February 16, 2009

Politics & Tennis Don't Mix

The Middle East is a hotbed of all sorts of tension -- religious, political, and now apparently athletic.

The Barclays Tennis Championship in Dubai hadn't even begun when controversy sprang up. Officials at the United Arab Emirates denied Shahar Peer, a native of Israel, a visa to enter the country one day before she was to begin competing in the fifty-six player draw. While no reason was given for the refusal, officials speculated it was due to anti-Israel sentiments in the Gulf State.

It wasn't the first time Peer faced the weight of political pressure. Last month in New Zealand protesters stormed her third round match against Elena Dementieva, days after Israel invaded Gaza. And in 2006 she was forced to split from her doubles partner Sania Mirza amid objections from Indian Muslims.

But this time the UAE's decision sparked the interest of WTA chairman Larry Scott, who said the Dubai tournament could be stricken from the women's tennis calendar as a result of their treatment of Peer -- and for a contest that attracted every one of the sport's top ten players, and eighteen of the top twenty-five, that could mean a big loss of revenue for the state. A recent New York Times article told of how the spreading global recession is beginning to hit even this once-hot mecca -- I wonder how these latest developments could stain Dubai's reputation. It just doesn't seem to me that such external factors should influence how the sport is played.

Meanwhile Japan's Ayumi Morita, who was given entrée to the tournament after Peer was forced to pull out, won her first round match against a still-struggling Anna Chakvetadze. And that wasn't the only upset in early round action -- qualifier Urszula Radwanska beat out her ninth-seeded older sister Aggie in the first round while Auckland finalist Elena Vesnina took out compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova in the second.

If these results are any indication there will certainly be a lot more excitement in Dubai over the next week, and maybe even more controversy -- but here's hoping all the action is kept on the courts, and out of politics.

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