Israel takes 2-1 lead with stirring doubles win

Marathon victory: Israel’s Jonathan Erlich watches as doubles partner Andy Ram, foreground, hits a return during Saturday’s 3
1/2-hour 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 win against Argentina.
Marathon victory: Israel’s Jonathan Erlich watches as doubles partner Andy Ram, foreground, hits a return during Saturday’s 3 1/2-hour 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 win against Argentina. AP

Andy Ram lay on the court, weeping.

When he wouldn’t — or, overcome by emotion, couldn’t — get up, 10 or so of his Israeli Davis Cup teammates and supporters lifted him up and threw him in the air, catching him and flinging him again and again and again.

That was the scene on Saturday afternoon at the Sunrise Tennis Center, where Israel — thanks to the veteran doubles team of Ram and Jonathan Erlich — took a 2-1 lead over Argentina in a best-of-5 World Group playoff tie.

Erlich and Ram defeated Argentina’s Federico Delbonis and Horacio Zeballos, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 in a tight match that took 31/2 hours to complete.

This was the 28th Davis Cup tie for Ram — an Israeli record — and his last. Ram, 34, announced earlier this year that this would be his final season of pro tennis.

“All the memories of Davis Cup with Jonathan just attacked me, and I couldn’t stop crying like a baby,” Ram said of his post-match emotions. “I had no more energy — zero.”

Ram, who pulled a muscle in his left leg with Israel leading 4-2 in the fifth set, was forced to serve ever-so-slowly in the final game of the match.

Argentina hammered his weak serves, but Erlich was able to repeatedly make amazing volleys to save Israel.

“There were missiles coming at me,” Erlich joked. “I tried not to get killed.”

Ram said a similar thing happened once before when he and Erlich played in Japan.

“It’s not the first time Jonathan has had to play alone,” Ram joked.

Saturday’s match was played in 91-degree heat that felt like 102.

Certainly, Israel has turned up the heat on favored Argentina, the world’s fourth-ranked Davis Cup team.

Israel, ranked 19th, needs only to win one of the two matches on Sunday to win the tie and advance to the 16-team main draw for the 2015 Davis Cup. In that scenario, Argentina would play next year in World Group II.

Sunday’s matchups will pit Argentina’s No.1 player, Leonardo Mayer, against Israel’s No.1, Dudi Sela, followed by Argentina’s No.2 Carlos Berlocq vs. Israel’s No.2 Bar Botzer.

In Friday’s action, Mayer beat Botzer, and Sela defeated Berlocq.

Sela, perhaps the most impressive player on Friday, would seem to be Israel’s best hope of winning the tie as opposed to the 20-year-old Botzer, who is ranked No.776 and is playing in his first Davis Cup weekend.

In Saturday’s match, Israel broke Zeballos’ serve to go up 3-1, a decisive moment in the fifth set. Zeballos also hit the game’s final shot into the net, touching off Ram’s emotional display.

Erlich and Ram, who are now 19-5 when playing Davis Cup together, are the best doubles team in their nation’s history.

Ironically, Erlich, 37, was born in Argentina, and Ram is a native of another South American country, Uruguay. But they had no qualms about beating Argentina on Saturday.

In fact, Ram’s mother flew in from Israel to support her son.

“I left home when I was 14 [to play tennis],” Ram said. “She didn’t see me for many years. I was very happy she could come [Saturday].”

For Argentina, Delbonis, 23, was making his Davis Cup debut. In singles last year, he beat Roger Federer in the semifinals of the German Open, but Delbonis is just 7-17 in doubles on the ATP Tour.

Zeballos, 29, has more experience than his partner. He is 4-3 in Davis Cup matches, and he beat Rafael Nadal in singles in 2013. He has made two Grand Slam semifinals in doubles — the 2010 U.S. Open and 2013 French Open.

But this was just the second time Delbonis and Zeballos have played together. And Zeballos has little experience playing next to a left-hander such as Delbonis.

“We knew that being down one was possible,” Argentina captain Martin Jaite said, “and maybe even logical. I’m not surprised.”

Argentina is now in a hole. It has been 24 years since Argentina has come back from a deficit to win a Davis Cup tie.

Meanwhile, Israel, which was forced to move the match from Tel Aviv to South Florida due to safety concerns, is feeling confident.

Sunrise is not quite home for Israel, but their hearts were certainly present on Saturday.

“In Davis Cup,” Ram said, “you put your whole heart into it.”