.

“I’ve never had a problem” on the tour “being Jewish or Israeli,” Ram says.

Both Ram and Erlich enjoy the reception they receive from Jewish communities around the world.

“We always receive a warm welcome — people are supportive and fly flags of Israel everywhere we go,” Erlich says.

The team is a model of good communication: While Ram and Erlich shout on-court commands to each other in Hebrew, they both grew up in bilingual Hebrew-Spanish homes and also are comfortable in English.

Erlich was born in Buenos Aires and moved to Israel when he was 1. He grew up in Haifa and moved to the Wingate Institute at age 15.

In mid-June, Ram and Erlich won the Nottingham Open in England, considered the major warm-up to Wimbledon. They entered Wimbledon seeded 15th, advancing to the third round before losing again to the Bryans.

The pair spent July playing with the St. Louis Aces of the World Team Tennis league. Dani Apted, the team’s general manager, praised Erlich as a “fantastic mentor” to a younger team member, adding that he “kept the team level and focused in each of his matches.”

Ram “directed his passion and became the drive that motivated the whole team to win,” Apted said.

In late July, the Israeli duo finally beat the Bryan twins at the Merecedes-Benz Cup in Los Angeles, before losing in the finals. They also lost in the finals of a Masters Series event in Montreal in August.

In an interview with JTA just before the U.S. Open, Ram and Erlich spoke about tennis, their families and about being far from Israel during the recent Gaza withdrawal.

“It was tough seeing those pictures,” Ram said. “I don’t take a political side — I’m only afraid that my sister, in the army, might be taken to a dangerous place.”

“It was very difficult seeing such horrible pictures on TV,” Erlich agreed. “The truth is, it’s a big relief for me not to be in Israel at this time.”

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