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KURT STREETER

Women's tennis players should have made a stand

They needed to walk out of tournament in Dubai in support of Shahar Peer, Israel's top player, who wasn't allowed into the United Arab Emirates because she's Jewish.

February 22, 2009|KURT STREETER

Venus Williams gathered in another big trophy Saturday, defeating Virginia Razzano to win the $2-million Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships in the United Arab Emirates. It was her 40th title, a wonderful feat, but if justice is the guide that it should be, this was a title nobody should have won.

In fact, not a single match should have been contested at the Dubai tournament last week. The moment players scheduled to participate found out about the wrong being done to one of their own, each should have packed up her rackets and flown home.

In case you haven't heard, 45th-ranked Shahar Peer wasn't allowed to travel to Dubai because she is a Jew from Israel, and her nation engaged in a horrific war in the Gaza Strip. Two days before the tournament began, with no warning, with her colleagues either on their way to Dubai or already there, Peer's visa was denied. Israel's top female tennis player, long having basked in global anonymity, became a high-profile pawn in the unending chess game played between the nations of the Middle East.

Mind you, I'm no fan of Israel's heavy-handed hammering of Gaza. But in almost all cases, I think ordinary citizens such as Peer shouldn't have to pay for the misguided hubris of their nation's leaders.

I've also never been one to idealistically think politics and sport don't mix. They're intertwined, and always will be. This, however, was politics mixing with sport in all the wrong ways. Shahar Peer could have been allowed to play in Dubai and become a symbol of peace and shared humanity. Instead, she was a target for retribution and discrimination.

Still, as disappointing as any of this was the weak reaction that came from her colleagues. There were the expected statements made, most sorely lacking in outrage. "It's a shame," said No. 3-ranked Jelena Jankovic. "She has earned the right to compete in this tournament . . . hopefully, we can solve this problem."

Added Venus Williams: "I thought it was unfair. We're all very supportive of Shahar. . . . We are all athletes, and we stand for tennis."

Apparently, Venus stands for more than just tennis. Last week, moneyed interests outweighed doing what is right. "The big picture is that Shahar Peer didn't get a chance to play," she said. "But making an immediate decision we also have to look at sponsors. . . . We wouldn't be here without sponsors and we can't let them down."

I'm sorry, but that's not good enough. If Shahar Peer were black, Latino or Asian, and the tournament had discriminated against her based on race, it's a good bet the Williams sisters, and most of the field, would have shown justifiably unfettered anger. At the least, boycotts and walk-outs would have been deeply considered.

Instead, the players didn't even call a meeting, according to Jankovic. They couldn't come up with anything as bold as wearing black wristbands, en masse, to protest.

They were lucky enough to get some cover. There was more outrage from press row than the locker room, for one thing, and that outrage reverberated across the globe. Backdoor wrangling ensured a visa for Andy Ram, an Israeli player on the men's tour, which has a tournament in Dubai this week. The Tennis Channel refused to air the women's tournament. The Women's Tennis Assn. handed down heavy sanctions meant to ensure there's no discrimination in Dubai next year, including a $300,000 fine.

But $300,000 is chump change in Dubai, even in this economy. And already we have word an appeal might come from a tournament that doesn't seem to get it, having spent the last few days offering incredulous excuses about "security concerns" for the visa denial. Worse, there's still no real guarantee this won't happen again elsewhere, particularly in the tense Middle East, which pro tennis has courted as a hedge against global economic woes.

Want a hedge against this ever happening again, anywhere? Boycott.

When I called tennis' truest social conscience, Billie Jean King, she said she understood my take. "My first thought when I heard about Shahar," King said, "was that everyone should pull out. It was 'you guys, don't play.' "

But then she said she had changed her mind, that she is now pleased with the sanctions and the fines and the visa for Ram. She noted that she is 65, and that when you have the wisdom that comes with age, it's all too easy to look at 25-year-old athletes in a pickle like this and say "go home."

When she was in her 20s, she recalled, she'd played in South Africa, and had not spoken out enough against apartheid. "Looking back," she added, her voice sounding pained at the thought, "I could have done better. When it comes to taking a stand, I could have done more."

King is probably too close to the game. Women's pro tennis, after all, exists largely because of her. She wrapped up by saying the actions last week from the current crop are actions she's not willing to judge.

But I am. I expect better, from all pro athletes. These days, gilded by their monumental wealth, they can afford to take the strongest of stands against injustice -- youth be damned, and sponsors too. Instead of high-tailing it out of Dubai, sending a message that discrimination has no place, the women of the pro tennis tour swung meekly and missed.

As the years march on, will they think of Shahar Peer and ask themselves whether they could have done more?

--

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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