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Jewish Journal

Peer-less

by Rob Eshman

February 19, 2010 | 10:30 am

Shahar Peer in Dubai

This is our paean to Pe’er.

Shahar Peer finished her astounding run at the Dubai Tennis Champaionships in te United Arab Emirates today, when she was beaten by Venus William in the semi-finals. 

But what a run it was.

The Israeli player trounced top-seeded players, bringing her best game and complete focus, under daunting circumstances.  Peer is the first Israeli woman tennis player to compete in the United Arab Emirates. She did so following last year’s drama of being banned from playing because she’s Israeli, and in the wake of the assassination of a senior Hamas leader in Dubai last month that ratcheted up tensions between Israel and the UAE.

But Peer performed with great cool and utter concentration. When she lost in the semi-finals today to Venus Williams, 6-1, 6-4, she still battled hard.

As Douglas Perry reported at oregonlive.com:


You’ve got to admire Shahar Peer’s cool. A year ago the Israel player was denied entry into Dubai’s glitzy tournament for, well, for being Jewish. (The United Arab Emirates’ official reason for refusing her a visa was “security concerns” following Israel’s incursion into Gaza.) The WTA, to its shame, let the tournament go on. Belatedly stiffening its resolve, tour officials later strong-armed the UAE into guaranteeing that it would allow Peer to play thereafter.

Little did anyone know that political tensions would be even worse at this year’s tournament. With play under way, local police announced on Monday that professional assassins last month followed Hamas militant Mahmoud al-Mabhouh into a swank Dubai hotel and killed him. Speculation, needless to say, quickly settled on Mossad as the perpetrator. If the guesswork is correct, then the Israeli security service’s planners must not be Peer fans. The assassins paraded through the hotel—which, like all hotels, is chock-a-block with security cameras—dressed like extras from “Ishtar.” One alleged killer wore a straw boater, which was last all the rage when Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills squared off. Others donned similar old-timey dress, as well as fake beards. (I’m being flip, of course. Unaccustomed to international skulduggery inserting itself into the tennis scene, I’m a bit out of sorts. Chances are, the assassins weren’t brazenly sticking a thumb in Dubai’s eye. Slate’s answer guy has pointed out that outlandish disguises are the best way to avoid being identified—witnesses tend to only remember the ridiculous costume.)

But in the midst of this escalating political brouhaha, we mustn’t forget the tennis. We especially must give props to Peer, who has chosen this week of all weeks to play the best tennis of her life. The 22-year-old Israeli, who has been dogged by Palestinian protesters since the start of the season, has been unbelievably sharp and focused while in the lion’s den. Ranked outside the top-20, she has beaten rising star Yanina Wickmayer, No. 1-seed Caroline Wozniacki and Australian Open semifinalist Na Li.

All of this great tennis has happened on outside courts amid heavy security. Peer, the first Israeli woman tennis player to ever compete in the UAE, has been surrounded by bodyguards all week. She hasn’t been able to see anything of Dubai but her hotel room. And even though she’s now in the semifinals, where she faces defending champion Venus Williams, Peer still won’t get to check out center court. Instead, the match will be played on a small doubles court with just one entrance. Peer, quoting Doris Day (which Straw Boater Man would no doubt appreciate), says she doesn’t care what court she’s on—she just wants to play.

“I’m the only player that hasn’t played on Centre Court,” Peer said after defeating Li. “But whatever will be, will be. I’m not controlling it. I’m doing what I’ve been told and wherever I need to play, I’ll play on.”

Peer’s victories this year were especially sweet in light of the shabby way she was treated last year by the Dubai hosts and the USTA organizers. Banned from competition at the last minute, she watched as USTA backed down from effective protest.

But a week before the first match, Dubai notified Peer that it refused
to grant her a visa. “They really stopped my momentum because now I’m
not going to play for two weeks and because they waited for the last
minute I couldn’t go to another tournament either,” Peer, who is 21,
told Sports Illustrated from Tel Aviv. “So it’s very disappointing,
and I think it’s not fair.”

Some of her fellow players stuck up for Peer, most noticeably the Williams sisters.  But Peer has plenty of her own toughness, as evidenced in this 2007 profile on her in The Jewish Journal:

The best way to describe Peer’s game is tenacious, scrappy, determined. In short, she’s a fighter. Some see in her on-court demeanor the embodiment of Israel’s national persona—the tough underdog that always finds a way to beat the odds—and conclude that Peer plays as she does because she is Israeli. Peer, however, doesn’t make that connection.

“There are many Israeli tennis players who don’t play like me,” she said. “I don’t think it is because I’m Israeli or Jewish. That is just how I am. That is just how I play on the court.”

Although she makes a good point, the analogy is not likely to go away soon.

On the court, Shahar is a study in self-motivation. There are frequent “come ons,” audible slaps to the thigh and spirited fist pumps. But her most distinctive mannerism is a move she does between each point. She turns her back to her opponent and closes her eyes for a few moments as if in meditation. When asked to explain, she says simply, “that’s between my psychology and me.” No matter the score, her attitude, body language, indeed her presence, state unequivocally, “I am not going away.”

To read the complete profile click here.

Go Shahar.

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