Storm clouds gather over Dubai debacle

Andy Ram's visa concern for lucrative event escalates volatile situation facing ATP, WTA.

shahar peer 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
shahar peer 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Andy Ram weighed in on the current situation that has embroiled both him and fellow Israeli tennis star Shahar Pe'er on Tuesday, and said enough is enough. The country's most celebrated doubles specialist feels that tournaments in Arab countries which refuse Israelis, or anyone else for that matter, visas should face stern punishment. Ram is waiting to hear whether he will be getting a visa for Dubai so he can play in next week's tournament, but the indications are that, like Shahar Pe'er, his request will also be denied. "Maybe cancel the tournament or sanction them with money or something else. But something should be done to make sure this situation does not develop again next year," Ram told the BBC when asked what should be done. "It's one of the biggest events on the calendar so they have to find a way to have Israelis play there. "The governing bodies, the ATP and the WTA, have to take responsibility." The organizers of the Dubai women's tournament claimed on Tuesday that possible threats against Pe'er led authorities to block her from receiving a visa. The statement by the Dubai Tennis Championships - citing fan anger of Israeli's recent incursions into the Gaza Strip - was its first detailed defense after the last-minute visa denial. But it also appeared to push the United Arab Emirates into a corner, with Ram looking to take part in next week's men's doubles tournament with Kevin Ullyett of Zimbabwe. The overseers of the world tennis tours - still outraged by the snub of Pe'er just before the tournament began Sunday - seemed determined not to ease up. The ATP, which runs the men's tour, said the UAE has an opportunity to "make the right decision." The women's tour has warned of fallout including possibly dropping Dubai from its calendar. "We do not wish to politicize sports, but we have to be sensitive to recent events in the region and not alienate or put at risk the players and the many tennis fans of different nationalities that we have here in the UAE," said the tournament organizer's statement, read to reporters by director Salah Tahlak. It said the event organizer, Dubai Duty Free, feared Peer's "presence would have antagonized our fans" because of the attacks in Gaza, which left about 1,300 Palestinians dead, at least half of them civilians, according to Gaza health officials. Thirteen Israelis were killed, including three civilians before a tentative cease-fire halted fighting on January 18. There were concerns about protests, boycotts and threats to Peer's "well being," the statement continued. Such demonstrations or security threats are rare in the Emirates, but the statement suggested there were particular worries of unrest from conservative factions or the many imported Muslim laborers from Pakistan and elsewhere. Ram admitted that recent happenings may cause difficulties, but believes it is no excuse. "It's a complicated situation with the war. I understand the situation of the UAE government but if they make a big tournament and don't accept all the players by ranking, then that is wrong," Ram said. "Cancelling the tournament is the last thing Shahar, the WTA or the ATP or anybody else wants. It's sad to see politics getting mixed up with sport. It's something I've never had to confront." The ATP said it's awaiting "an official decision" on Ram's visa. Ben Nichols, a marketing official for the men's and women's tennis tournaments in Dubai, said that organizers were not aware of Ram's visa status. Pe'er, in a written statement, noted the "tremendous outpouring of support and empathy" after the visa denial. "Going forward, I am confident that the tour will take appropriate actions to ensure that this injustice is not allowed to occur in the future. There should be no place for politics or discrimination in professional tennis or indeed any sport," said her statement. In related news announced on Tuesday, the Tennis Channel will not televise the Dubai Tennis Championships this week in protest of the refusal to grant Pe'er a visa. "This is an easy decision to come by, based on what is right and wrong," Ken Solomon, the chairman and chief executive of the network, told The New York Times. "Sports are about merit, absent of background, class, race, creed, color or religion. They are simply about talent. This is a classic case, not about what country did what to another country. If the Israel were barring a citizen of an Arab nation, we would have made the same decision." The world No. 1 player Serena Williams of the United States, a member of the Women's Tennis Association players committee, said there was no talk of a boycott in Dubai, but the WTA was taking Pe'er's absence "very seriously." The WTA tour has one of its last events of the season this fall in Qatar, which has been open to Israeli competitors in the past and has led Gulf outreach to Israeli political and business leaders. But anger over the Gaza conflict brought an abrupt change in January, when Qatari officials hosted a leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas and expelled an Israeli trade office in the capital Doha. On Monday, the president of the International Tennis Federation, the sport's governing body, said he plans to remind UAE authorities that the organization "does not permit discrimination on any grounds". "The ITF believes that sport should not be used as a political tool but rather as a unifying element between athletes and nations," said Francesco Ricci Bitti. On the court Tuesday, Ram and Julien Knowle advanced to the quarterfinals of the Open 13 in Marseilles, defeating Rik De Voest and Rogier Wassen 7-6 (7), 7-6 (2). Dudi Sela beat Bobby Reynolds of the United States 7-6 (4), 6-2 in the first round of the RMK Championships in Memphis. Afterward, Sela addressed the decision by the UAE to deny Pe'er a visa. "I think it's a pity," Sela said. "I think all players who are eligible should have the same opportunity."