Shahar Peer, Dubai, and WTA’s Gutless Choice


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.