The future of the Barclays Dubai Championships was hanging in the balance last night as organisers awaited the verdict on a second visa application by an Israeli. Andy Ram, one of the world’s leading doubles players, wants to compete in the men’s tournament here next week, but the chances of the United Arab Emirates admitting him appear slim. Refusal could lead to the event being scrapped.
Shahar Peer was informed last Saturday that her request for a visa to play in this week’s women’s event had been turned down. Although the UAE has no diplomatic links with Israel, a spokesman for Peer said she had been led to believe that her application would be successful. However, it was made before Israeli’s recent military offensive in Gaza.
No explanation had been given until tournament organisers issued a statement yesterday, saying Peer’s presence “would have antagonised our fans who have watched live television coverage of recent attacks in Gaza”.
It is understood that the Association of Tennis Professionals, which runs the men’s tour, has been pressing for a prompt decision on Ram because it does not want to find itself in the same position as the Women’s Tennis Association last weekend. By the time Peer’s application had been rejected – the day before the tournament started – nearly all the players had arrived and the WTA felt it would be unfair to them to cancel the tournament.
The ATP will not comment until it has heard the verdict on Ram’s application. In the event of a refusal it will want to know why. It could yet scrap next week’s tournament, which is due to include Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. Roger Federer was due to play, but was forced to withdraw yesterday with a back injury that has also ruled him out of Switzerland’s Davis Cup tie against the US next month.
The ATP and its president, Adam Helfant, would face a tricky decision if, as seems likely, security issues rather than politics were given as the reason. Other considerations, such as the ATP’s contractual position and fairness to spectators, might also be taken into account.
Ram called on the ATP and WTA to “take responsibility” by cancelling the tournament or imposing other penalties. In an interview with the BBC he said a way had to be found to allow Israelis to play. “Hopefully, the Dubai government or the tournament will learn from their mistakes.”
When the ATP sanctioned the tournament in 1993 it received guarantees that any player who qualified would be allowed into the country. Like the WTA, the ATP says a sufficiently high ranking is the only criterion a player should have to satisfy. Ram, a former Australian Open champion, is No 11 in the world doubles rankings.
Whether or not the tournament is played next week, its long-term future must be in doubt. The ATP will discuss it at a board meeting next month, while Larry Scott, the head of the WTA, said his organisation would |consider “what types of sanctions are going to be deemed to be appropriate in light of what has happened, including whether or not the tournament has a slot on the calendar next year”. The comments about security concerns are unlikely to appease the WTA, which commissioned its own study months ago into safety questions in the knowledge that Peer’s presence here might be a problem. The investigation concluded there would be no major security issues.
In yesterday’s statement, which made no reference to Ram’s visa application, tournament organisers pointed out that “public sentiment remains high in the Middle East” and that Peer had been the subject of protests when playing in New Zealand last month. “Concern was raised about her wellbeing and her presence triggering similar protests,” the statement continued. “We do not wish to politicise sports, but we have to be sensitive to recent events in the region and not alienate or put at risk the players and fans.”
The tournament is run by Dubai Duty Free, which is owned by the UAE government, and boasts big prize-money and appearance fees which draw most of the game’s top players.