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Shahar Peer, Dubai, and WTA’s Gutless Choice

by Rob Eshman

February 17, 2009 | 5:10 am

Will tennis stand up for a rising star? Shahar Peer in 2008.

Whether as an individual or a group, you get a handful of chances to
stand for something in this life.  It’s easy to say or write what you
believe, a lot harder to stick by it in the crunch.  When the
government of Dubai denied Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer a visa to
play in the Women’s Tennis Association tournament there, the WTA had
one of those rare chances to show the world what it stands for.
Peer is Israel’s top woman’s tennis player, ranked 48 in the world.
She has fought hard and earned the right to play in Barclays Dubai
Tennis Championships, which run from Feb. 15-21 in the United Arab
Emirates.

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.”

The only clue of an excuse was a statement issued to CNN via Dubai’s
government-owned press agency.

““The tournament is sponsored by several national organizations and
they all care to be part of a successful tournament, considering the
developments that the region had been through.”

When it became clear that Dubai banned Peer because she is Israeli,
the WTA had a very clear choice. It could follow its own rules and
stick by its atheletes, or it could cave in to the boycott.

Within hours the leadership of the WTA made its decision: the games
would go on.  They capitulated.

WTA chief executive Larry Scott said the tour was “deeply
disappointed” by the decision.

“Ms. Peer has earned the right to play in the tournament and it’s
regrettable that the UAE is denying her this right,” Scott said in a
statement.

“The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour believes very strongly, and has a clear
rule and policy, that no host country should deny a player the right
to compete at a tournament for which she has qualified by ranking.”
Next year, he said, WTA would reconsider its participation in the
Dubai tournament.

Next year.

To mix metaphors, Scott, a Harvard University grad and a former pro
tennis player himself, punted.  Choked.  Or, to stay true to tennis,
he faulted.

On the one hand, this has nothing to do with Israel. According to the
WTA’s own by-laws, the right thing to do was to cancel the
competition right then and there. At that instant Scott and the
members of the board of the WTA and the organization itself had the
chance to stand for something.  Their own rules, for one.  What
message does it send to players when their own organization doesn’t
abide by the rules it sets? Are they as flexible on drug-testing?  On
betting?  On foot-faults?

To capitulate is also to weaken tennis as a sport, to inject it with
the most cowardly and base form of politics. It is a form of political
expression that weakens, rather than strengthens the forces of
moderation.

“Bridging political gulfs - rather than widening them further apart -
between nations and individuals thus becomes an educational duty as
well as a functional necessity, requiring exchange and dialogue rather
than confrontation and antagonism,” wrote the presidents of Hebrew
University of Jerusalem and Sari Nusseibeh, the president of the
Palestinian al-Quds University, in a 2005 joint statement against
academic boycotts.

Punishing Peer is also not very classy.  She is a soft-spoken young
woman who, like all great young athletes, is focused 100 percent on
her sport.  Her quiet dedication has led to remarkable results.
In the 2007 Australian Open, she was just two points away from
eliminating Serena Williams in the quarterfinals before losing in a
tight third set.  At the time she had advanced to be number 15 in the
world.

Is her toughness an example of the Israeli in her?
“There are many Israeli tennis players who don’t play like me,” she
told Hillel Abrams for a 2007 Jewish Journal profile. “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.”

The WTA is supposed to shield its players from the world so they can
focus on their game and their fans.  In this case, it let one of its
players take the fall.

Worse, by capitulating to Dubai the WTA didn’t just punish one of its
own, it sloughed the moral burden off its own shoulders and put it on
the other players.  Now the press is asking Serena and Venus Williams
and other top seeds if they will walk away from the games since
their league didn’t.  And because Larry Scott and the WTA failed to do
the right thing, his players do have a choice to make. Will they
stand by their fellow player? Would they want Peer to do the same for
them?  Would they be just as angry if a country denied them a chance
at a title because of where they come from? Will they dishonor their
sport by bowing to Dubai?

Since I wrote this, the highest profile player to have refused to go to Dubai because of the Pe’er boycott was Andy Roddick.  With Rafael Nadal already out, Roddick’s refusal to play had to hurt the organizers.  Good.  That’s the definition of a mensch.

I hope other players now and in the future find it within themselves to step up, somehow, some way, before the tournament is over.

For more on Shahar Peer, click here.

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