Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Who gains the most in the Peer story?
Which is the bigger tennis news out of the United Arab Emirates this week? That Shahar Peer of Israel, who was denied a visa into the country one year ago, is currently playing and winning in Dubai? Or that another, non-Israeli WTA player, Jelena Jankovic, has decided to move to the city and make it her home base?
It would be nice to say the former, of course. To have any athlete from Israel, whose diplomatic existence the UAE doesn't recognize, competing in that country is a political victory that resonates far beyond the lines of a tennis court. But in many ways this victory wouldn't have happened without a move like Jankovic's. Although the WTA and its former chief officer Larry Scott deserve credit for demanding that all of its players be guaranteed entry to the UAE this year, this wasn't just a righteous triumph for freedom. It was also a triumph for the publicity machines of both Dubai and Doha, which have labored for years to show off the world's top Western athletes -- golfers, tennis players and racehorses alike -- happily doing what they do best in their Middle Eastern cities, and receiving a king's ransom to do it. They'd invested too much in, among many others, Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova, Tiger Woods and the WTA's top eight, who play their year-end championships in Doha, to let it all be scuttled by l'affaire Peer.
Now Jankovic, a Serb who has always been based at the Bollettieri academy in Florida, says she's joining them. "I love so many things about this place," she said of Dubai. "The people are good and the place is lovely as I can step out anytime and practice." This echoes sentiments shared by Federer, who has trained in the UAE for years. "I really like the nice climate in Dubai," he has written on his Web site. "It's always sunny, making it the ideal location for holidays as well as practice. I like to go shopping and eating out in the great restaurants and hotels. Dubai is a true melting pot of nationalities."
Sounds nice, eh? Perfect spot for a vacation, and there are plenty of condos for sale in Dubai as well. Besides the appearance-fee and prize-money dollars -- Dubai offers the sport's most lavish guarantees, and Doha hosts the richest women's tennis tournament in history -- local officials have also used tennis players in some of the more jaw-dropping photo-ops of recent years. Where else can you play tennis on a towering helipad, or on an indoor ski slope, or on a court surrounded by real live desert sands?
Peer's tale is approximately half a feel-good story. In the end, it doesn't matter how an Israeli got to play; it's the result, the breakthrough alone, that will count in future years. If it's money and publicity that made it happen, so be it; it's not the first time they've made progress happen. But we can also note the difference in Peer's description of her experience thus far in Dubai from those of Jankovic and Federer. An Israeli newspaper reports that her hotel has sealed off her floor for security reasons, and her movement has been restricted to the hotel and the tournament site. "The attitude to me is very warm," Peer says, "and I feel quite safe."
Hey, you have to start somewhere.