MIAMI — Despite all the good wishes, phone calls and handshakes that Israeli tennis players Jonathan Erlich, Shahar Peer and Andy Ram have received for their political and athletic achievements over the past year, there was one thing missing: there has been no formal presentation to honour the trio at the same time by the fans who adore them.
That changed in early April when the trio came to Miami to compete at the Sony Ericsson Open.
On the eve of the event, Erlich, Peer and Ram were all honoured at Miami’s 600-member Conservative Beth David Congregation. They were also greeted by Israel’s consul general in Miami, Ofer Bavly.
It has been quite a year for the three tennis stars: this past February, Peer became the first Israeli ever to play in an Arab nation, while Erlich and Ram became first Israeli tennis team to win a Grand Slam when they won the Australian Open in January.
“This is thrilling, because the ceremony is in a synagogue, and here we are all Jews – American, Israeli, South American – we all feel so together and as one,” Erlich said.
“I feel so at home in Miami, because there are so many Israelis and Jewish people here to root for us. I feel good to be honoured and want to do my best for the fans,” Peer said.
Peer competed in Doha, Qatar, last February, which was a significant milestone, as Israeli citizens normally can’t enter an Arab nation. But tennis rules state that no tournament can discriminate against any player from entering a tournament if the player is highly ranked.
Peer’s is currently rated 19th in the world.
“Without a doubt, this is the biggest breakthrough in tennis since Althea Gibson [the late black American tennis champion] broke the colour barrier in the 1950s. If Althea were here, she would be very proud of what Shahar did,” said Angela Buxton, Gibson’s doubles partner. Buxton, the first and only Jewish woman to be a Wimbledon finalist, won the Wimbledon doubles championship with Gibson in 1956.
“I was thinking about playing in Qatar for a few years, but could not go there up until now, because I was a corporal in the Israeli armed forces. My dad really wanted me to go, as did my agent, and I felt welcome in Qatar. I had a bodyguard with me always, but felt relaxed and went out to eat with the tournament director there,” Peer said.
By winning the Australian Open and the Indian Wells doubles titles since the beginning of the 2008 season, Erlich and Ram have made Israel the number one doubles team in the world, at least for now.
Other Israelis have won recognition and pride for excellence in basketball and soccer in Israel, but tennis gives Israel a global presence and glamour that no other Israeli athlete has attained. The ATP and WTA tennis tours give the three tennis pros the opportunity to be seen in large Jewish communities around the world, particularly in Canada and the United States.
“The reason to celebrate is to honour our athletes for their achievements and show the world that there is more to Israel than the conflicts and violence that we see in the news. Shahar has opened the door for more Israelis to come to Arab nations, and Andy and Jonathan’s excellence in tennis means so much to everyone,” Bavly said.
The trio were also honoured for leading Israel’s Davis Cup and Fed Cup teams to the elite World Group this year. By contrast, Canada has never achieved this feat and lost to Israel in Fed Cup play last year.
In appreciation for being honoured, the three athletes donated tennis items to be used to raise funds for the synagogue. Erlich and Ram also set up the Jewish Sports Foundation to fund outstanding Jewish athletes and students to further their goals in sport.
“A lot of people think Jews are all rich, all doctors and lawyers, but that is not true, and it is also not true that Jews can’t do well in sports,” Ram said.
“For years, Americans have raised money for the Israel Tennis Centers, and now Jonathan and I created the foundation for the benefit of American kids to persue their dreams as well.”
At the Sony Ericsson Open, Peer, Erlich and Ram drew many fans and Israeli flags to their matches.
Although Peer lived up to her billing as a top player, finishing as a semi-finalist in doubles and in the top 16 in singles, Erlich and Ram lost in the opening match of the doubles tournament.
Erlich and Ram are expected to compete at the Rogers Cup men’s tournament in Toronto from July 19 to 27, and Peer is scheduled to play in the Rogers Cup women’s tournament in Montreal from July 26 to Aug. 3.