- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2006

Andy Ram and Jonathan Erlich evoke peaceful images of their homeland as they talk about the beaches, mountainsides and bustling night life of Israel — a stark contrast to the images of war on television and the front pages of newspapers.

Ram leans back in his chair, trying to show what it is like to read a newspaper while floating in the Dead Sea. Erlich laughs at the acting skill of his doubles partner, and Ram smiles in return, a sign of the light-hearted nature of these old friends.

Ram and Erlich, ranked seventh in the ATP Tour’s doubles race, this week are competing in the Legg Mason Tennis Classic at Rock Creek Park. Though they play on courts thousands of miles from home, thoughts of Israel and its war against Hezbollah militants in Lebanon are never far away.

They hope they can provide some relief, even if only in a small way.

“We practice in Tel Aviv so we didn’t feel the war, but you feel the tension in the people,” Ram says. “For us, good or bad, we are away from the war. But, for sure, we both know that when there is a war, a situation like now, you are more proud you represent a country like Israel and can bring them some good news.

“We are trying to do some good for the people on the court. We are pretty popular in Israel at the moment, and we know people are following us. We are proud and honored to be able to help them during this time.”

Ram and Erlich are something of a rarity in their country. Israel doesn’t have a strong tennis tradition — the modestly successful Amos Mansdorf probably was the best player in the country’s history — and there are no Israeli men ranked in the top 200 in the world in singles and only one other player in the top 100 in doubles.

Last month, Ram and Erlich became instant celebrities at home by helping Israel beat England for the first time in Davis Cup competition. The outcome rested on the performance of Ram and Erlich in the third of the five matches. Down two sets to one, the duo rallied to force a fifth set. Then, facing a 4-1 deficit in the final set, they rallied again for a 6-4 victory and Israel went on to win 3-2.

The victory for Ram and Erlich was shown live in Israel — a rare occurrence in the soccer- and basketball-dominated country, according to the players.

“It was the main event,” Ram says. “We know we did some good because we got phone calls from hundreds of people, and the newspapers were full of coverage. It’s nice. Very nice. It wasn’t easy to play Davis Cup when three members of the team, including [Erlich] are from Haifa.

“Every day we get the information, and it wasn’t easy to focus. But we are professionals; it’s what we have to do.”

Ram and Erlich, who have compiled a 26-13 record and won two titles this year, say they limit themselves to checking CNN.com once a day, but they call home nearly every day as well.

“It is like when you have a fight with your wife, you need to get to the court and focus,” Erlich says. “You have a goal and a target. You forget everything else. You focus on the ball. That is why people love sports. It is good for clearing your mind.”

Ram and Erlich think they developed that discipline during three years of compulsory military service. They were allowed to practice and compete in tournaments, but they still jokingly relish the fact that they are two of a small number of professional athletes in the world who have served in the military.

“Maybe we did the country some good militarily,” Ram says, shooting Erlich a doubtful grin.

The two met at a sports training institute in 1994. Erlich, 29, says he and Ram, 26, already knew of each other because the tennis community in Israel is tight-knit.

They began playing together in 2001 and cracked the top 100 in February 2002 before Ram was sidelined with knee and back problems. They reunited in 2003 and began the climb to their top-10 status for this year.

Ram won Wimbledon this year in mixed doubles playing with Vera Zvonareva of Russia but says his ultimate goal is to win a grand slam with Erlich. That would mean taking down the best doubles team in the world, brothers Mike and Bob Bryan.

“We belong to the top level,” Ram says. “Our goal together is to be No. 1 and beat the Bryans to win a grand slam. We are working. Slowly. We have been together three years, but we will get there.

“And then after we win the U.S. Open, I am getting married,” Ram says, flinging his arms in the air in mock celebration. Ram plans to marry his girlfriend of 10 years, Shiri, on Sept. 12.

Shiri’s grandparents and Erlich’s entire family have witnessed firsthand the destruction wrought by Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets. Ram’s future in-laws were forced to move south by bombs that landed within yards of their house.

“Everybody knows most of the countries in the region don’t like us, but we live our life like any other modern, mature country,” Erlich says. “Israel is a normal country, even though it is a little bit crazy right now.”

Ram and Erlich agreed the support of American fans, especially from the Jewish community, keeps them motivated. After they defeated Scott Oudsema and Sam Querrey 6-3, 6-4 on Tuesday to advance to the quarterfinals, Ram and Erlich collected the balls and threw them into the crowd to show their gratitude.

After all, Ram and Erlich will be the first to say how thankful they are. Thankful their careers have led them out of the war zone, thankful for the ability to bring joy to their country and thankful to be Israeli.

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