The Friday Interview: Shahar Pe'er, Israel's trailblazing star

Shahar Pe'er speaks to The Jerusalem Post.

Shahar Peer 88 (photo credit: AP)
Shahar Peer 88
(photo credit: AP)
Shahar Pe'er is used to making history. At the tender age of 20, the girl from Maccabim has already made an enormous impact on the Israeli sports world and indeed the entire nation with her gutsy performances in major international tournaments around the world. These have propelled her into a consistent top-20 position in the rankings of the Women's Tennis Association over the last year. Last season Pe'er became the first Israeli woman to reach the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event, not once but twice - in Australia and the US. And this coming week Pe'er will again boldly step where no Israeli tennis player has stepped before, when she becomes the first competitor from the Jewish state to play in a top level tournament hosted by a Gulf State. The Qatar Open in Doha has attracted the majority of the highest ranked players in world tennis and Pe'er says she felt there was no reason not to take part, even though Qatar has no diplomatic relations with Israel. "We have been talking with the tournament director about my participation for the last few weeks and I'm not concerned at all. I'm really fine with it. There shouldn't be any problems," she tells The Jerusalem Post. "I'm feeling great. I've never been there before and I'm very excited. I've been training hard this week and I'm really looking forward to it." Pe'er is a true trailblazer. Next week Israeli number two Tzipi Obziler will follow her path and play in the Dubai Tennis Championships. But clearly Pe'er's decision to play in the $2.5 million Qatar event was not based on historical motivations alone. It is a Tier 1 tournament in which players including Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic and Serena Williams compete for the winners prize. Since turning professional in 2004, Pe'er has risen up the rankings with impressive ease. Within two years she began competing with the best on the planet and has found herself a regular fixture in the biggest events in the world. Last year she was still completing her army service so was unable to travel to Qatar, but now has a high enough ranking and is able to travel to the Khalifa Tennis Complex. "When it came up I was thinking why shouldn't I go. Like every tournament I will go and try my best. It's a tough tournament and I am going there to compete," she says. Also included in the list of stars playing in Doha will be Pe'er's most recent nemesis - world number five Maria Sharapova - as well as her Russian compatriot Anna Chakvetadze. The pair were part of the Russian Federations Cup team which swept aside Pe'er and her Israeli teammates at the Ramat Hasharon Tennis Center two weeks ago. Pe'er's victory over Dinara Safina in the first match of the World Group tie was the only Israeli win of the weekend which saw her lose 6-1, 6-1 to Sharapova on the Sunday morning in the most anticipated match of the fixture. Even though, after all the hype, it felt like a bit of a let down, Pe'er insists she gave her all in the match and that there was no reason for the packed crowd to have been upset with her lack of success. "I don't think people were disappointed. I think they really enjoyed the high level tennis. It was much closer than it looked," she says of the match which marked the first time in 12 years Israel's Fed Cup team had played a home fixture. "Sharapova is the best player in the world at the moment. Of course I was disappointed with the final result, especially after we ended the first day 1-1. We wanted to win the tie. But I know that we, the Israel team, gave everything we could." The rowdy crowd during that Fed Cup tie came in for some criticism from the Russian team, as did Pe'er, whom Israel's International Olympic Committee representative Alex Gilady claimed was inciting the supporters to try and put Sharapova off. While Pe'er refuses to comment on Gilady's remarks, she is appreciative of the crowd. "I think the crowd was amazing and also was during [last weekend's] Davis Cup matches. For us to see them supporting us is great. They were with us from the first point to the last point," she says. There have been Israeli tennis stars in the past who have broken into the top echelons of the sport. In women's tennis, Anna Smashnova reached a career high of 15. And in the men's game Amos Mandsdorf, peaked at 18th place in the ATP rankings in 1988 and Shlomo Glickstein reached 19th ten years earlier. But none has had quite the impact that Pe'er has, keeping thousands of people up all night to watch her take part in tournaments on the other side of the world. It isn't easy for such a young woman to cope with the pressure that comes with the jet setting lifestyle, but Pe'er has always tried to keep her feet on the ground and come back to Israel as much as possible to spend time with her family. "I'm lucky because I am doing something I like and I enjoy," she says. "It's not always easy, but I just really like playing and competing. Sometimes it is difficult to be away so much and I try and come back home as much as possible. For example, I was just here for three weeks." On Thursday she flew out to Doha with a smile on her face and appearing to have few cares in the world. This coming week will be tough for Pe'er but Israelis around the country, and around the world, can be sure that she will give 100 percent.