THE SPORTS DOCTOR- No Jews allowed: UAE bows to 'neighborhood' pressure
If you had to name the most important tennis tournament in the world, what would you say? Most people, without a moment's hesitation, would cite Wimbledon, although a few Francophiles would argue the French Open's superiority. If the U. S. and Australian Opens don't qualify, despite being Grand Slam events, you might imagine the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championship falls pretty low in the pecking order. Normally you'd be right— but this year, you'd be wrong.
Not for 50 years has a tennis tournament been as significant as the 2009 Barclays Dubai Tennis Championship.
In 1956, Althea Gibson became the first black player not just to play at Roland Garros, but also to win the singles title, securing her legacy as a sports pioneer. But Gibson wasn't just the 1956 French Open singles champion; that year she also won the Wimbledon doubles title– and she did it with a Jewish partner.
Several weeks ago, when the United Arab Emirates denied a visa to Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer, I doubt Angela Buxton was surprised. Anti-Semitism is nothing new in tennis; as a matter of fact, it seems a time-honored tradition. In 2004, Buxton told the New York Post that despite being Althea Gibson's doubles partner in 1956, she has never been invited to join the All England Lawn Tennis Club.
"I think the anti-Semitism is still there," she said. "The mere fact that I'm not a member is a full sentence that speaks for itself."
While Wimbledon excuses itself on grounds of exclusivity and snobbery, Dubai officials took no such pains to whitewash their treatment of Shahar Peer. In a prepared statement, tournament director Salah Tahlak said, "We have to be sensitive to recent events in the whole region and not alienate or put at risk the players or the many tennis fans of different nationalities that we have in the United Arab Emirates."
The UAE, sensitive? Who knew?
According to Tahlak, "Peer's presence would have antagonised our fans," and undoubtedly he's right on that score. For the most part, Dubai has ensured its tennis fans are a pretty homogenous bunch: rich, political, and anti-Semitic to the core. It's an easy enough feat to achieve, especially when it's against the law for Israelis to enter the country.
Fair enough, you might say. After all, who are we to throw stones when the even the Yankees can't bring a Cuban shortstop into the United States? You may agree with Ebrahim Abdul Malek, General Secretary of the UAE National Olympic Committee, who said that sporting bodies shouldn't be able to interfere with a country's right to make and implement laws.
Should it really be a Tour rule that no host country can deny a player the right to compete at any event on the tour for which she has qualified by ranking? Isn't that a political decision?
The answers are yes and yes. Unbiased inclusion should be a rule, and it is a political decision. The UAE knew the rules full well when they accepted Tour funds and sponsorship dollars for the $2 million event. They knew Shahar Peer was ranked 48th in the world and was scheduled to play. Denying Peer a visa would put them on the international chopping block, but on the flip side, publicly denouncing and humiliating an Israeli would increase the UAE's standing in the Arab world. Mere hours before the tournament started, the UAE rolled the dice and refused Peer a visa.
After all, doesn't incurring a $300,000 fine from the WTA make more sense than irritating one's neighbors– especially when those neighbors include Saudi Arabia and Iran? How could the UAE allow an Israeli within their borders when in 2005 Hamas issued a public statement thanking the UAE "for their limitless support... [in] consolidating our people's resoluteness in the face of the Israeli occupation"?
The UAE's actions are easier to understand than the Women's Tennis Association's expectation that Peer would be granted a visa, but therein lies the rub. The WTA trusted the UAE would play fair despite its anti-Semitic laws and affiliations with Hamas. When the UAE agreed to host a tennis championship, the WTA believed the country was placing sport above politics, setting a good example.
The UAE did set an example– and undoubtedly the rest of the Arab world will follow. As Dalia Khadra, a Palestinian activist, told the Gulf News, "If we allow one Israeli to enter, we would lose our argument in barring entry to other Israelis."
After all, that's the All England Lawn and Tennis Club's argument, isn't it?