Jonathan “Yoni” Erlich is a household name in Israel, and a true icon in blue-and-white tennis circles.
The now-45-year-old from Haifa won the men’s doubles Grand Slam title at the 2008 Australian Open with Andy Ram. He attained his career-high doubles ranking of world No. 5 in July 2008 and won 22 professional tournaments in his career, mostly with Ram as his partner, before retiring last year.
He also represented Israel at the Olympics twice and on the Davis Cup courts for decades and, just last month, captained the Israeli team to a thrilling come-from-behind victory over Latvia to retain its place in World Group I of the prestigious competition.
In January, Erlich joined the non-profit Israel Tennis & Education Centers (ITEC) as Director of the High-Performance Program. In his new position, he will be responsible for the development of competitive tennis players from all backgrounds throughout Israel, with an emphasis on distributing resources and identifying talent in underserved and remote areas of the country.
Along with ITEC CEO Erez Vider, Erlich recently made time to talk with The Jerusalem Post about the transition into his new role.
“When I knew it was going to be my last year playing, I prepared myself mentally and I was looking around at my options and what I want to do, and so it was natural for me to want to get involved in the organization that I grew up in.
Erlich doesn’t see the end of his professional participation on the court as a retirement, necessarily.
“Tennis is my life, and the Israel Tennis & Education Centers are where I grew up. I know the CEO very well and all the inner workings, so the transition from this perspective was pretty easy. But now is when the hard work really starts.”
It’s a journey that for Erlich – who was born in Argentina, but moved to Israel when he was just a year old – began a while back.
“I started playing tennis at age five or a little earlier, probably picked up a racket at two or three.”
Erlich joined ITEC’s Haifa center when he was still a preschooler. In the early 1990s, he moved to the tennis academy at the Wingate Institute and trained with legendary coach Ronen Moralli.
Rising stars are identified early
Even today, the rising stars are identified at an early stage.
“Within a month of starting to practice in a group, even at a young age, the coaches already notice who is a little bit more athletic, who is a little bit more coordinated, who is a little bit more gifted.”
As much as natural ability is key, Erlich was quick to note how much being a part of a framework is another vital component.
“Of course, natural, God-given talent plays a big role in star athletes, but coaching, infrastructure, being surrounded and supported by an organization such as the ITEC is invaluable."
“Of course, natural, God-given talent plays a big role in star athletes, but coaching, infrastructure, being surrounded and supported by an organization such as the ITEC is invaluable."Yoni Erlich
“This happening all around the world and not only in tennis, I know there are millions of kids and potentially great athletes who – if they had the right tools at their disposal – would shine...We in Israel, and specifically with the ITEC, have the advantage of being a very big organization with very great facilities in a small country, so it could be a little bit easier to scout and find the tennis lovers and players early and to notice the kids who have the most potential.”
It is the full package that builds a star.
“Talent and the infrastructure - they’re all connected. Very rarely do you see super-gifted kids grow up in the woods and become top-level athletes without the infrastructure and culture and all the benefits that come with the organizational aspect. Within the tennis programs at the ITEC, we emphasize everything, from coaching, mental strength development, physical education and much more. I’m pretty sure that if I had grown up on my own in a private kind of small club, I would not have developed into the level of professional athlete that I did.”
What is ITEC's vision?
Vider, in his role as CEO of the entire ITEC operation, explained the model and vision of the organization.
“We are a non-profit organization. Most of our funding comes from private donations, though we also get government help,” noted Vider. “Our programming is much more than tennis and involves many educational initiatives for underprivileged segments of society. About 80% of our participants cannot pay for the value of what we are able to provide them, so we give as many scholarships as we can.
“The main goal is to give the opportunity for every child who wants to play tennis, to play. If you check, you probably know that most of the best athletes in the world didn’t come from a privileged family. Many times, underprivileged kids have the passion, the will to excel in sports.”
That is where the ITEC can play a crucial role on every level.
“We are an organization that gives kids a chance and embraces and nurtures them over years. At our heart, we are really a social organization. Whether it is tennis lessons, food, or after-school activities – kids in wheelchairs, with gender identity questions, children from abusive homes – everyone is welcome. At any given time, we have close to 2,00 children in our programs who aren’t paying a single penny, or shekel.”
The benefits go well beyond the court.
“We give them the skills to be better in life, not just sports. Perhaps two out of 10,000 kids can become Yoni Erlich, the other 9,998 we want to take care of them, we want to give them a dream, we want to give them skills, we want to give them the ability to excel in life.”
Erlich will collaborate with other professionals affiliated with ITEC, including his former doubles partner and fellow ITEC alum Ram. Their reunion at ITEC includes leadership roles within the organization’s High-Performance Program.
“Yoni will contribute greatly to the promotion of Israeli tennis and will bring great honor to the state of Israel by nurturing our next generation of competitive tennis players,” said Vider. “Yoni’s path for success, both on and off the tennis courts, aligns perfectly with ITEC’s guiding philosophy that tennis is not just tennis but a way of bringing profound change to all Israeli children on a personal, community and cultural level. He will have great influence in empowering children from Israel’s geographical and social periphery through our range of social impact programs.”
While the ITEC is already quite embedded across the country, there’s always room for growth.
“In addition to our existing 23 centers around Israel, we are now looking for municipalities that can be our partners in growing the sport of tennis and the surrounding educational initiatives.”
The ideal person to carry the torch
Vider added that Erlich is the perfect person to carry the torch of Israeli tennis to the next generation.
“Bringing back an Israeli legend like Yoni Erlich sends a strong message to every child in the ITEC framework that they too have a role model to look up to and that they too can become a world champion. It’s about perseverance, it’s about passion.”
Looking back at his playing career, Erlich was emotional as he commented on the comparison of playing on the ATP Tour vs representing Israel in international competition
“Even when I was on the tour for nearly 30 years, I always felt that – as much as I’m representing myself in my career – I was also an ambassador for Israel as the country and for Israelis as a person.
“No doubt that the strongest emotional highlights of my career – and I’m pretty sure every player in the world who ever had an amazing success with Davis Cup will tell you, I think the same or probably the majority – that the highlights will be always Davis Cup and playing with your country’s flag on your sleeve and back.”
Asked to pinpoint the pinnacle of his experiences, Erlich was vivid in his recollection.
“The championship, the wind, the epic wins that Andy and myself had... against Chile, against Belgium, of course against Russia and reaching the semifinal in Israel [in 2009], I mean every time I think about one of these victories, I get goosebumps.
“I’m very grateful and honored to have had this opportunity to represent Israel for nearly 23 years on the court and being the captain for the last three years.”
With all his tennis travels around the world, Erlich never experienced any antisemitism, in fact, the opposite.
“I was on the tour for almost 30 years all around the world, including juniors. I never experienced [antisemitism] in my life, and actually had the fortune to have amazing friendships with people from countries that probably never imagined in their life that they will have an Israeli friend.”
In that sense, sport is a unique unifier, said Erlich.
“I think we also show the world that people actually build bridges with sports, not like politics, and that the real people behind the scenes can actually live, not only in peace but also in friendship and leaving aside all the negativity... I never experienced any of that.”
Looking back at his Grand Slam victory with Ram in Australia, Erlich recalled feeling relieved to reach the top of the mountain.
“At that point, Andy and I had been at the top-10 level for five or six years. By the time we one, it wasn’t like we were the underdogs, it was more of a surprise that we didn’t win [a Grand Slam] earlier.”
Looking at the current crop of young Israeli tennis stars, Erlich is optimistic.
“The Israeli junior scene is very much on the rise. I don’t like to name names, because it isn’t about putting the spotlight on any one individual... But I believe that within five to seven years, Israel will produce a world champion-caliber player and attain results on par with that.”
But the view from the top is really only a very small part of the picture for Erlich.
“Tennis has brought me to places I never imagined,” said Erlich. “I am excited to return to the home where I grew up and from where new tennis champions will emerge. I am passionate about giving back to this wonderful game. Through the ITEC model, I am confident we can touch the lives of so many children and extend the extraordinary work taking place every day at the ITEC centers.
“Tennis is really a sport for all ages, so it’s something that I think connects to almost everyone in society.”