Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Tennis [Print without images]

Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Stockholm unable to handle switch

Associated Press

STOCKHOLM -- The Davis Cup matches between Sweden and Israel will be played without spectators in Malmo next month after an attempt to move the venue to Stockholm fell through.

Swedish organizers Tuesday cited security concerns for the closed-door policy because anti-Israeli demonstrations are expected during the best-of-five series March 6-8.

"It's terrible that they are trying to mix politics with sports, especially in an enlightened country like Sweden," said Michael Klein, chairman of the Israeli Tennis Federation.

Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Tuesday the decision was not for his government to make.

"If local authorities decide to prevent spectators from attending, what can I say?" Palmor said. "We leave it to local security authorities to do what they think is best."

The action comes after the United Arab Emirates denied Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer a visa last week, preventing her from competing in Dubai. Organizers said they feared fan anger over Israel's recent military offensive in Gaza. The WTA fined organizers a record $300,000.

The UAE later granted a permit to Israeli Andy Ram to play in this week's men's tournament.

In January, an Israeli basketball team fled to the locker room as hundreds of Turkish fans protested the violence in Gaza. A pro-Islamic group earlier set an Israeli flag on fire outside the arena.

This will be the second time a Davis Cup series will be played in an empty arena in Sweden. In 1975, two years after a military coup in Chile led by Augusto Pinochet, Sweden played Chile in Bastad and no spectators were allowed.

The Malmo-Stockholm matter has an unmistakable political dimension.

Malmo, Sweden's third-largest city, has a left-leaning local government and large Muslim population. Its leaders have strongly criticized Israel after the Gaza invasion. Some called for dropping the Davis Cup matches altogether.

Stockholm has a center-right majority that is more pro-Israeli. The Swedish capital on Monday offered to step in as an alternate venue, saying it was better prepared to guarantee security.

The plan was canceled when Stockholm officials realized they wouldn't be able to organize in time for the Israeli team's Sunday arrival, said Madeleine Sjostedt, Stockholm's vice mayor in charge of culture and sports.

She said it's "regrettable that Malmo doesn't engage in discussion with those who threaten with violence."

Malmo mayor Ilmar Reepalu insisted the decision to bar spectators was based solely on security. Reepalu noted that pro-Palestinian groups disrupted a recent pro-Israel demonstration by throwing bottles, eggs and fireworks.

"It shows the tensions that exist after the conflict in Gaza," Reepalu told The Associated Press by telephone.