Andy Ram

There is an unwritten rule that sports reporters simply do not root for a sports team or player while covering an event. Admittedly, this is difficult. A life-long Bostonian covering the Super Bowl February 1st in Glendale, Arizona may have a difficult time sitting poker-faced as Tom Brady and the New England Patriots take on the Seattle Seahawks. And an Argentinian reporter in Brazil covering the 2014 Germany vs. Argentina World Cup Finals may just be tempted to put on a light blue shirt to go with her light white slacks.

For me, covering the US Open Tennis Championships each year, and more recently, reporting from the Israel vs. Argentina Davis Cup matches in Sunrise, Florida pose similar dilemmas.

How is it possible not to cheer for Dudi Sela just after midnight when he outlasts an opponent in the 5th set on the outer courts at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York? How can I not be moved to clap — or cry — when Andy Ram is lying on center court in what may be his last match ever, as he and partner and friend, Jonathan Erlich win an epic Davis Cup doubles match against the Argentinians? Like that Argentinian reporter at the World Cup, I am careful not to put on a royal blue shirt to go with my white shorts — lest anyone think I am partisan.

But I am.  Perhaps it is a sense of landsmanschaft — pride in a member of the tribe, usually an underdog, competing on the world stage. I feel it in my kishkes when Julia Glushko or Shahar Peer make a great shot, or when Amir Weintraub makes it through the qualifiers, in to the main draw of a prestigious tournament.

I hold it together until I get to the media center, to interview the players.  While remaining professional, the Israeli players sigh a sigh of relief when I offer to do the interview in Hebrew, and when I tell them which Israeli or Jewish publication I am writing for. We move from questions about the just-completed match, to traveling the world as a Jew and Israeli, to “where will you be for Rosh Hashana.” We are fellow travelers.

In 2013, Israel was about to compete against Belgium in the World Group of the Davis Cup Play-Off, to be held in Antwerp, just one week after the US Open. A Belgian reporter and I requested a US Open post-match interview with Dudi Sela. Players are required to honor such requests. After I asked my questions, the Belgian reporter asked a series of questions — about the upcoming tournament, likely match ups, and about the timing of the match; the Israel Tennis Association had just received at $13,000 fine for refusing to play its match on Yom Kippur.

The reporter was working hard to understand what this holiday is and why Israel wasn’t going to play on that day. “It is a special day,” reported Sela. “A serious day.” The reporter probed further. “We don’t eat or drink.” The reporter (see photo) asked more questions. “So you don’t eat or drink? That must be hard just before a big match.”

“Well, I do, but….Amir Weintraub doesn’t…and my grandparents were religious and they didn’t eat or drink…”

The reporter was even more confused. At that point, Sela turned to me and asked for help explaining Yom Kippur. I took off my tennis writer’s hat and put on my Jewish educator’s hat. I explained Yom Kippur and the range of observances on that day by Israelis and Jews around the world. Now he was getting it, and Sela was so appreciative!

(Belgian reporter with Dudi Sela-US Open Media Center)

That same year, I was out to dinner with family in New York City.  Several blocks from the restaurant, I spot a blonde woman in a green dress with a male companion. She spots me and smiles.  My curious family wonders why she comes up to me to give a hug and kiss—and speak to me in Hebrew. “That is Julia Glushko—I just interviewed her today for a Times of Israel article!” I am not sure that professional athletes from other countries stop to greet reporters in the street.

I have since bumped into Dudi Sela many times, in many settings. I have observed him sticking around to sign autographs and pose for pictures for anyone who asks. And I have seen him show up at Israel Tennis Center sponsored clinics for poor children in New York. He is a real mensch, and I feel proud. I may try to hide my pride at matches, but I—and the players—feel a strong connection with fellow Jewish and Israeli-loving people.

I am not privileged to be Down Under this week in Melbourne covering the Australian Open tennis tournament. But lucky fans and reporters will witness something never seen in professional tennis—a first ever match up between Israeli Dudi Sela, 29 years old and currently ranked 106 in the world, versus Spaniard Rafa Nadal, 28, the number 3 player in the world. It is amazing they have never played since both have been at it for a long time. Nadal turned professional in 2001 and Sela in 2002. What are the odds? Nadal has won 64 titles including 14 Grand Slams—and has earned $71 million; Sela has earned $2 million over the course of his career but has yet to win a major title.

So who is a Jewish sports reporter to root for? The landsman you say?  Which one? In 2013, Simcha Jacobovici carefully argued in “Rafael Nadal: A Jewish Story?” that, perhaps, Rafael Nadal of Majorca may descend from Jews! He may be a converso.  While he flat out denied this when I asked this question at a US Open press conference, it is possible that Nadal either felt uncomfortable addressing the question in this forum, or he simply did not understand the question as it was posed in English.

Sports writer Sandra Harwitt, who has covered more than 70 Grand Slams tennis tournaments, takes up this question in her recently published “The Greatest Jewish Tennis Players of All Time.” (2014, New Chapter Press). While she doesn’t include Rafa on her list, she included Nadal in a section “Jewish Connections.”

Harwitt acknowledges, “Not that long ago, the Internet was alive with the suggestion that Rafael Nadal Parera might have a Sephardic Jewish heritage…it is known [that] the converted [to Catholicism] often chose the names Parera and Nadal as their new last names.” Harwritt asked her friend, ATP Tour Communications Senior Vice President, Nocola Arzani if he would approach Nadal and ask if these rumors were plausible—and she asked him to address Nadal in Spanish. Harwitt writes, “Nadal, it turns out, wasn’t surprised by Arzani’s query. In fact, the family was aware of the history of Sephardic Jews and had wondered themselves about the possibility they might have a Jewish past. Rafa told Nicola that his grandfather had done some research regarding both sides of the family — the Nadals on his father’ side, the Pareras on his mother’s side — but hadn’t turned up any evidence that ponted to a Jewish ancestry. How his grandfather went about the research and how far back he was able to dig is not known, but it could be an interesting pursuit for a genealogy specialist.”

For now, I’m rooting for Dudi Sela in Friday’s 3rd Australian Open round match.  But, I hold out hope that, perhaps Raphael Nadal will one day discover he is Jewish  and may even make Aliyah and play tennis for Israel. May the best Jewish man win!

(Source: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com)

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Original Article Published On The Jewish Telegraphic Agency

SUNRISE, Fla. (JTA) – It wasn’t Tel Aviv, but thousands of people chanting his name at a Davis Cup match following a grueling victory was a pretty good way for Israel’s Andy Ram to leave the game of tennis to which he had devoted more than half his life.

Ram, 34, and his longtime doubles partner, Yoni Erlich, had just outlasted the Argentine duo of Federico Delbonis and Horacio Zeballos in a five-set match on Saturday that lasted nearly three-and-a-half hours.

With Ram sprawled out on center court — on his back, in tears — the crowd waved Israeli flags and “Todah [Thank you] Andy Ram” signs in Hebrew and chanted “Andyoni” and “Tishaer [Stay],” suggesting that he put off the retirement he had announced recently.

His teammates, wearing “Todah Andy” shirts, surrounded Ram, hoisted him in the air and carried him off the court. They proceeded to dump an ice-filled bucket on his head.

He would stay on the court for 20 minutes signing autographs and posing for pictures.

At a news conference afterward, Ram talked about his actions following the match, with Erlich and coach Eyal Ran at his side.

“I ran out of energy,” he said. “Then, as I was looking up at the sky and the birds, I got very emotional. And I cried like a baby.

“I thought of my father who couldn’t be here. I thought of my mom who was here. I left home at 14 to play tennis. Most of our relationship was on the phone. It meant the world to me that she was here.”

The doubles victory had put underdog Israel ahead 2-1 in the team match, but Argentina took both singles matches the following day to advance in the international tournament.

Despite the thunderous reception — as well as the Hebrew music heard frequently during the changeovers — Ram and his Israeli teammates lamented that the match was not played in central Israel, as scheduled, rather than South Florida.

In July, the Argentine Tennis Association requested a change in venue from the Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv due to security concerns surrounding the conflict in Gaza. The International Tennis Federation informed Israel in August that the match had to be moved. Israel appealed but lost; it would have to serve as host in a different location.

The Sunrise Tennis Club was selected from among several options. Much of the crowd there backed the Israelis, with a section of Argentines clad in light blue and white shirts rooting on their guys.

“We are playing here in the U.S.; it is a good feeling and yet it is not the best feeling,” Ram told JTA on Friday. “It was supposed to be in Israel. I wanted to play in front of my home crowd.”

His teammate, Dudi Sela, was a little more direct.

“The ITF made a mistake,” Sela told JTA. “We were looking forward to playing in front of 11,000 people cheering for Israel.”

Asi Touchmair, the chair of the Israel Tennis Association, noted in a statement that Israel has hosted the Davis Cup during times of war and military operations without having to move the matches.

Despite the distance and the logistics difficulties involved, Touchmair said, “we decided to play the Davis Cup in South Florida due to the warm and welcoming relationship that Israel receives from the United States, and where an atmosphere of a ‘home away from home’ will be experienced by our Israel Davis Cup team.”

Among those who made the trek to Sunrise was Andrea Eidman, an Argentine sports journalist who came from Buenos Aires.

“People asked me, who do you cheer for? And honestly, I didn’t care!” she said.

Eidman added, “For me, being present at that tennis court … with the Hebrew music going on and on, with the Israeli flags, the ‘Hatikvah,’ the shofar — it was a party from beginning to end!”

Ram, sitting in the stands on Friday with Erlich, 37, and cheering on his teammates during singles’ matches, told JTA he had no problem looking toward the future.

“I try to put it behind me, like in the past,” he said. “I am the kind of guy who is always thinking, ‘What’s next?’

“It was fun. It was a good time. Next is to focus on my kids [aged 5 and 7]. To see them growing, to be great athletes. To find myself, my way.”

Ram and Erlich – natives of Uruguay and Argentina, respectively — reached as high as No. 5 in the world doubles rankings. They advanced to 36 finals and won 20 of them, including the 2008 Australian Open. Ram also won the Wimbledon mixed doubles in 2006 and the French Open mixed doubles in 2007.

Ram is particularly proud of his Davis Cup record of 19-5 following the one final victory – achieved despite pulling muscle in his left leg late in the fifth set.

“I sent Jonathan on a suicide mission,” Ram joked. “He said, ‘Just get the serves in. I will do the rest.’ ”

Erlich’s particularly strong volleys powered the duo in the final set in 91-degree heat.

Ram spoke of his partnership with Ehrlich.

“When we go on court together, magic happens. We communicate. We know what the other one will do,” Ram said.

Erlich offered, “We had motivation, energy and a lot of belief.”

Eidman summed up what much of the crowd was likely feeling on seeing Ram’s finale.

“I felt like crying when Andy Ram said goodbye to tennis,” she said, noting that the Argentina team’s Jewish captain, Martin Jaite, was playing in his final match, too.

Eidman also said, “I would have loved to travel to eretz Israel instead of America. … It hurt my heart not to go to Israel because of the war.”

But, Ram said, “11,000 people screaming Andyoni is amazing!”

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Freelance writer Howard Blasreports on the Pilot Pen Tennis Tournie in New Haven – from a Jewish perspective. The tournament was still in full swing as the Ledger went to press.

Ezra Academy makes a night of it
Ezra Academy of Woodbridge joined thousands of fans at the Pilot Pen Tennis tournament that kicked off at the Connecticut Tennis Center at Yale on August 23 and will run through August 29. According to Head of School, Rabbi Amanda Brodie, “This year at Ezra, we are highlighting health and fitness for life. Ezra parents, Jody Ellant and Howard Reiter, responded to an offer for $1 Pilot Pen tickets and purchased 180 for the evening session on Monday, August 24, which they made available to the Ezra community.” Ellant notes, “We, as a family, have attended the Pilot Pen tournament since its inception. The Pilot Pen tournament is a fabulous opportunity to see world class athletes perform right here in our community. It is a wonderful way to begin the school year.”

Israelis in the Pilot Pen Draw…almost
Ezra also came out to celebrate an historic year for Israel’s tennis professionals. Israel’s Dudi Sela, currently ranked 34th in the world, was invited to play in the Pilot Pen but pulled out after dropping out of last week’s Western and Southern Financial Group tournament in Cincinnati, Oh. The 24-year old Sela, who played in last year’s Pilot Pen, aggravated a groin injury and dropped out in the second set of his first round match. He hopes to recover in time for the upcoming U.S. Open in New York. 

Shahar Peer, ranked 58th in the world, and recovering from a stress fracture earlier in the summer, came to New Haven after reaching the third round of the Rogers Cup in Toronto. Peer was not given an automatic invitation to the tournament; such invitations were only issued to the top 44 ranked females. The 22-year old Peer played late in the afternoon of August 21 versus Italy’s Tathiana Garbin in the first round of the qualifiers. She was down 7-5, 2-2 in Friday’s qualifying match before a rainstorm suspended the match. Several hours later, and after eight ball kids used high powered blowers to dry the court, Garbin and Peer resumed their match in an empty stadium. Garbin defeated Peer 7-5, 6-4. Peer left New Haven early Monday morning for New York where she will prepare for the U.S. Open.

Israel doubles specialists, Andy Ram and Jonathan Erlich, familiar faces in New Haven after appearing in several recent Pilot Pens, did not play this year.

This has been a year of successes and stressful moments for Israeli tennis. In July, Israel stunned the tennis world when it clinched a berth in the semifinal of the 2009 Davis Cup. A capacity crowd of 11,000 fans witnessed the doubles team of Andy Ram and Jonathan Erlich, as they defeated Russians Marat Safin and Igor Kunitsyn, 6-3, 6-4, 6-7(3), 4-6, 6-4. One day earlier, Harel Levy, ranked 210 in the world, defeated Igor Andreev in the opening match of the Davis Cup and 33rd ranked Dudi Sela defeated Russian Mikhail Youzhny.

Four months earlier, the Israeli tennis team competed against host Sweden in Malmo, Sweden. Due to concerns that violent protests would erupt over Israel’s actions in Gaza, the indoor arena was left empty. In that tournament, Dudi Sela defeated former Australian Open Champion,Thomas Johansson, 3-6, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2, and Harel Levy outlasted Swede, Andreas Vinciguerra, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 3-6, 8-6, in a three and a half hour match.

In February, Shahar Peer made headlines when the United Arab Emirates denied her a visa, making it impossible for her to play in the Dubai championship. In response, the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour levied an unprecedented series of fines, penalties and warnings against the tournament. Peer received $44,245, an average of the prize-money she received for singles and doubles at events last year; the tournament was fined a record $300,000 for a breach of tour rules and the event will have to post a $2 million financial performance guarantee by July 1 for a number of conditions it must meet to stage the event in 2010, including the guarantee of a wild card for Peer if her ranking is not high enough for a place in the main draw.

The response from the women’s game marks a watershed. Larry Scott, the tour’s chief executive officer, said: “These actions send a clear message that we will not tolerate discrimination and we will not allow this situation to happen again.”

The United Arab Emirates then gave “special permission” for Andy Ram, then the number 11 ranked doubles player in the world, to be granted a visa so that he could play in an event in Dubai the following week.

Young Jewish players in the Pilot Pen qualifiers
Three of the 32 players in the female qualifying singles tournament are Jewish. In addition to Shahar Peer, Rachel Kahan and Gail Brodsky vied for spots in the main draw. Kahan, a home-schooled high school senior from Unionville, received a wild card into the qualifying tournament of the Pilot Pen after winning the Prequalifier-Yale Summer Championships. After losing the first four games to Romanian Monica Niculescu, Kahan, dressed in black shorts, shirt and cap, battled back to lose the first set 6-4. Niculescu ultimately won 6-4, 6-0.

Gail Brodsky, 18, who was born in the Ukraine and moved with her parents to Brooklyn, N.Y. 12 years ago, fought hard in her qualifying match, but lost to Italy’s Roberta Vinci, 6-0, 6-1. The home-schooled Brodsky has been training at the Weil Tennis Academy in California. She tells the Ledger that this is her first time in New Haven, and that she will soon move to Melbourne, Fla. Brodsky notes that the Jewish players are “friendly with each other.”

Jesse Levine, who lost in last year’s fourth round to Pilot Pen finalist, Mardy Fish, lost in the first round of qualifier singles and therefore is not in the main draw. Scott Lipsky made it to the main draw for men’s doubles with partner, Robert Kendrick.

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