Israeli Tennis Players Serve Up New Image

By Steven Zeitchik

Published August 25, 2006, issue of August 25, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

“The ball tails away from him when it’s on the far side of the court,” Jonathan Erlich whispers to his doubles partner, Andy Ram, as Ram gets ready to receive serve. Ram nods, lightly slaps his partner’s hand lightly and heads up to the net. A minute later, he is flicking a perfect backhand volley into the doubles alley, which catches his opponent flat footed. Ram and Erlich slap hands again, this time more emphatically.

There’s little that was remarkable about the practice session at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, D.C., last month. The two players were in sync — so much so, in fact, that later in the week they made it all the way to the semifinals.

Except the feared doubles team is a couple of… Israelis?

The Jewish state doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a tennis powerhouse. At the world’s major tournaments, Israel is a little like Finland: It’s there, but you have to look pretty hard.

Case in point: Harel Levy, an Israeli journeyman so far below tennis’s glamour ranks that when he pulled off an upset in the first round at the French Open a few years ago, he had to sneak into the hotel room of an eliminated player because he didn’t have the money to cover the extra nights. But as the U.S. Open begins next week, there are signs that this is all about to change.

Ram won Israel’s first Wimbledon title in July when he and his Russian partner, Vera Zvonoreva, took the mixed-doubles championship, outmaneuvering Venus Williams and American doubles star Bob Bryan.

A few weeks later, a team of Israeli men beat the Brits at the Davis Cup for the first time. The shocker — in England, no less — was the equivalent of a West London society lady beating a Brooklyn Jew at a cholent cook-off… in Brooklyn. The Brits were so shocked that one tabloid proclaimed the loss as “a new low” in British sports. The women haven’t been slouching, either. Shahar Pe’er, a 19-year-old who takes leave from her army service (she has a desk job) to play tournaments, went all the way to the fourth round at the French Open, where she nearly defeated a surging Martina Hingis. Pe’er is now ranked 25th in the world in singles and also won a doubles title this summer, The Bank of the West in Palo Alto, Calif.

Even Tzipora Obziler — at 33, a tennis geriatric — has caught the good luck, reaching her first final after many failed attempts.

After years of underachievement, Israel now has a class from which a true star might emerge — an Ilan Lendl, if you will.

“There certainly are a surprising number of people on a competitive level now,” said Meir Ribalow, director of the Web site

In 1991, Israel formed a dedicated tennis program at the elite Wingate Institute, where pros such as Ram have sharpened their play.

Ribalow says that group has now ripened: “What you’re seeing in Israel are the people who picked it up 10 or 15 years ago coming into form.” The players, though, downplay the idea of an emerging class.

”I wouldn’t say it’s new,” Pe’er told the Forward from the JPMorgan Chase Open in Los Angeles. “Before us there was [Amos] Mansdorf and [Gilad] Bloom,” she said, alluding to two Israeli men in the 1980s who never achieved the success these players have.

“And then,” she added, “there’s Anna.”

Ah, Anna. The tennis goddess. No, not Kournikova, but Smashnova, a beacon for young Israelis.

Besides owning the best tennis name in the world (though Israeli prospect Almog Mashiach gives her a run for her money), Smashnova has inspired many younger Israelis to pick up a racket, what with her 12 tour titles and powerful ground strokes and cagey drop shots. Fifteen years after going pro, she still finds life in her game, having won a tournament in Budapest last spring.

But Smashnova doesn’t just embody Israeli success; she embodies why the country is suddenly ascendant. A top Russian junior, she came to Israel at 14 after the Iron Curtain fell. Ram and Erlich — who emigrated from Uruguay and Argentina, respectively —followed suit. As global antisemitism has increased and Israel has become more prosperous, one of the unexpected byproducts has been an ingathering of tennis exiles.

All this is happening as sports take a backseat to pressing political matters. The Women’s Tennis Association Tour just canceled its first tournament in Israel because of the war against Hezbollah.

And despite the usual jock platitudes, the players are, surprisingly very politically aware. Erlich has dedicated matches to his family in Haifa. Ram has been especially vocal, saying, “The media do not always show the right pictures.”

Pe’er, too, admits to sneaking frequent peeks at the news: “I have a cousin who’s [serving] in Lebanon, and I spend a lot of time when I’m not on the court watching the TV and reading the Internet.”

It would be too easy to say that tennis is helping in these difficult times. But as Erlich and Ram delight Israeli fans in Washington, it’s also hard not to enjoy the sounds of Hebrew slang on an international tennis court.

Steven Zeitchik is a reporter for Variety and a helpless tennis junkie who hopes one day to perfect the three-handed backhand.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • For 22 years, Seeds of Peace has fostered dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian teens in an idyllic camp. But with Israel at war in Gaza, this summer was different.
  • J.J. Goldberg doesn't usually respond to his critics. But this time, he just had to make an exception.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.