Israel's top players on the brink of another kind of breakthrough
It's been a great year for Israeli players, with Shahar Peer's season-long stint in the top 20, solid play by the doubles team of Erlich and Ram, and a Davis Cup victory that put the nation into the World Group. 2008 could bring another breakthrough as the Israeli players weigh whether to compete in Muslim countries that are normally off-limits to them.
It's been a notable year for Israel's small band of elite tennis players.
Shahar Peer reached two Grand Slam quarterfinals, maintained her perch in the WTA's top 20 all season and reached a career high-water mark of No. 15 early in the season.
Doubles partners Andy Ram and Jonathan Erlich beat the top-ranked Bryan brothers in Cincinnati for their first Masters Series title and are competing with the ATP's best at the year-end championships in Shanghai for the second straight year, courtesy of the Bryans' withdrawal. Ram, whose mixed doubles championship at Wimbledon last year with Russia's Vera Zvonareva was the first Grand Slam title for an Israeli, repeated the feat at this year's French Open with partner Nathalie Dechy.
Perhaps most dramatically, Israel knocked off Chile in Davis Cup play in September to climb into next year's 16-member World Group draw for the first time in 13 years.
As the 2008 season approaches, Israel's players know they may be on the brink of another kind of breakthrough. They are weighing whether to compete in two Muslim countries that normally do not allow Israeli citizens to cross their borders: Qatar, whose capital is Doha, and Dubai, one of the seven states that make up the United Arab Emirates.
Although both countries are considered politically moderate in the Arab world, neither has formal diplomatic relations with Israel. Qatar and Israel maintain low-level trade relations.
The issue will come into more acute focus next year as the WTA's year-end championships shift to Doha. Peer, currently ranked 17th, would have to finish next season in the top eight to have a chance to go. But the question of the Israelis' participation could arise well before that, since both circuits feature big-money early-season tournaments in Doha and Dubai.
In theory, ATP and WTA officials say that any tournament on their schedule must permit qualified players to travel there.
"Before we instituted the first tour event in Doha in 2001, one of the conditions was that anyone who ranked high enough to get in, regardless of nationality, passport, whatever, is entitled to play," WTA CEO Larry Scott said at the U.S. Open. "And while there may not be diplomatic relationships, we were given assurances that any player and the people around them could come play."
Reality has spun out a little differently.
The 20-year-old Peer, who recently completed her mandatory two years of part-time Israeli military service, said repeatedly this season that she would go to Doha for the 2008 year-ender if she qualified.
"Probably it's not the best place for me, everybody knows it," she told ESPN.com at Wimbledon. "But I know the WTA will do the best they can, if I qualify, to make me feel comfortable."
Peer opted not to press the issue of playing in the regular-season tournaments in Doha and Dubai this season, saying they didn't fit into her schedule. But she indicated that might change. "There are two big tournaments there after the Australian Open, they're really good and maybe I would like to play them because I'm missing two Tier I tournaments," she said in the same interview.
The WTA's back-to-back events in Doha and Dubai last February dangled a combined $2.8 million in prize money, while the concurrent events on the tour schedule offer one-tenth of the spoils. Peer chose to play at Memphis the same week as Dubai, lost to Venus Williams in the final, and collected $13,520 and 100 ranking points; Amelie Mauresmo, runner-up to Justine Henin in Dubai, went home with $124,790 and 215 points.
There are similar disparities on the men's side. Erlich and Ram reached the final in Las Vegas against the Bryans the same week as the Dubai event and earned $5,575 and 120 points. The second-place team in Dubai won $23,550 and 210 points.
Scott said he has had discussions with Peer about the nonathletic implications of a potential trip to one of the two countries. She's no stranger to the issue, having raised consciousness and some eyebrows by playing doubles with India's Sania Mirza, a Muslim. (Israel's Amir Hadad blazed that trail by pairing with Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan at Wimbledon in 2002.)
"Sports can actually be a catalyst to social and political change by promoting tolerance and promoting respect," Scott said. "I look at it as a positive, as a chance to show how sport can break down barriers."
Peer, not one to make sweeping statements, said, "I don't know if it can really help, but I hope."
No matter what kind of support the tours or the respective governments offer, and whatever security measures are put into place, the players' choice inevitably will be very personal.
I wouldn't say that it's the most important tournament of the year, but it's one we'd like to play. For me, it would be an adventure. I would go if they gave me a visa.
--Andy Ram on whether to play in Dubai
Ram and Erlich said ATP officials have discouraged them from playing in Doha or Dubai in past years. "It's better not to start making a big mess," was the way Ram characterized the tone of tour administrators' advice.
"They kind of put us in the situation that it's not the end of the world if you don't play this tournament," Ram, 27, said this summer of previous discussions with the ATP. "They said, 'You have 50 other tournaments during the year if you want to make the Masters [Cup], that's not the tournament that's going to change it.'"
The door has been propped open more recently, but at this year's U.S. Open, the 30-year-old Erlich said he was still on the fence about going.
"A few years ago when we asked [the ATP], they said no," Erlich said. "Now they say yes or maybe. They said they will do the best effort to allow us to go if we want. But talk is going one side and action is going a different side. At the end of the year we have to decide if we really want to go. I don't know if I really feel comfortable going there or not."
The pair, familiarly known in Israel as "Andyyoni" in a merger of Ram's name and Erlich's nickname, says it will decide after the season whether to put the unprecedented trips on its calendar.
"[Dubai] is a big tournament, very important, and the week before Indian Wells is a week that everyone else is playing this tournament, getting points, and obviously money, and we're the only ones who have to stay home," Ram said. "I wouldn't say that it's the most important tournament of the year, but it's one we'd like to play. For me, it would be an adventure. I would go if they gave me a visa."
Israeli Tennis Association president Ian Froman, a pioneer in founding grassroots tennis programs in his country, enthusiastically endorsed the idea. He said last week he doubted there would be any objections from the Israeli government or tennis officials, and added that he thought Israeli players would be well received if they make the journey.
"I've been to Qatar for ATP meetings, on a visa arranged by the Olympic committee of Qatar," said Froman, a South African-born dentist who represented that country in Davis Cup play before emigrating to Israel more than 40 years ago. "Everyone was fabulous. I felt no animosity.
"I think it could make a tremendous impact."
Bonnie D. Ford is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.