In the 20-plus years that he has been a part of the professional tennis set-up, Israel’s Jonathan Erlich has seen it all on the Tour. And, then some. These experiences of his also have helped the 42-year-old gain insights about the veering of the circuit.
To that end, when this reporter caught up with “Johnny Erlich” – as he referred to himself – at the 2020 Maharashtra Open in Pune, Erlich’s words seemed to be a two-way mirror reflecting not just doubles tennis’ not-so-distant antecedents but also its present and future.
And the one thing that Erlich believes doubles tennis is – and has been – in need of, is marketing. Not only to promote the discipline but also to make it more economically viable for the players and the sport, itself.
“People have to see stars. That’s how I see it,” opened up Erlich on the subject. “So, people don’t know – if nobody will market me as a very good player and a Grand Slam player, nobody would care about [me].
But if they say, ‘Wow, he was no. 5 in the world’, people would be excited and come to see it [doubles]”. Such marketing would, then, require tournaments to put the doubles players on par with those who play singles when trying to attract potential audience.
The obviousness of this disparity is almost on level terms with the obvious pay-scale inequality between tennis’ two main bifurcations. Erlich, however, acknowledged that at least with respect to prize money, some changes have been made – at least, at the Majors.
Comparing to the time when Andy Ram and he clinched the men’s doubles title, Erlich said the 20-25 per cent prize money increase for doubles was “very nice”. But, he added, “We can do more, I think… I think it’s always been a fight with the tournaments to market the players, the doubles guys exactly like they do the singles guys… I think if you [tournaments] wanted to be like a product, I believe it’s all about marketing”.
And now that some of the most formidable names on the doubles circuit are about to enter retirement, or are pushing towards it, the relevance of marketing of doubles as a speciality has been hastened further. Erlich pointed out there were still “some great teams” in doubles presently, specifically referencing Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski, Mate Pavic and Bruno Soares, and Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo, and Ivan Dodig and Filip Polasek as among some of the well-performing duos on the court.
At the same time, he accepted that there were no legendary partnerships that had come to be defined in the category, presently. “We have great tennis players around. [But] right now, you don’t have big legend teams like the Bryans, like Leander [Paes],” he said, continuing, “[Robert] Lindstedt is in the end of his career and I am still from the old generation”.
For Erlich, this generational divide not only covers to doubles per se but also encompasses the state of tennis in his native, Israel. According to him, “There are not many [doubles] players from the same country which, I think, hurts a lot for doubles”.
Yet, he said this has problem has been mitigated by the understanding that today’s tennis is more about business and some things have to be taken the way they are. On the other hand, what is a little harder to accept for him is how waylaid Israeli tennis has come to be, in the last few years.
Ironically, Erlich said, it was not because the country did not care about the sport but because they focused too much on the short-term, instead of on the long-term. “The [Israel Tennis] Association, in the last 10-15 years, I think, they got lost,” Erlich observed.
“They didn’t invest so much in the future, they invested only in the present, which was us. And, we have the great generation so I think they were just hoping that we will stay forever. Only now, they have started to regroup again”.
Erlich estimated this lag between the present-fading-into-past and the future would need another 10-15 years to be bridged. For the moment though, a few youngsters have become the repository of the veteran’s hopes for what could be.
“We have a [few] guys [ranked] between 300-500. They are pretty young, between the ages of 19-22. So, I hope at least one of them will break through the ranking,” shared Erlich. The Tel Aviv resident did not take any names but seemed to be making a reference to 22-year-old Edan Leshem ranked 347th in the world; 20-year-old Yshai Oliel ranked 397th in the world, and 22-year-old Ben Patael ranked 537th in the world.
To Erlich’s manner of thinking, even if one among these guys made it through the top-200 or even the top-150 of the ATP rankings, it would be a tangible success to latch onto and emulate for the others. Aligning his goals towards this prospect, Erlich said he would mentor his younger compatriots to “try to help them develop as fast as they can”.
In a niche, thus becoming the link – of sorts – threading Israeli tennis’ past and present, with the future. Photo Credit: Ranjith Kumar