WTA Players Fail to Support Peer but the ATP Comes Through in Dubai

Israeli tennis player Shahar Peer was denied entry to Dubai but her fellow players played on. The ATP saved their butt.

Welcome to Dubai redux because we’ve been here before. Larry Scott, CEO of the WTA, said the following after the Dubai refused to give Israeli player Shahar Peer a visa to enter this week’s tournament in Dubai.

We started looking at this issue about a year ago, so they had a year to get everything worked out and everything in order. Peer played in Doha last year, and we fully supported her decision to want to play in Dubai, one of our leading tournaments.

“About a year ago” the ATP had the same problem with the Israeli doubles team Andy Ram and Jonathan Erlich. They were all ready to play in the event in Dubai after having won the Australian Open but were never granted entry into the country.

We don’t know exactly what happened because both Ram and Erlich, and their manager at the time, Norman Canter, refused to talk about it. When I spoke to Canter at Indian Wells last year, he did explain that he met with the director and assistant director of the Dubai event and his players were ready to fly to Dubai, but they never got on the plane. Beyond that, Canter said:

…I’m not making any comments. You can talk to the boys [Erlich and Ram], you can talk to the ATP, you can talk to Allah, you can talk to God, you can talk to Moses, you can talk to Jesus, and you’re not gonna get a lot of answers. And hopefully, some day, the human rights issue, which is what it’s about, will be rectified. It’s 5700 years, I don’t have any hope.

Now how do I parse that? Did the ATP ask them not to say anything? Did the Dubai organizers ask them not to say anything because they hoped in the future to bridge the gap between their commercial interests and the policy of the United Arab Emirates of refusing entry to anyone with an Israeli passport? (Dubai is one of the seven states that make up the UAE.)

Part of the problem here is the complexity of the UAE. It’s a federation of states that has only been in existence since 1971 so the individual states still hold a lot of power. Dubai’s ruler is Vice-President of the UAE and he’s also the Chairman of Dubai’s tourist industry. Both the men’s and women’s tennis tournaments are big tourist draws so I’m assuming Dubai’s ruler is fighting with someone else in the UAE to get visas for its tennis players.

But who is he fighting with because the largest state in the UAE is Abu Dhabi, its ruler is President of the UAE, and it’s the site of a tennis exhibition that shelled out enough appearance money to get both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in early January. And last year Abu Dhabi started the process of applying for a WTA event.

It’s a fascinating triad. Commercial Dubai is building a fantasy modernist tourist haven to prepare itself for the looming post-oil economy, especially as Dubai gets almost no income from oil at this point. The conservative Muslim population in the UAE wants to preserve life as it is and support the Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The WTA and the ATP want to globalize their sport by expanding to the emerging economies in Asia. Well, they were emerging. The U.S. is doing their best to muck up the global economy as much as possible and has succeeded as you can see in the video above.

Thanks to Tennis Diary writer Pat Davis for the video link by the way. Pat, are you still sorry you didn’t trip off to Dubai last year for a quick look and see before all those recently created island developments sunk back into the sea, so to speak? I’m going to Las Vegas on Monday. It’ll have to do.

Parts of the tennis world have responded boldly to Peer’s treatment and parts of it haven’t. The Tennis Channel refused to broadcast the women’s matches in Dubai and Wall Street Journal Europe has withdrawn its sponsorship of the event. But Peer’s fellow player lamely played on. None of them mentioned withdrawing and Venus Williams reminded us that players have to think of the sponsors too:

We wouldn’t be here without sponsors. We can’t let sponsors down. Whatever we do, we need to do as a team – players, sponsors, tour and whoever – and not all break off in one direction. We are team players.

Okay, so here is sponsor Wall Street Journal Europe withdrawing its sponsorship because Dubai’s actions run counter to its editorial philosophy of “free markets and free people” and yet the players can’t withdraw because they’ll upset the sponsors? Tennis players were not always such capitalists. Once they had principles.

In 1973, Yugoslavian player Nikki Pilić was suspended by his tennis federation for allegedly refusing to represent them in Davis Cup. In support of Pilic, 81 ATP players including 13 of the 16 seed withdrew from Wimbledon in support. Thirteen of the 16 seeds! Incredible! And Venus is worried about Barclays Bank as in Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships.

The players are, however, only following the rest of the tennis world. The WTA and ATP gave Dubai events in return for big prize money even though they knew the UAE discriminated against Israelis. The ATP didn’t cancel its Dubai event this year despite Ram and Erlich’s treatment last year. If the WTA and the ATP are gonna chase the money, can you blame the players?

Luckily, Venus and other have been spared further action because the ATP was more effective than the WTA in securing a visa for an Israeli player. Andy Ram entered the men’s event in Dubai again this year (without Jonathan Erlich who is injured) and Dubai has granted him a special entry permit. The ATP gave the Dubai organizers a deadline of this Friday to come up with a visa or take the chance of losing their event in the future. Thanks to Tennisbro for posting that info.

I read a rumor that ATP board member Justin Gimelstob was on his way to Dubai to deal with the issue. Thank heavens that’s no longer necessary. Can you imagine? Here’s a guy who called Anna Kournikova a “bitch” and a “douche” and said he wanted to “hurt” her. What kind of international incident could he provoke in a region that is, let’s say, rather protective of its women.

What am I to make of all this? Uber-capitalism has won out. If the WTA and ATP got into the region hoping that the sports market could make a significant political change in the area, then I applaud them because they’ve succeeded. And there is a precedent. Athletes refused to play in South Africa until they changed their apartheid policy.

But you see the contrast there. Whereas before we might have stood our ground until political change was made, now we follow the money and hope that political change follows.