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Articles > Shahar Pe’er denied participation in Dubai Tennis Championships

Responding to the denial by the United Arab Emirates to grant a visa to Israeli tennis player Shahar Pe’er to participate in this week’s Dubai Tennis Championships, Jewish leaders and Israeli officials have called upon the Women’s Tennis Association, under whose auspices the event takes place, to remove the it from its 2010 calendar.

UAE authorities cited concerns for Pe’er’s safety as well as that of other competitors in view of last months Gaza conflict, after the occurrence of anti-Israel demonstrations when Pe’er played the Russian Elena Dementiava in Auckland, New Zealand in January.

The visa refusal stands in opposition to WTA Tour rules, which stipulate that any player whose ranking qualifies her for such is entitled to play in WTA competitions. Pe’er, 21, is currently ranked No. 48 in the world, and was the only Israeli entered in the $2,000,000 tournament.

“To discriminate as the UAE did against one player in this way smacks of bigotry and racism," the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations said in a statement. "This must be declared unacceptable by the WTA and all international sporting associations. As we learned in the past, failure to condemn such actions and take corrective measures, proves destructive to international sporting competition.”

The statement also said: “Jewish leaders call on the Women's Tennis Association to sanction Dubai and cancel the tournament in 2010. … The excuse that the UAE was concerned about Ms Peer's security is spurious. Any country that cannot assure the security of all players should not be allowed to host it.”

In a statement, Pe’er noted, “In response to the tremendous outpouring of support and empathy over the UAE decision to deny me a visa that would allow me to play in the Dubai Tennis Championships, I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to my friends and fans around the world, and my fellow players.

While this is a very difficult moment for me personally and professional, and … my visa denial was issues at the last moment, I firmly believe that my fellow competitors should not be harmed the way I was. They were in on or their way to Dubai, and denying them the right to play in this year’s tournament at the last moment would not make the wrong right. In fact, it troubles me greatly that my doubles partner, Anna-Lena Groenefeld from Germany, will not be able to compete as we had planned.”

The Tennis Channel has canceled its plans to televise the event, and the Wall Street Journal’s European edition has pulled out as one of the sponsors of the championship.

Meanwhile, Israeli Andy Ram, scheduled to play in Dubai when the men meet next week, has already booked his ticket, according to his agent, but has not yet received his visa. The Association of Tennis Professionals, sponsor of the men’s tour, has called upon the UAE to “make the right decision.”

When Ram and his Davis Cup teammates play against Sweden in March, it will be the fans, and not the players, who will have trouble getting in. Officials in the host city of Malmo have decided that when the Israel meets Sweden there in Davis Cup play, competition will take place in an empty arena. Authorities have been informed that anti-Israel demonstrations are being planned for the best-of-five series to be held March 6-8 in the southern Swedish city.

According the the International Herald Tribune, “the recreational committee could not guarantee the security of the fans.” Only journalists, sponsors, competitors and officials will be allowed inside the arena.

Michael Klein, chairman of the Israel Tennis Federation, called it a shame that demonstrators would force officials to deny fans the opportunity to attend the event.

“It is terrible that they are trying to mix politics with sports, especially in an enlightened country like Sweden,” noted Klein. “I trust the Swedes to hold the games in the spirit of sports and not politics. It is not them but a group of troublemakers who want to get attention who are doing this.

It should be noted, however, that during the 1970’s, Jewish groups routinely demonstrated on the occasion of Soviet cultural exchanges such as the Bolshoi Ballet, both in the U.S. and Europe, to call attention to the plight of Soviet Jews.

When the World Basketball Championships were held in Athens, Greece in 1998, Greek troups were present in the arena in large numbers during the match between Greece and Yugoslavia, due to concerns that violence might erupt between Greek and Yugoslavian fans. Apparently, the presence of the military prevented any outbreaks.

But then, as the Yiddish saying has it, “Es is shver tzu zayn a Yid – it’s hard to be a Jew.” (For interesting discussions of the denial of Pe’er’s right to play, see articles in Reuters and the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.)

UPDATE, 20 Feb 2009: The WTA has levied a record $300,000 fine against the organizers of the Dubai Tennis Championships for the refusal to allow Pe’er to play, hoping to insure that neither she nor other Israeli players will be excluded from future tournaments. Part of the fine will go to Pe’er and doubles partner Groenefled of Germany to make up for any prize money they might have won at the $2M tournament.

Due in part to efforts by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), who had scheduled a news conference to call upon the ATP to withdraw its backing of the men’s tournament to be held the following week, Yousefl al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to Washington has helped to secure a visa for Ram. Men’s play begins on Monday Feb. 23.

For another interesting discussion of this situation, click here.

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