Shahar Peer

Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

“I didn’t think about how I was making history as the first Israeli athlete to play in Dubai.”

When Israeli tennis legend Andy Ram learned in August that Israelis will soon be able to fly directly to the United Arab Emirates, he was shocked and pleased and had a déjà-vu moment.

Ram’s illustrious doubles career, mostly with fellow Israel tennis player Jonathan “Yoni” Ehrlich, included three Grand Slam championships, multiple opportunities to represent Israel at the Olympics and the Davis Cup, and some exciting and harrowing behind-the-scenes dealings with the then-unfriendly Arab nation. The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP, the leading international men’s tennis organization) once paid Ram to not play tennis in Dubai, then one year later reversed course and exerted pressure to grant permission for Ram to play there.

Ram, who retired from professional tennis six years ago, reflected on his tennis career, current projects and Dubai experiences during a recent Zoom “Lunch and Learn” session for 70 people with the Israel Tennis and Education Center (ITEC).

Ram’s tennis career began when he wasn’t allowed to play soccer. Ram’s Israeli father was injured and endured three surgeries during his years playing professional soccer for Beitar Jerusalem. His father then went to Uruguay on shlichut (as an emissary), where he met Andy’s mother.

“Because of his soccer injuries, he didn’t allow me to play soccer.”

The Ram family moved back to Israel when Ram was five. At that young age, he started playing tennis at the Israel Tennis Centers in Jerusalem and was hooked immediately.

“I was jealous of the kids who were playing tennis at (the main center in) Ramat Hasharon.” Ram moved to Ramat Hasharon and to the Wingate Institute at age 14 for more intensive training.

Ram turned pro in 1996 at the age of 16 and began practicing regularly with future doubles partner Yoni Erlich. The two actually first met when Ram was 10.

“I was three years younger. I had a dream to play with Yoni and I asked him to play together in the juniors.” The two did not compete in a Grand Slam tournament until 2001, when they played doubles at Wimbledon.

Ram has spent most of his career playing both men’s doubles and mixed doubles. In 2003, Ram and Erlich entered the prestigious Wimbledon tournament through the qualifiers and reached the semifinals. That same year, Ram and Anastasia Rodionova of Russia reached the mixed doubles finals, losing to Martina Navratilova and Leander Paes.

RAM CONTINUED to experience success in both men’s doubles and mixed doubles throughout the 2000s. In 2003, Ram and Erlich won both the Thailand Open and a tournament in Lyon, France. Ram won the mixed doubles title with Vera Zvonareva at the 2006 Wimbledon Championships. He then won the mixed doubles title at the 2007 French Open with Nathalie Dechy, and the men’s doubles title at the 2008 Australian Open with Erlich.

Following Ram and Erlich’s Australian Open victory at the end of January 2008, the pair wanted to play in March’s Barclays Dubai Tennis Championship.

“There were lots of points and big money to be won there,” Ram tells the people on the ITEC webinar. “Under sports law, they must let all people play in this tournament, so we applied for a visa and we got tickets. The Dubai government didn’t let us go.” Ram then shared the shocking story of how the ATP “didn’t let us go. The ATP convinced us – after we got our tickets – not to go. They gave us $10,000, paid for our canceled tickets and suggested we play in the February Delray Beach International Tennis Championships. We said okay!”

Ram and the ATP took a very different approach in 2009 when the idea of playing in Dubai resurfaced. “Yoni was injured, and I needed to earn and defend points. I told the ATP with two months’ notice that I have the right to go.”

In February of the same year, Israeli tennis player Shahar Pe’er was denied a visa by the UAE for the Dubai Tennis Championship. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), the main organizing body of women’s professional tennis, fined Dubai Tennis Championships organizers a record $300,000. US tennis star Andy Roddick said at the time that he wouldn’t defend the title he won there in 2008.

According to Ram, “The ATP said, ‘If there is no visa for Andy Ram, we will cancel the tournament.’ Dubai said they would give me a visa.”

This is where Ram’s circuitous, wild Dubai adventure begins.

“There were no flights. And the Mossad called. I don’t know how they knew I was planning to go! They are the Mossad. They said, ‘We know you want to go. You can’t!’”

Ram and the Zoom audience laughed.

“I flew to Paris. I was at the counter three hours before the flight. The lady said, ‘You can’t go.’ Seconds before the flight was to take off, they let me on the flight. I thought they [would all want] to kill me – so I started to speak Spanish! When we landed, I became like the prime minister. Some 15 people took me off the flight and took my bags. We stayed at a bulletproof hotel. We were the only ones there; all of the other players stayed in a different hotel. They blocked off the whole floor and I had 24/7 bodyguards, and I had to use the name Mr. Smith. Later, I realized my hotel was only two minutes from the tennis center; they had driven me around and around for two hours to get there!

“And when we went to a restaurant with 60 people, 50 people left with me! They were all part of our entourage. At my matches, there was one court just for me. Only 100 people were allowed to watch, and no phones. The name ‘Ram’ appeared but no country.”

The Zoom audience was mesmerized, clearly hearing this story for the first time.

“When I look back, this was the most important thing I have done in my career. It was a statement about what I was fighting for!”

RAM’S PERSEVERANCE in 2008 and 2009 seems to have paid off. Israeli tennis players and other athletes will presumably have no trouble traveling to Dubai from now on. In the recent deal, Israel and the UAE agreed to exchange ambassadors, enhance commercial ties here, enable medical tourism with Sheba Medical Center, create security relationships and much more. They will also allow direct flights between the two countries – something Ram would have enjoyed. The UAE will become only the third Arab country to have diplomatic relations with Israel.

Ram is still making sense of the news and its implications.

“When I was playing tennis, I didn’t think about it. I didn’t think about how I was making history as the first Israeli athlete to play in Dubai. Now, to see the skies open to Dubai is unbelievable. I never thought it would happen!”

As the always-gregarious Ram looks back on his 30-year career, he reports nostalgically, “What I got from tennis, I can’t describe in words. Everything I have in life is through the Israel Tennis Centers. I met my wife through tennis at age 10, had my first kiss at age 16, and now have three kids! What I received from tennis, you can’t get from other sports.”

Ram continues to be loved and respected throughout Israel and the tennis world. Kevin Green, ITEC international chair, reports, “We are so proud of Andy and what he has accomplished in his career; from representing Israel in his Davis Cup victories, to winning major titles at Wimbledon, the French Open and the Australian Open. Beyond his professional accomplishments, Andy’s work ethic, humility and warmth make him an inspiration to all of us. He sets a shining example that when you have a dream, work hard and focus, anything is possible. He is an international treasure and a celebrated global ITEC ambassador.”

Erez Vider, global CEO of ITEC, adds, “Andy Ram is a legend for tennis in Israel and for the ITEC’s children since he won three Grand Slams in tennis. He is a living example that everything is possible. Dreams can come true if one has the will and will get a fair chance. Anyone can become a winner in tennis and in life through our programs.”

Despite his status as a tennis legend, Ram is much like any Israeli parent these days – dealing with the uncertainly of school starting up and finding ways to keep his children occupied in the age of COVID-19. Andy, wife Shiri, and children ages 11, 9 and 5 live in north Tel Aviv. Ram is enjoying the extra time he gets to spend with his family.

“We make the best out if out – the same as it was when I was on the court – trying to look on the good side of things.”

DESPITE PLANNING to not work in tennis after his retirement, Ram has found his way back. In 2015, Ram became CEO of Pulse Play, a wearable tennis technology app startup. (He reports he closed the company about one year ago.) And he started a foundation within the Israel Tennis Centers in memory of his father “to help kids with their dreams of becoming pros.”
Ram has become passionate about helping young Israelis reach the top levels in professional tennis. And he has the reputation, personality and finesse to bring together the Israel Tennis Centers, the Israel Tennis Association and other key players to achieve this goal.

“I really believe that in a few more years, we will see the next Dudi (Sela) and Shahar (Pe’er). This is the reason I started it.” He points to Mika Buchnik, 13, and Israeli Bedouin Karin al-Touri, 14, as two female players he sees on track to achieve tennis greatness.

In addition to his efforts to produce the next Israeli Roger Federer or Serena Williams, he teaches classes at Ono Academic College, his alma mater, and gives motivational speeches and presents workshops for Israeli companies.

While Ram played his last US Open in 2013, he still stays abreast of news of the Grand Slam event, which took place August 31 to September 13 in New York – with no fans present.

“It is such an operation. It is one of the biggest sports events in the world, next to the Olympics. It is two weeks and big money. It will be interesting to see how they get back and manage to pull it off; the rest of the sports world will follow. I am really looking forward!”

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Original Article Published on The Jerusalem Post

Israel enters Friday’s Fed Cup Europe/ Africa Zone Group I tie against Croatia in Eilat still in contention to advance to the World Group II playoffs after defeating Estonia 3-0 on Thursday.

After falling 2-1 to Turkey in its opening Pool C tie, the blue-and-white bounced back with an emphatic victory, with Shahar Pe’er and Julia Glushko triumphing in their singles rubbers before teaming up to complete the whitewash with a win in the doubles.

Pe’er, ranked No. 189 in the world, easily defeated Valeria Gorlats (1,008) 6-0, 6-3, while Glushko (126) beat Anett Kontaveit (80) 6-3, 6-3. She returned to court less than an hour later and together with Pe’er claimed a 6-3, 6-2 win over Gorlats and Maileen Nuudi.

Israel faces Croatia in its final Pool C tie on Friday.

The group winner will face the winner of Pool A on Saturday for a place in the World Group II playoffs, while the bottom-placed nations will play to determine relegation to Europe/Africa Zone Group II in 2017.

Pe’er quickly and smoothly knocked off Gorlats, with the bright sun barely having time to duck behind the grandstand during the 65-minute match. Pe’er made few unforced errors, won 80% of points on first serve, and won 66% of break points – to Goralts’s 16%.

Excessive cheering and chanting of the crowd, which consisted of many school children who seemed to stop by on the way home from school, contributed to the upbeat, festive mood. In somewhat uncharacteristic fashion, a smiling Pe’er signed autographs and posed for selfies.

Glushko battled Kontaveit in a slugfest, coming out on top in straight sets.

Captain Tzipi Obziler used each changeover for coaching and words of encouragement to a worn Glushko.

“She was a little tense, and was under a lot of pressure,” observed Israel coach Sandra Wasserman, describing the hour and eight minute match.

The crowd, which required several warnings from the chair to quiet down, helped both players.

Team Israel has spent long days at the Eilat Tennis Center.

Wednesday’s doubles match against Turkey ended just before 11 p.m.

Among the die-hard fans who stayed until the end to cheer on the Israeli doubles team were a group of 8-14 year old female athletes from Athena, Israel’s project for the promotion of women’s sports in Israel.

Mary Pierce, a former third-ranked Grand Slam champion and recently elected board member of the International Tennis Federation, presented a clinic, shared her personal story, and entertained questions Thursday morning at Eilat’s Isrotel Tennis Club.

The Israel team took a break from an early afternoon practice on Center Court on Thursday to participate in the Fed Cup official Opening Ceremony. Each team filed in to Center Court behind country flags. Players, captains and coaches were all introduced by name.

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Original Article Published on The Jerusalem Post

In many ways, she is a typical Israeli teenager she wears nail polish on her fingers (pink) and toes (blue), listens to Rihanna, and has an active Facebook life. Her friends write comments like, Miss you when are you coming back to school? Valeria Patiuk misses them too, but the 15-year-old, who was born in Ukraine and moved to Israel at age one, is a busy young woman these days.

Lera, as she is known, came back recently from an amazing run at the US Open. She played impressively in both the juniors singles and doubles tournaments. Some say she is the next Shahar Peer! Lera not only admires Peer, she also played on the same Fed Cup team as Peer, where Israel defeated Bulgaria 2-1 in a February, 2011 competition in Eilat.

Her coach Asaf Yamin very much believes in Lera. She is unique dedicated, serious, intense, likes to practice, and enjoys what she does! Yamin is hopeful that as she plays more at this high level, she will rise up the ranks of professional tennis. She is currently ranked 708 in the world for singles and 848 for doubles.

Luckily, this girl remains humble. Lera attends school, where she likes math. She loves candy, ice cream and anything sweet, and she adores her grandmother’s cooking. Keep an eye on this smiley, good natured tennis player you will be hearing a lot more about her!

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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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