“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 JewsInSports.org.
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.