Israeli tennis star Andy Ram has notched up thousands of air miles over the past 12 months. Along with doubles partner Yoni Erlich, he has played in weekly tournaments in cities around the world, including London, New York, Shanghai and Bangkok. But this week the 26-year-old Ram is back, albeit temporarily, in his home country of Israel and in his home city of Jerusalem. He played in this week's Israel Tennis Championships and last week he traveled to the capital to accept the inaugural Jerusalem Athlete of the Year award. This year saw the Israeli duo's reputation rise sky high, with the team becoming the first Israelis to finish in the world top eight and qualify for the season ending Masters Cup in Shanghai. Ram also became the first Israeli to win a Wimbledon title when he and Russian Vera Zvnonerava were victorious in the mixed doubles final in July. Ram says he is extremely touched to be recognized by the municipality of his city. "These days I live in Tel Aviv because it is where I practice," Ram tells In Jerusalem before the award ceremony starts. "But my mother still lives in Jerusalem and when I am in Israel I come here every weekend to eat a good Shabbat dinner and to sleep over. I feel in all my heart I am a Jerusalemite. Everywhere around the world when people ask me where I live I say Jerusalem and I give my Jerusalem address." At the award ceremony, held at the municipality building in the center of town, Ram is treated like the celebrity he has become. He is taken to meet Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski and poses for photos while Lupolianski tells him he was a top table tennis player in his youth. And during the ceremony itself, Deputy Mayor Yigal Amedi sings Ram's praises and presents him with the Athlete of the Year trophy. Also in attendance, sitting quietly at the back but full of smiles, are Ram's sister Maya and his new wife Shiri. After a 10-year relationship the couple finally got married in September, and it was during their honeymoon in the Caribbean that Ram heard about his prize. "It is so nice to get this award," Ram says. "It was a surprise for me because I was on my honeymoon and I got a message from my mother that they wanted to give me this award. I didn't even know. I think it's great that they are showing their respect to me because of what I did over the past year." And what a year it has been. Not only did Ram win the Wimbledon title and play in the Shanghai tournament, he was an integral part of the Israeli Davis Cup team that traveled to England and beat the British team, the first time Israel has managed to overcome Great Britain in Davis Cup play. Ram played in both the singles and doubles during the tie. Reflecting on the year, he says he still aims to improve and is hoping to pick up a gold medal at the Olympic games, which take place in Beijing in 2008. "Every year since 2003, when I started playing with Yoni, we have kept improving. After Shanghai and the Davis Cup I think the cherry for me this year was Wimbledon. "I couldn't ask for more this year, but I believe that I still have much room for improvement. I hope that 2007 will be even better for me and 2008, with the Olympics coming, will be even greater and I hope we can win a gold medal. We have a nice future ahead of us." Like his partner Erlich, who was born in Argentina, Ram is South American. His father Amiram had been a professional soccer player who played for Betar Jerusalem in the 1950s, but was injured and was sent to Uruguay on shlihut. While there he met his wife and when Andy was five years old the family returned to Jerusalem. Recalling his first years in the city Ram says that of course it wasn't easy, having to struggle with a new language. But his earliest memories are of training at the Jerusalem branch of the Israel Tennis Centers. "When I was five I didn't really understand where I was coming from. Jerusalem was very special to me. It was tough at the beginning because I couldn't speak the language and was fighting with people in the kindergarten who didn't understand me. My parents decided to send me to the tennis center not long after we arrived. My Dad liked tennis and he put me there." It wasn't long before the young Ram showed a skill rarely seen at such a young age. "I really enjoyed playing because when I was six or seven years old and winning tournaments it felt good. From when I was eight or 10 I knew it was going to be a career for me." Soon Ram's parents made sure that he dedicated himself to his tennis, sacrificing many things that a young boy would normally be doing. "It's a tennis life so it wasn't so easy," Ram remembers. "You have to give up many things. When all my friends were playing outside I had to practice. I didn't go to all the school trips. But I was focused from a very young age. I grew up practicing at the Jerusalem tennis center. I spent most of my childhood there, practicing five days a week. I never regretted it and I enjoyed every moment. Now I am reaping the rewards." Ram says that his training in Jerusalem was inspirational and set him on the path to success. "My first inspiration was Jo Jo Lizmi, the famous Jerusalem tennis coach, who showed me all the basic techniques. I was with him four or five years and he taught me everything - how to hold the racket, forehand and backhand. He was very tough. "But the man who really developed my game was Ronen Moralli. He was with me in Jerusalem from when I was 10 years old but then he moved to Wingate as the national coach." Moralli remembers training the young Andy Ram. "When I worked with Andy at the Jerusalem Tennis Center he was very very energetic and full of passion," Moralli tells In Jerusalem. "His technical abilities weren't as good as the other kids but he had an understanding of the game. It was something spectacular. He knew when to come to the net, when to stay back. This is something you are born with. Either you have it or you don't. You can teach it but only up to a certain point and Andy was born with it." He adds: "I think the years in the tennis center gave him a lot, especially when he was working with Jo Jo Lizma. They gave him the education and the manners and of course the foundations of being a great tennis player." Ram's talent was recognized by his coaches at an early age and when he was 15 he was sent to the Wingate Institute, where young Israeli sportsmen are groomed to become professionals. "It wasn't easy being far away from your family," Ram remembers, "but you know it is going to be your profession and that's what you are going to try to do for life. You practice twice a day and fit in school in between." Although he was three years younger than Erlich, it was at Wingate that Ram first met his future doubles partner. Like most Israeli professional tennis players, Erlich also spent his formative years at the institute. Ram's career started slowly. He turned professional in 1996, aged 16, but did not compete in a Grand Slam tournament until 2001 when he appeared in the Wimbledon doubles with Erlich. Moralli traveled with Ram on the Junior circuit when he was 17 years old. "He was always very easygoing. It was a pleasure to work with him. It is very unusual to have a kid who appreciates what you are doing for him." Ram did not dedicate himself to doubles play until 2003 when he reached the final of the mixed doubles tournament with Russian Anastassia Rodionova, losing to Leander Paes and Martina Navratilova, and lost in the semifinal of the men's doubles. "In 2002 I was injured and did not play because I had two surgeries - one on my back and one on my knee," he explains. "I was on crutches for two months and I couldn't walk. So I was even thinking of stopping tennis. "But in 2003 I came back and by luck Yoni and I qualified for the Wimbledon doubles and we made it to the semifinals. I had to choose where I wanted to go - doubles or singles, as it's tough to combine the two. Over the past few years we have done pretty well. We have 10 titles, a couple of good finals and a pretty impressive record. We are the youngest team on tour at the moment." Erlich and Ram have built up a great relationship both off and on the court. "We have known each other for many years. When he was 17 we met at Wingate and ever since we have been practicing together. We grew up together and we complete each other off and on court - the first rule of doubles is communication." Ram's father, whom he considers his real inspiration, died two years ago. "Almost all his life was my tennis. Every time I win something it hits me. The pain will always stay with me. Every time I get a big result, I thank him for everything." Ram says that as he and Erlich travel around the world they thrive on the support of the local Jewish communities. "Yoni and I are very proud of being Israelis," he says. "They love us all around the world and there is a big Jewish community around the world that supports us. There are big communities in New York, Miami and London, especially at Wimbledon when the fans come out with the Israeli flag. All over the world it is like this. When we go to Bangkok even the Chinese Jews cheer for us." Along with female sensation Shahar Pe'er, who reached the top 20 in women's singles this year, Ram and Erlich are two of the few internationally renowned Israeli sportsmen. "Israel doesn't have too many sportsmen around the world," Ram says. "We have a few soccer players and basically that's it. I feel like Shahar, Yoni and myself are some of the few and it makes it a little bit special. We are competing at the highest level. Shahar is just 20 competing with top stars. And we are number seven in the world." Moralli says it was like "a dream come true" to see Andy and Yoni Erlich do so well and reach the Masters tournament in Shanghai. "I really believe they can go much further," he says. Returning to Jerusalem and his mother's home in Ramat Sharet, Ram says he feels most comfortable in the holy city. "I feel part of the city and of Israel. I am very down to earth and I don't like the celebrity thing. I know I am one because of my results and I am in the newspaper when we win, but I am just normal. And considering his father's past and the fact that the tennis center is located right next to Teddy Stadium, it is no surprise Ram is a Betar Jerusalem supporter. "I am a fanatic of Betar," he says. "I follow them on the Internet and when I get a chance I go to see them. I am happy with our sponsor Gaydamak who is giving lots of money to the team, but sports is tough. Anything can happen you know. I also love to play. I play in midfield." When he hears mention of his wife and recent marriage, Ram's face lights up. "On top of all the tournament successes, that was the highlight of the year for me. I'm a family man. I am very close to my family and as I travel a lot I don't see them much. So when I am in Israel I tend to spend time with family and my closest friends who have supported me over the years."

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