Opinion: Swedes shut door on Davis Cup match against Israel

Israel's Davis Cup team will play Sweden in a nearly empty arena in Malmo this weekend because the town fathers don't like Israelis. Simple as that. They dared both the national and international tennis federations to do something about it. "Of course we regret the situation, even for us," Swedish Tennis Federation chief Stefan Dahlbo said in a telephone interview Tuesday. If you thought the next thing he was going to say was how competitors on both sides are cheated when the playing field isn't level, you haven't been paying attention to the international sports scene. "We have a match at home, and will not have the support we hoped for. But there will be journalists and officials in the hall, and at least," he added cheerfully, "it will be shown on television." ITF boss Francesco Ricci Bitti sounded similarly crushed. "Of course, it's regrettable there will be no people there. But apart from that," he said, "both teams will be allowed to play. The winner will advance to the second round." "Davis Cup is like a watch," Ricci Bitti added. "We have to keep everything, each round, moving forward together." If that sounds familiar, it should. Two weeks ago, United Arab Emirates officials denied an entry visa at the last minute to block Israeli Shahar Pe'er from playing in the Dubai Tennis Classic. Citing "events witnessed in the region" - the three-week war in January between Israel and Islamic militants in Gaza - they, too, dared the people who run women's tennis to do something about it. Pe'er's fellow players, tournament sponsors and stakeholders in the Women's Tennis Association all agreed it was "outrageous," a violation of everything sport stands for. Then they played the tournament anyway, and everyone went home with a hefty check - except the Tennis Channel, which canceled plans to televise the tournament back to the United States in protest. Not long after leaving town, the WTA handed their hosts a bill for another $300,000 - the largest fine ever levied by the association, but chump change to the oil sheiks who bankroll the event. Not surprisingly, the fine has already been appealed. Some saw a victory of sorts the following week, when Israeli doubles player Andy Ram was allowed to play in an ATP men's event in Dubai and US star Andy Roddick, the defending champion, pulled out in protest. If so, it was short-lived. Sweden's capitulation in what is best described as a political stunt - and some would suggest collaboration isn't too strong a word - only emboldens the next city or state with a sports team and a grudge determined to do the same. It's what happens when well-meaning people like WTA Tour chairman Larry Scott and Ricci Bitti don't do enough. And just like Scott, Ricci Bitti promised to stop it from happening - the next time. "I believe sports and politics are not excluding each other, and never will," he said. "But what is not acceptable is when politicians use sport for their own position. Surely, the city of Malmo will not be welcome to organize such an event again. We will discuss this when we meet with the Davis Cup committee and board of the ITF at the end of March." None of it, from after-the-fact promises to the angry demonstrations expected outside Malmo's 4,000-seat Baltic Hall, is new to Israeli sportsmen. They were driven out of most Asian competitions 20 years ago and relocated in much-tougher European groups. Rather than compete against Israelis, athletes from neighboring Middle East states, notably Saudis and Iranians, routinely withdraw from international events like the world championships, Olympics and even Special Olympics - rarely with more than a warning or a slap on the wrist. Even so, few imagined the recreation committee in a town of 280,000 would get away with hijacking Sweden's reputation to advance its own anti-Israel agenda. "My personal opinion," mayor Ilmar Reepalu told the local newspaper Sydsvenska Dagbladet on January 20, "is that one should not play a match against Israel at all in this situation. "A large part of Malmo's population is from the Middle East... I understand they are uncomfortable about this and want to demonstrate. This is not a match against just anybody. It's a match against the state of Israel." As the controversy picked up steam, Reepalu softened his tone. Though police submitted contingency plans in advance to both the national and international federations to secure the municipal hall, Reepalu said the closed doors were necessary because the city was liable for any problems inside. Then he rebuffed last-minute halfhearted attempts by both the Swedish tennis and sport federations to move the matches to Stockholm. "It's a pity," former tennis great and national hero Stefan Edberg said during a telephone interview from Stockholm. "You always want sport to go ahead as planned. That's always the best choice. Even so, it probably would have been better," he added, "to play these games in another country." No sports federation has demonstrated the stomach for that yet. Instead, some 1,000 policemen from seven counties around Malmo will be on hand outside the arena amid fears that protests could turn violent. "I think it's a wrong decision," said Ram, after practice in the Malmo arena Tuesday. "I think it maybe can open the door for other countries to make a stupid decision like this one." Count on it.