Commentary

Ostracizing Peer an enormous setback

Originally Published: February 18, 2009
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

The reprehensible exclusion of Israel's Shahar Peer from this week's $2 million Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships was a train wreck waiting to happen. The cause? Human error.

There were a few different engineers driving that locomotive, and there's a lot of blame to go around.

There are government officials in the United Arab Emirates who, with cynical cowardice, waited until the draw ceremony was under way to inform the WTA that the 45th-ranked Peer would be denied the visa she needed to enter the country, citing security concerns.

There is the WTA leadership, which failed to adequately safeguard Peer's rights and enforce its own rules and bylaws, waiting and hoping for a favorable decision until it was too late to switch tracks. There are sponsors who remain silent. Finally, to a lesser but still important degree, there are the players who play on in Dubai and who have convinced themselves that their presence has no greater meaning.

[+] EnlargeShahar Peer
Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty ImagesRanked No. 45 in the world, Shahar Peer earned the right to play in Dubai.

The most aggressively principled stand anyone has taken in the past few days is that of Tennis Channel president Ken Solomon, who pulled the plug on the network's broadcast with this straightforward statement:

Preventing an otherwise qualified athlete from competing on the basis of anything other than merit has no place in tennis or any other sport, and has the unfortunate result of undermining the credibility of the very nature of competition itself.

ESPN analyst and former top player Pam Shriver praised Solomon for having "spine," and added her own equally plain-spoken take.

"The tournament should automatically lose the right to exist," Shriver said. "I know that carries unbelievable financial and political ramifications, and sometimes you have to be willing to live in a two-faced environment. But if this tournament is going to send out invitations and only ask who they want, if that's the way they want it to be, then they're an exhibition."

WTA chairman and CEO Larry Scott admitted he has been concerned about this scenario for at least a year. The women's and men's events in Dubai are played in back-to-back weeks, and he was in the country last year when the still-vague circumstances surrounding the on-again, off-again participation of Israeli doubles players Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram -- who did not play in the end -- were unfolding.

"I saw firsthand that there were some issues," Scott told me by telephone Sunday. "I met with government officials and I told them I expected Shahar Peer would want to play the following year, and that whatever issues they had needed to be solved."

Scott and many others in tennis were encouraged last year when Peer played three matches in the WTA event in Doha, Qatar, without incident, the first Israeli athlete to compete in a Persian Gulf country. But Dubai's level of hostility toward Peer's nation is of a different order.

I've discussed philosophy with Scott a few times, and his answers have been consistent: Sports can be an unthreatening force for good, politically and culturally. I believe Scott, whose administrative skills are widely admired, is sincere about this vision. I also believe it is more tempting to try to make that ambassadorial concept work when the country in question is an oasis of money in a world where cash is drying up.

Putting a tournament in Dubai was a calculated risk, and the WTA's bet has been called. As Shriver pointed out, Israel isn't likely to become Russia, which pumps out top-10 players on an assembly line, but what's to say it won't become Belgium or Serbia, and coincidentally produce two or more major talents in the same era? The fact that Peer was isolated made her an ideal target for a bullying state.

There is no doubt Scott is deeply chagrined. He has termed the developments a huge setback, talked of lessons learned and openly alluded to the possibility of booting Dubai off the WTA's calendar.

Peer released a statement through the WTA on Monday saying it was her wish that this week's tournament be allowed to proceed. "[Players] were in or on 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," the statement said. "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."

This is an unselfish sentiment, and one I would have expected from a young woman who has been matter-of-fact about her uncomfortable place in tennis geopolitics and unenthused about being treated as a symbol. Peer downplayed her mandatory service in the Israeli army, clearly not wanting it to be trivialized as feature-story material. Yet she also launched a thousand features a few seasons ago by teaming up with a Muslim doubles partner, India's Sania Mirza -- not in the interest of making a statement, but because they liked each other and had on-court chemistry.

Venus Williams
Tom Shaw/Getty ImagesThough players condemn Peer's ban, they took no ardent stand with their decision to play.

Pragmatism, not preaching, was Peer's priority. When I interviewed her at Wimbledon in 2007, she noted that staying away from Doha and Dubai cost her prize money and rankings points to which her colleagues had free access. Sunday, Scott said one of the things the WTA would have to consider was some form of compensation for Peer's inability to vie for those spoils in Dubai.

But with all due respect, Peer was not in charge of whether the show should go on in Dubai any more than she is in charge of her country's national defense policy. She is the 21-year-old victim of these circumstances. The tournament is nothing without the players, and the players have more leverage than they apparently care to realize. If we question the United Arab Emirates' ethics, the WTA's decision to invest in Dubai in 2003 and the tour's judgment in allowing the event to go forward without Peer, we probably also should question why the 55 players on site didn't caucus when they found out she was on the other side of the barbed wire and try to imagine how it would feel if it happened to them on the basis of race, religion or passport.

How is anybody supposed to take seriously a draw sheet that lists Japan's Ayumi Morita as a "lucky loser" for replacing Peer in the bracket? Or that the reason for Peer's absence is listed at the bottom of the form as "denial of visa," right alongside more prosaic explanations such as Tamarine Tanasugarn's participation in a doubles final in Pattaya City and Amelie Mauresmo's change of schedule? Why on earth would we give a rat's behind about the fact that Morita beat 15th seed Anna Chakvetadze in straight sets and then lost to Daniela Hantuchova in the next round? This competition is about as appealing to behold as curdled milk.

"The tennis community has boycotted over less important things," Shriver said, recalling the men's mass walkout from Wimbledon in 1973 prompted by Niki Pilic's exclusion. (Pilic, a Croatian from what was then called Yugoslavia, was suspended by his federation for his alleged refusal to play in Davis Cup competition; in those days, the suspension affected his entry into Grand Slam events.)

For an outside perspective, I phoned professor Thomas I. White, director of the Center for Ethics and Business at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. White is a passionate follower of sports and often uses case studies from the athletic world in his teaching.

"Dubai has won this round," White said. "They were manipulative and trying to make a point. They did something no one could defend, and they did it in such a way as to maximize publicity and attention. And they'll do it again.

"If you're going to do business with a country, don't kid yourself about who you're dealing with."

White was sympathetic to the players in Dubai, saying they were caught in a situation they did not create. But he added they are naive to think their acquiescence comes without a cost.

It may be the ATP's turn next, as speculation is growing that Israeli doubles specialist Ram may be barred from entering the country next week. (Partner Erlich is injured.) White's off-the-cuff advice? "They should say they want a decision in the next 12 hours, or we're out," he said. "And the players -- are they going to show up? They're not on the plane yet."

Much has been written in recent months about the men's new determination to have a greater voice in issues such as scheduling. How refreshing it would be to see that energy harnessed in the service of an even more basic fairness. It's customary for athletes to say they'd rather not mix sports and politics. But as Peer's example demonstrates, an athlete can become a political prisoner in the time it takes to twirl a racket.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.