Sports Talk: Pressure wins

Daily News Egypt
7 Min Read

The UAE must have been pressured into granting an Israeli tennis player a visa to play in a Dubai championship after a female compatriot was denied entry just a few days earlier.

How else can you explain why Israeli Andy Ram was allowed to play in the Dubai Tennis Championships when five days earlier Israeli Shahar Peer was barred from playing in the same tournament in the same country? What happened in between?

Organizers of the Dubai classic had said Peer was denied a visa due to security concerns. They said they feared riots could have broken out over Israel s recent military offensive in the Gaza Strip and that her presence could have triggered protests. Given public sentiment, the entire tournament could have been boycotted by protesters, and that Peer s safety could have been compromised.

But the powers that be in tennis were not impressed by Peer s barring or the UAE explanation, calling it reprehensible and unacceptable. No player who qualifies to play an ATP World Tour event should be denied their right to compete on the basis of ethnicity, nationality or religion.

The UAE stuck to its guns but the pressure had begun. There was talk that its refusal to grant a visa to Peer could see the emirate removed from the women s tennis calendar in 2010. If the WTA, the governing body of women s tennis, and the ATP were to pull out of Dubai it could have had far reaching consequences for the country s growing status as a major player in world sport. The repercussions would be felt beyond tennis if competitors from other sports were refused entry to the country or sponsorship deals were reconsidered as a result of the ban.

The Peer incident had already started to hurt the UAE; the Tennis Channel canceled plans to televise the women s tournament and the Wall Street Journal Europe withdrew as one of the sponsors of the championship. The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour said it could drop Dubai from the World Tennis Tour calendar.

The controversy over Peer trapped the UAE between its desire to host big-time global sporting events and what it originally stated about the Peer issue. It backtracked.

What Dubai decides is its own business but it should consider that while the ATP, the governing body of men s tennis, said that the UAE government had made the right decision with regards to Ram, there will still be very significant sanctions on the tournament for denying a player [Peer] entry for no good reason. Penalties will probably still be imposed on the UAE for barring Peer, and additional assurances will have to be made by the Dubai organizers that guarantees all Israeli athletes entry so that future tournaments in the UAE may take place.

It should also keep in mind that tournament safety will still be of concern, now that Ram will be playing in the UAE.

It should point out that Peer personally witnessed protests against her at a tournament in New Zealand only a few weeks ago.

It should also point out to those word tennis officials that Sweden and Israel will play their first-round Davis Cup match in an empty arena next month in Malmoe because of security concerns, as several anti-Israeli demonstrations are being planned.

While tennis officials say the Peer affair was a principle, it was actually much more about money and sponsors. If the WTA was so incensed about Peer not playing, it could have scrapped the entire tournament, but it did not.

And while so many players had given support to Peer, they had not decided to back their words with action and boycott the tournament.

The UAE and the Arab world as a whole have nothing against Peer; she previously played in a tournament in Doha, Qatar. Ergo, it was nothing personal. And even if it was, can the UAE really be blamed? We ll say something the Dubai organizers did not: If the refusal to issue a visa to Peer violated WTA Tour rules, was not the three-week Israeli onslaught against the Gaza Strip, which killed 1,300 Palestinians, a violation of every human right in the book?

Suppose the shoe was on the other foot. Suppose the Palestinians had massacred a thousand Israelis. Would an Arab been able to waltz into Israel to play tennis, as if nothing had happened, and without fear for his or her well being, and that of multi-national fans?

The Dubai women s tournament is one of the most prestigious on the women s tour, with nine of the top 10 players competing this year for the $2 million it offers. Given all that Dubai has invested in sport and how important the role of sport is, it would not have put all that at risk if it didn t think it was making the right decision over Peer.

Dubai never wished to politicize sports, but had to be sensitive to the Gaza massacre, and not put at risk the players and the many tennis fans of different nationalities attending the championship.

After Peer was barred, the WTA made clear that the end of the 17-year Dubai event remained a real possibility if the situation did not change, potentially placing the future of international sport in Dubai at risk.

Then came the news that Ram could play.

That was a big, big U-turn.

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