Tennis / Ram and Erlich make history Down Under
Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich rode a wave of vocal support from the local crowd en route to one of the greatest achievements in Israeli tennis.
MELBOURNE - From the opening serve there was no doubt as to the direction of the men's doubles final yesterday. On one side stood a highly motivated pair, obsessively followed by an entire country for two weeks. On the other side were positioned a couple of French veterans who thought they were coming to play tennis, not engage in a life-or-death struggle.
Knowing they were being watched by countless fans at home despite it being early Saturday morning in Israel, Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich rode a wave of vocal support from the local crowd en route to one of the greatest achievements in Israeli tennis. The pair defeated Arnaud Clement and Michael Llodra 7-5, 7-6. "We made history," summed up Ram. "Can we leave now to celebrate?"
To understand the grand scale of the mission that faced Andy and Yoni, it's enough to consider the special guests viewing the game. The Israeli ambassador to Australia, Yuval Rotem, stood there excited and tense, biting his fingernails, clapping and wrapped in the national flag. One of the ushers was so surprised to see such an insane fan in the VIP stands she went to make sure his entry pass was valid. Almost the entire embassy staff neglected their regular duties and flew seven hours from the capital of Canberra to be at center court. All this for a doubles match, and, no, not one representative from the French embassy showed up, thank you very much.
The Israeli fans in the stands gave the normal gentlemanly atmosphere a distinctly Beitar Jerusalem flavor, replete with cries of war and shouts to attack the French from the start. Erlich and Ram took to the mood and came out wound up and determined as they haven't been in quite a while.
The veteran French duo showed up with a resume of two Grand Slam titles, but Ram, who has two mixed doubles titles to his name, and Erlich didn't intend to yield an inch. Even during the warm-up they looked possessed. They broke the French in the first game, and the crowd went wild. In the fifth game of the first set they rallied from 40-love to take a 4-2 advantage. Their game just flowed, with every slam staying inbounds, every volley hitting the line, and they rode the momentum.
And then, suddenly in the midst of a 33-degree-centigrade heat wave, it began to rain. The Israeli fans in the stands began to worry, remembering how Dudi Sela had fallen victim to the same kind of unexpected Australian rain while cruising over Marat Safin. Sela had lost his momentum during the rain delay. The Israeli pair went into the locker room a little unsure as well. Within a few minutes the retractable roof closed, and 30 children stormed the court to wipe down the surface.
The tennis players returned, but conditions had definitively changed. The floodlights were turned on, the wind stopped and the French changed their shirts. Clement and Llodra stormed back to tie it at 5-5, and the outcome of the match was thrown in doubt. That's when Ram found his moment to shine. "He gave one of his best games ever today," Erlich said of his partner. "He covered me during the moments my hand was shaking." Indeed, several clutch strokes by Ram broke serve, and another virtuoso transition shot clinched the first set 7-5. The fans began singing "Am Yisrael Hai."
At that moment this reporter looked around the stands and couldn't locate even one French reporter. It seems doubles aren't enough to interest them in contrast to "real" tennis. In fact, the only other reporter around was Joshua Levy, representing the local Jewish paper in Melbourne, who asked, "What is this word they're shouting all the time, 'mil-ha-ma'?" It was a little embarrassing to tell him the fans were crying out "war."
Meanwhile, Ram and Erlich kept at it. "In retrospect I could say it was an easy game," Erlich said afterward. "In contrast to all the games of the tournament until now, which were hard but looked easy, this time it was easy but looked hard." Tied 6-6, Andy looked Yoni in the eyes and said, "Now it's time," and Yoni responded, "Let's go." At one point Erlich messed up a simple volley, but once again pulled out a huge serve to cover the blunder to keep it at 3-3 in the tie breaker.
The Israelis went up 6-5 for game, set and match point. The entire stadium was quiet. Clement hit the net, and everyone burst out with excitement. Yoni raised Andy on his back and the two made a victory lap. Minutes later they joined the fans for a round of "Hatikva". Erlich and Ram waved the cup, and even the cynics among us found it hard not to get excited.
At the post-game press conference, the duo admitted in slightly slurred English they had already broken open two bottles of champagne. "I don't know if it's the best tennis we ever played," observed Erlich, "but I can say we never arrived at a tournament so well prepared mentally. We played every point patiently, without losing concentration, without let-downs, without losing energy." He said it was a real improvement for them. "We talk a lot about this with our coach and our psychologist, about the belief that we can win a Grand Slam, and today we proved to ourselves and many other people that we are at the highest levels. Yes, we strive to be number one in the world, and yes, we are capable of bringing an important title."
Ram described the victory as "an unbelievable moment." He said, "You can't compare this moment of joy with anything. We've waited for this moment our whole lives, to win a Grand Slam with my best friend is the happiest thing that could happen to me." Ram also acknowledged the fact that, "We are the first Israelis to make this achievement, and we are aware of the size of its historical standing in Israeli sport." Still feeling the bubbly, he added, "Can we go now?"
No tears for Pe'er
The Israeli title quest this weekend did not get off to a good start, as Shahar Pe'er and Victoria Azarenka fell in the women's doubles finals to Alona and Kateryna Bondarenko of Ukraine, 6-4, 6-2. Peer admitted afterwards she had been focusing on the singles competition. "It was important for me to succeed in doubles because of the early exit in the singles," the Israeli said. "All in all, I'm happy I managed to stay here as long as I could. I hope this week will be a good preparation for the Fed Cup."
Perhaps she will gain a measure of confidence from making her first Grand Slam final, but being broken three times during the two last games recalls problems plaguing her serve. She was surprisingly calm afterward. "You know, doubles are doubles," Peer commented. "You're not alone on the court." Her partner Azarenka, who noted she "didn't know there are so many Israelis everywhere in the world," added that she also prefers the singles game, "but it's a shame we lost."
In the women's final, Maria Sharapova defeated Serbia's Ana Ivanovic 7-5, 6-3.