Doubles specialist Jonathan Erlich was born in Argentina, but has spent most of his life in Israel, the country which he is representing on the ATP World Tour and for which he has been playing Davis Cup for many years.
In Melbourne, the former world number five and 2008 Australian Open champion (alongside his countryman Andy Ram – Uruguayan-born – with whom he has formed a very successful team for many years), Erlich teamed up with Colin Fleming and despite a first-round defeat (the pair lost 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 against Robin Haase and Fernando Verdasco), he took time to have a lengthy chat with BATennis World.
BATennis World: Tell me a little about your life. You’re 39 and have been playing tennis for 20 years now…
Jonathan Erlich: More than 20 years. I’ve been a professional for almost 22 years. I’m still enjoying it, although it didn’t go well for us in this tournament. I had a good year in 2015: I reached the Wimbledon semifinals [NDLR: partnering Philipp Petzschner, they lost to Jamie Murray/John Peers], I won an ATP tournament [NDLR: Shenzhen, playing with Fleming], and I was playing well. Health-wise, however, it wasn’t so good. I had to take a few months to rehab my knee after a surgery, but thankfully, this didn’t keep me from performing well. So as long as I’m playing well, have the strength to travel, and that my family doesn’t mind my playing, I will continue on the Tour.
BATW: How is Israel for someone who has been living there for so many years, but was born in Argentina?
JE: I don’t know a lot of the Argentinian community in Israel, since we’ve been living there for more than 37 years, so we’re Israeli. But when my parents arrived in Israel, they were part of a big Argentinian community and they’re still friends with them today. I don’t have many Argentinian friends, although over the last five or six years many arrived in the country. It’s nice to hear people speaking Spanish. My family will always be Argentinian, with a culture half Creole and half Israeli. We’re all about the meat, the facturas and the alfajores. We don’t take mate, though. The last one who drank it was my grandfather.
BATW: You’re one of the representatives of Argentine Judaism in tennis, alongside Martín Jaite and Diego Schwartzman. Do you sometimes speak with them?
JE: I talk a lot with Schwartzman when we meet on the Tour. We get along really well. Same with Jaite: we have a great relationship. It was very emotional to square off in Davis Cup in September . I’ve known him for a long time. I remember the first time he came to play in Israel. I was very young, but it was amazing to see an Argentine Jew coming to play in Tel Aviv. But just the same, I have a great relationship with all the Argentine players, not only the Jews. It’s very nice for me every time I see them or that I go to Argentina.
BATW: How did you do with Andy Ram, language-wise?
JE: We always spoke Hebrew to each other. We’ve been living in Israel since we were very little, so we know Hebrew very well for being more Israeli than South American. But every time we wanted to discuss something without people knowing, we did it in Spanish. But our main language is Hebrew.
BATW: How did you come to play doubles together?
JE: We were both training at the same academy and I know his older brother, who was also a tennis player. So I was seeing them every time we were playing tournaments across Israel. He was the best player of his age category and one of the best in mine. We both went to another academy when we were 15, even though I continued with my coach and him, with his, and then we started to have a very good relationship, which later became the friendship that we have. When we got older, we had the same coach, we started playing Challengers together, and things went great for us from the start. Shortly after, we did the semifinals in Wimbledon, and the rest is a known story.
BATW: In 2008, you got your most important title when you won the Australian Open. What do you remember from that achievement?
JE: Winning a Grand Slam is a dream, as is winning the Davis Cup. The title in Australia is the biggest I’ve had in my career. We all play tennis to win one of the four Majors, and every time I come here I remember the final in Rod Laver Arena. When I come to this country, I always feel good and confident. Shame that I injured myself after winning the title and couldn’t defend it [the following year].
BATW: How did you cope with Ram’s retirement?
JE: It was difficult, but it was part of a process. I didn’t happen from one day to the next. We talked and thought about that decision a lot. He was coming back from an injury, so he had protected ranking for nine tournaments in order to recover. But he was telling me that he wasn’t well, mentally, and that it was difficult for him to leave his family at home and travel. On top of it, he wasn’t well physically when he came back, and he explained me that he didn’t feel like fighting for another Grand Slam. And you know, when you’ve been at the top and in the elite for some time, doing things in a half measure is frustrating, so he decided to retire. We always thought we’d retire together, but I decided to continue playing because I think I’m still at a good level, although it’s tough to team up with different players all the time. I don’t think I can win another Grand Slam, but I’d be fine being in the top 20.
BATW: You have a good relationship with Novak Djokovic, and won the title in Queen’s. What can you tell me about him?
JE: He’s a fantastic person. He always has a lot of humour. He’s a great person and it’s an honour to count him as a friend. He’s also an awesome player. He’s number one, but he doesn’t get the big head about it. He’s very humble. He’s won his only doubles title with me and I’ll always remember it. He’s a champion and a friend.
BATW: How is he when he plays doubles. Is he more relaxed?
JE: No, in reality he’s quite tense when he plays doubles. I remember that we played several times and as world number one, he feels a great sense of responsibility. He seems to have a bigger desire to win in doubles than he does in singles, because in singles, he’s number one and the style is something natural to him. If he played it more, he would be a very good doubles player, because he has a good serve and a decent volley.
BATW: Has there been an important change in Djokovic for him to become the player that he is since 2011?
JE: In terms of tennis, he’s always had the qualities he’s showing at the moment. I think that the most significant change he’s done has been in regards to his confidence. Playing against Nadal, Federer, or Murray, and knowing that he wasn’t worse than them helped, and so did his family. They’ve always known that he would be number one. The one who is number one always knows he will be at some point. That’s the difference between him and the rest [of the players].
BATW: You’ve also played a few times against Rafael Nadal. How does it feel to face players who’ve won so much?
JE: The most important thing is that they’re good people. And in doubles it doesn’t matter as much because I know that in this discipline even I can be better than they are. I can beat them or I can lose to them but that’s not the same as the difference that there is between them and the rest of the singles field.
BATW: Did you have an idol growing up?
JE: Yes. At first, it was [Ivan] Lendl, and then [Stefan] Edberg. I always identified with his game.
BATW: You’ve been number five in the world, you’ve won a Grand Slam and have reached the Davis Cup semifinals. What motivates you to keep playing?
JE: What motivates me is the goal of being in the top 10 again. I’ve been close to winning a Major last year, but it’s more difficult this year. But truth be told, it’s the best job I can do. I make money, but I also do something I like, despite the fact that I have to leave my family at home, contrary to Andy Ram. That is the most difficult part, though. But as long as they will stand it, I will continue doing it because I make quite a bit of money and it’s the best job in the world.
BATW: How is tennis seen in Israel?
JE: With a lot of passion. When Andy [Ram] and I were doing so well, people knew us, and when we played Davis Cup, the stadiums were bursting. Perhaps it’s a little less intense now because there are not that many players to motivate the people. Something similar to what’s happening in Argentina, maybe.
BATW: Has there ever been someone who came to you and told you that you were their idol?
JE: Yes, quite a few people. And most of all, many kids. It sometimes embarrasses me a little, but it makes me very proud, because those kids feel the same way I did when I was their age, and I was seeing some players the way they see me.
(Photos: Getty Images)