Frustration ensues from divisive Dubai
There has been a veritable sandstorm of developments following the United Arab Emirates' decision to deny Israel's Shahar Peer a visa that would have enabled her to play in the $2 million Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships the week before last. The news has been a bit blinding at times, so let's review:
• The women's tournament went on. Venus Williams won the event, described Peer as "brave'' for wanting to play and defended the WTA's decision to continue the competition and the players' decisions to participate.
• As the outcry over Peer intensified, new ATP chief Adam Helfant, international group CEO Brad Drewett and players' representative Justin Gimelstob flew to Dubai to try to secure assurances that Israeli doubles specialist Andy Ram would be allowed to enter the country for the men's event, which is currently in progress. The UAE granted Ram a visa, and the tournament promised not to breach the conditions of its contracts with both professional tennis tours in the future.
• WTA chairman and CEO Larry Scott announced sanctions against the Dubai tournament, including a $300,000 fine -- with some proceeds going to compensate Peer and her German doubles partner, Anna-Lena Groenefeld, and the rest going to a charity to be named later -- and a mandatory $2 million security deposit accompanied by further written guarantees that no player will be excluded in the future. Peer is to be offered a wild card to the 2010 Dubai event if she does not qualify and must have visa clearance eight weeks in advance of the tournament.
• Several top players pulled out of the men's Dubai event, which began the week after the women's tournament, for apparently unconnected reasons. No. 1 Rafael Nadal cited a knee injury and No. 2 Roger Federer an aching back. No. 6 Andy Roddick, the defending champion in Dubai, said he would boycott because of what happened to Peer. Roddick gave up what we can safely assume was a large appearance fee, along with rankings points and potential prize money, to stay home. He and Peer are represented by the same agent, Ken Meyerson, but Meyerson said Roddick's decision to withdraw came as a surprise to him. "There was nothing orchestrated,'' Meyerson said. "I had nothing to do with it. He was just horrified. I'm really proud of him.''
• Meanwhile, in Sweden, the sports and recreation council of the city of Malmo voted 5-4 to require the March 6-8 Israel-Sweden Davis Cup event to be played in an empty arena -- against the stated wishes of both the Swedish Tennis Federation and the International Tennis Federation. City officials said they would not be able to assure adequate security in the face of threatened protests against Israel's military offensive in Gaza. A thousand police are to be mobilized to contain mass protests expected on Saturday of that weekend. Stockholm offered itself as a substitute host, but logistical concerns reportedly made that impractical.
• Bodyguards provided by the Dubai tournament accompanied Ram throughout a short, uneventful stay. He and interim partner Kevin Ullyett of Zimbabwe lost their first-round match to Russia's Marat Safin and Spain's David Ferrer. (Ram's regular Israeli partner, Jonathan Erlich, is injured; the two considered but ultimately dropped the idea of playing in Dubai last year, partly due to a lack of enthusiasm from the ATP at that time.) The outer court where the match was played first was checked out by bomb-sniffing dogs, and the 200 or so spectators who showed up for the historic occasion had to pass through metal detectors and leave cameras and water bottles behind. The chair umpire apparently was instructed not to announce any of the four players' nationalities during warm-ups.
Hey, that oughta fool 'em!
Sorry for that brief lapse in restraint. Let's take last things first. It's a pity, at the very least, for a tournament to assure a player he is just as welcome as anyone else in the draw and then compel him (and in this case, three other players) to compete under different circumstances than anyone else. The tournament might have been in a no-win situation here -- certainly, precautions were called for, and there would have been an uproar if something untoward had happened -- but any potential volatility also was partly of the tournament's own making.
Though Gimelstob said he and everyone else in the ATP administration wishes Ram's entry had been resolved "earlier and easier,'' he also expressed strong confidence that matters will be handled professionally and correctly from here on in.
"That means complete access for every one of our players accepted into the draw,'' Gimelstob said. "We commend the tournament for recognizing our priorities and working very hard to accommodate them. They've given us assurances that this situation will never happen again. They know if that wasn't the case -- they've invested a lot into tennis in the region, and without complete acceptance for our players, tennis in the region wouldn't just be compromised, it would be abolished.''
By all accounts, the buoyant, outspoken Ram conducted himself with dignity and said he had been treated cordially and respectfully. His comments afterward were low key and positive, but we'll pass on repeating them. Ram was not accorded the privilege of holding a full news conference, but instead was restricted to speaking with a single pool reporter in a dressing room separated from that of the other players.
His next pleasure trip will be to Malmo, a city in southern Sweden that has hosted a number of Davis Cup ties, including the memorable 1996 final won by France. Malmo also has a sizeable Muslim population, and the city's decision to shutter a mosque in December provoked rioting. This time around, the only people who will be allowed into the 4,000-seat arena to watch Ram and his compatriots Dudi Sela, Harel Levy and Noam Okun take on a young, inexperienced Swedish team will be credentialed media and tennis officials.
Israel might well be the favorite on paper, but that is not where this three-dimensional competition will be held. It appears that would-be terror-mongers cowed the local government, which in turn influenced the recreation council vote. The timing couldn't be worse, given the recent events in Dubai. ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti has renewed the organization's request for a change of venue and promised to find a way to ensure this doesn't happen again. (Site selections are done months in advance.) ITF spokeswoman Barbara Travers summed up the collective frustration, saying, "Davis Cup is supposed to build bridges, not break them.''
Now, back to the future -- of tennis in Dubai, that is. Although it is heartening that the right decision was made in Ram's case, is it really surprising that he was treated differently than a female counterpart?
Another troubling story concerning Dubai and women's tennis surfaced a couple of months ago. In December, Audra Cohen, a former NCAA singles champion from the University of Miami, and her friend and fellow American player Megan Moulton-Levy traveled to Dubai for a lower-tier professional tournament run under the auspices of the ITF. Moulton-Levy later blogged about their bizarre experience, in which they heard of and observed the overt wooing of young women by a prominent man connected to the event. In a telephone interview, Cohen said she was offered sponsorship money in exchange for agreeing to an intimate relationship -- a proposition she fended off.
I contacted the ITF for a comment, and an ITF representative promptly called Cohen to investigate. Cohen praised the organization for its quick response but ultimately decided she didn't want to pursue the matter. She has gone back to school, currently is carrying a heavy course load at Miami and wants to devote her full focus to wrapping up her undergraduate degree in psychology.
Cohen said she doesn't intend to return to Dubai and feels for those players who might be more susceptible than she was. "I'm lucky,'' she said. "I'm educated, I'm 22 years old, I come from a middle-class family. Imagine being an 18-year-old Russian and having that put in front of you when all you have is your blonde hair and your racket.''
That brings us once again to Peer, who also was treated as an object -- a political pawn. The WTA's actions on her behalf, after the fact, are strong and have every chance of being effective. They will satisfy just about everyone except those who felt queasy about an international sporting organization committing to a major event in Dubai in the first place, partly because of a lack of confidence in the gender dynamics there and partly because of the pre-existing travel restrictions directed at citizens of one country.
Perhaps the real uncertainty is whether Peer will want to enter the Dubai tournament in 2010. She is facing a season in which she is almost assured of fielding more questions about this issue than her game. Everyone in this multilateral negotiation is doing and saying the right things now, but is progress really progress when it lurches forward as the result of financial pressure? Or was the moment for true advancement lost a couple of weeks ago? Just asking.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.