Win or lose, it was to be the grandest of goodbyes, and right in the veritable backyard. Tennis players are the most transient of athletes, but for his vocational finish Andy Ram had assembled a guest list of family and friends, swelling to nearly 500.
Over all, a crowd as many as 11,000 nationalistic strong was expected to fill a basketball arena in Tel Aviv. Emotions would spill. Israeli flags would wave.
But before any of that could happen, missiles from Gaza flew.
When the Israeli-Palestinian conflict erupted again in full deadly horror, Ram’s carefully calibrated retirement after a decade and a half of playing Davis Cup doubles for his country was scaled down, and out, exported all the way to the United States. “In Tel Aviv right now, it is beautiful, peaceful, people going to cafes,” Ram said by telephone from Sunrise, Fla., where Israel will begin its World Group playoff Friday against Argentina. “We tried to say that it could all change in a moment, just be patient. But unfortunately, we are here.”
Home-court and country advantage was lost for Israel when the International Tennis Federation decided last month, after concerns expressed by Argentina, that the conflict with Hamas in Gaza made the Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv too risky a site.
After consideration of other sites — for proximity’s sake, Cyprus was an early favorite of the Israelis — the event landed at the Sunrise Tennis Club, about 35 miles north of Miami. For Ram and company, it has become one more chapter in the ever-lurking specter of politicizing Israeli sports, most heinously enacted by the murder of 11 members of the country’s 1972 Olympic team in Munich by the Palestinian group Black September.
Israel’s top club basketball and soccer teams have over the years had games in Europe disrupted by protesters and must travel with heightened security.
In one of the more bizarre episodes involving Israeli sports, Ram and the 2009 Davis Cup team played on the road in an empty 4,000-seat arena in Malmo, Sweden, when the hosts surrendered to the threat of anticipated anti-Israel protests.
According to Eyal Ran, the Israeli captain, the situation in Sweden was “almost an advantage for us” because the absence of a crowd was a neutralizing factor in a 3-2 victory for Israel.”This time, we’re away from home, which has always been a huge thing for us,” he said.
The Sunrise club has a seating capacity of about 2,500, said Gabe Norona, who until 2010 directed an ATP tournament at the club and is friendly with Israel’s top singles player, Dudi Sela.
Sunrise was ultimately agreeable to both teams, with the Israelis aware of South Florida’s large Jewish population. Argentina’s captain, the former tour player Martin Jaite, said the location was good for his players in the wake of the United States Open and because an Argentine community in South Florida also created the possibility of fan support for his team.
Jaite won 12 titles in his career and reached the French Open quarterfinals in 1985. As with Ram, this World Group playoff represents an ending; his three-year contract is expiring, and Argentina has a one-term captaincy rule. He said that concluding in Tel Aviv, hostile crowd and all, would not have been the worst thing.
Jaite happens to be Jewish. “I have nephews living in Israel. I’ve been there to play tennis, on vacation. So, yes, I can understand what they have been going through in a situation like this. It’s not easy for them. But I’m not going to talk about the political thing. I’m from Argentina. My job is to win. It’s all about the tennis,” he said.
Adding to a more fraternal atmosphere is that Ram’s longtime doubles partner, Jonathan Erlich, was born in Argentina. In 2008, Ram and Erlich, known as Yoni, won the Australian Open doubles title and were the fifth-ranked team in the world. That was then. Now 34, Ram has been through hip surgery and is still plagued by pain. Losses have become more frequent and travel more difficult with two young children and a third on the way.
He has seen it all — most of it, he said, as a typical doubles specialist. But, yes, his Israeli passport meant the occasional transference to a tennis twilight zone.
In 2009, shortly before the matches in the vacant arena in Sweden, Israel’s top female player, Shahar Peer, was denied a visa to enter the United Arab Emirates to play in a major event. After bureaucratic intervention, Ram was allowed in the next week for the men’s tournament.
“I had, like, 15 bodyguards, people protecting my room 24/7,” he said. “When I played a match, they took everyone’s cellphones that came to watch. It was like the prime minister had come to visit.” But shouldn’t that have been the point of it all? The ideal of sport to, as he said, “break down walls, build a bridge? Now I can’t help but feel that by moving us to Florida they’ve given in to terror,” Ram said.
He cannot help but wistfully dwell on what Ran, the captain, called “our miracle,” the 2009 upset of Marat Safin’s powerful Russian team in the quarterfinals after the victory in Sweden. The win was wrapped up on the second day by Ram and Erlich in doubles. The images of those nearly 11,000 fans and of Ram being carried around the arena are indelible. And while the folks in Sunrise have been welcoming, Ram’s mind wanders to what might have been, for him, the easiest way to go out.
His father, Ami, died in 2005, leaving “a huge hole” in his life. His mother, Diana, called him from Israel this week, hurting that she would not be able to attend his last match Saturday. “It’s O.K., Ma,” he told her. “I’ll come back to Israel, do some kind of exhibition.”
All right, she said. She called again later. “I’m coming, buying a plane ticket,” she told him. “I’ll see you Friday.” At least there is that. The grand plan fails, but a new day beckons. Mom flies in. Sunrise happens.