February 18, 2009
Whether as an individual or a group, you only get a handful of chances to stand up 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 48th in the world. She has fought hard and earned the right to play in this week’s Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships, which are running through Saturday in the United Arab Emirates.
But a week before the first match, Dubai notified Peer that it would not 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 in 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 had banned Peer because she is Israeli, the WTA was faced with a very clear choice. It could follow its own rules and stick by its athletes, or it could cave in to the boycott. Within hours the leadership of the WTA made its decision: The games would go on. They caved.
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.
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, the issue here has nothing to do with Israel. According to the WTA’s own bylaws, the right thing to do would have been to cancel the competition right then and there. At that instant, Scott, the board of the WTA and the organization itself had a chance to stand for something. Their own rules, for one. What message does an organization send to its players when it doesn’t abide by its own rules? Are they as flexible on drug testing? On betting? On foot-faults?
Their capitulation also weakens tennis as a sport, injecting 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, 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 also 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 whether 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, the 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?
I hope they find it within themselves to step up, somehow, some way, before the tournament is over.