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Thursday, February 19, 2009
Updated: February 20, 11:13 AM ET
Ram decision a clear victory for tennis

By Kamakshi Tandon
Special to ESPN.com

The rumors had been flying back and forth faster than some of the high-speed net exchanges Andy Ram is familiar with.

First, the word was that the Israeli doubles player had been denied a visa to play in the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships. Then, suddenly, he was in -- at least if the word of a New York congressman is anything to go by. All right, perhaps that wasn't enough: Subsequent reports had Ram's lawyer, Amit Naor, saying there had been no official word about whether his client would be allowed to play.

On Thursday, finally, there came official government confirmation that Ram would indeed be allowed to take part in the men's event next week.

Though a clear victory for both Ram and the sport, it perversely makes the situation even more complex going forward. What to make now of the decision to deny world No. 45 Shahar Peer a visa to play the women's event this week?

Shahar Peer
The magnanimous Shahar Peer believes the Ram decision was a victory for tennis.

Inevitably, Peer's exclusion now appears all the more arbitrary and unfair. In explaining the decision, tournament officials had cited security concerns following a rise in anti-Israel sentiment because of the military offensive in Gaza -- neither of which has changed in the past few days.

What has changed is that there is now a worldwide controversy around Dubai's stance, likely the reason behind the about-face.

Because Dubai and the rest of the United Arab Emirates do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, Israeli nationals are traditionally not allowed to enter the country. But both the ATP and WTA require that tournaments allow all eligible players to participate, and the understanding was that the UAE government would make an exception for any Israeli tennis players wanting to take part in Dubai's high-profile events.

Then came a last-minute decision on Saturday to deny Peer entry. Stunned WTA officials let the tournament proceed while they worked out appropriate reprisals, but increasing outrage put the ATP on the spot over Ram's status and was a huge international black eye for a country where tourism is an important money-earner.

Dubai has this week faced huge amounts of negative publicity, the withdrawal of sponsors and an (eventually) clear message from the women's Sony Ericsson WTA Tour and men's ATP World Tour that a second refusal to give an Israeli player a visa would spell the end of sanctioned tournaments in Dubai. Holding a mere exhibition would have become a challenge, since it would be politically difficult for players to play there after tennis' governing bodies had severed ties with the country.

Communicating their decision through state-run media on Thursday, government officials indirectly acknowledged the call not to mix politics with sports.

"This comes as part of UAE's commitment to organize international sport, educational and economic events and activities without putting any boundaries in front of the participation of individuals from states represented in the United Nations," went the announcement, carefully adding that the climb down "does not politically imply any form of normalization with countries with which the UAE has no diplomatic relations."

The story will not end here. Even before a decision on Ram was announced, WTA CEO Larry Scott had said the tour would be pursuing some form of compensation for the earlier fiasco. "There would still be significant penalties for the damage done to Shahar Peer and the reputation of our sport," he said in an e-mail response to ESPN.com.

But Scott feels that a positive result in Ram's case does at least mean that Peer did not suffer in vain, producing "a significant diplomatic breakthrough for sport and a historic outcome thanks to the courageous actions and sacrifice of Shahar Peer."

ATP CEO Adam Helfant also welcomed the news. "I am pleased that the efforts to secure Andy Ram's visa to compete in the ATP World Tour 500 event in Dubai next week have been successful," he said in a statement. "The United Arab Emirates government has made the right decision."

While this is the result the tours were hoping for, there is a minefield of challenges yet to be navigated. For starters, Ram has yet to successfully enter Dubai and take part in a match without incident, and there will be some trepidation until this happens. Ram and partner Jonathan Elrich had planned to play the event last year but ended up not doing so under circumstances that were not fully explained.

Next up will be difficult decisions about the future of the Dubai tournaments, which will be a hot topic at player meetings in Indian Wells and Miami next month.

After the 11th-hour rejection of Peer and the enormous pressure required to secure Ram's entry, it would be highly dubious for the tours to proceed with next year's events without some kind of guarantee that a similar situation will not arise. But it will also be tough to jettison the lucrative $2 million tournaments in the face of this belated but conciliatory action -- finding replacements in the current economic climate would not be easy.

Without giving specifics, Scott insisted that the WTA would take extra care to avoid being put in the same situation next year. "What happened in Dubai this year cannot happen again," he said. "While we have not yet focused on those details, we would certainly require certain guarantees and measures put in place to ensure there could be no repeat of what happened to Shahar Peer in 2009."

Still, the end result is another win for tennis' globalist traditions in the face of the divisive realities of international politics.

Historically, players have been accustomed to tennis without borders, their rackets securing entry into places their passports would usually have denied them. Visa incidents occur -- a snafu prevented Agnieszka Radwanska from getting one in time to play Moscow; Russian Fed Cup captain Shamil Tarpishchev was initially denied one by the U.S. for a tie in 2007. But the general freedom and crisscross of movement has been remarkable.

Only mosquitoes and tennis players cross the Iron Curtain, went the saying during the Cold War. Both East and West regularly opened their doors to racket-wielding representatives from the other side, even though Communist governments frequently placed restrictions on the travel of their own players.

In the mid-1970s, Arthur Ashe was finally able to arrange a visit to apartheid-ridden South Africa to play the Johannesburg tournament there, and black spectators were given tickets to witness his matches alongside white fans. South African players, in turn, faced brief restrictions in their participation abroad compared with the longstanding bans implemented by the Olympics, and in soccer, cricket and rugby.

These days, Serbs and Croats hang out together on tour, Muslims and Jews pair up in doubles, isolationist Myanmar takes part in Davis Cup and Iran fields a Fed Cup team.

The record is far from unblemished, past or present. The players in Dubai this week have been as universal in their inaction as they have paying sympathetic lip service to Peer. But for better or worse -- frankly, usually for the better -- individual identity has tended to transcend nationality in tennis.

Given a choice between partaking in this tradition or parting ways with the sport, Dubai appears to have chosen the latter. A happy development, but too bad it couldn't have happened a week earlier.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.