Peer takes emotional journey to Dubai quarter-finals

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The Independent Online

The emotions Shahar Peer has experienced in reaching the quarter-finals here at the Barclays Dubai Championships have been evident in her post-match reactions. There were tears after her opening win against Yanina Wickmayer on Monday and a jump for joy after her remarkable 6-2, 7-5 victory here today over Caroline Wozniacki, the top seed and world No 3.

Peer is the first Israeli woman to play here. Twelve months ago she was refused a visa by the United Arab Emirates government, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel. Tournament officials said at the time that her presence would have antagonised local tennis supporters following Israel's military action in Gaza the previous month.

This week the world No 22 has had bodyguards wherever she goes. So far she has played only on a small outside court, where spectators have to go through security scanners before taking their seats. She also has to use a separate changing room from all the other players.

"When I landed here [in Dubai] there was something going on in my heart that was a little bit more than when you go to a usual tournament," Peer said after her victory yesterday. "It meant a lot for me and that was why I was so, so happy after my first-round win. I never cried after I won a match before. I've always only cried when I've lost matches, never after I've won."

Did she mind the fact that she had not had a chance to play on the main show court? "No, I like my court," she laughed. "I'm doing well there. I hope I'm going to stay there. I knew from the beginning that I would probably play most of my matches there."

Peer felt that playing in such a situation made her stronger, as it did when she reached the semi-finals of a tournament in Auckland last month despite protestors complaining about her presence. "It's very important for me, so I'm trying to give my best in every match and on every point," she said.

As for the way she has been treated, Peer said: "They are so nice to me, all the people around me that are taking care of me. Fantastic. There are no complaints, only compliments to give them."

When Peer was excluded 12 months ago Venus Williams, the winner of the tournament, spoke up for the Israeli at the presentation ceremony. A Jewish association subsequently gave Williams an award in New York in recognition of her support.

"I talked to her at the US Open," Peer said. "I really thanked her. I think it was really nice of her to step up and say her thoughts and support me. That's part of the reason why I'm here this year. All the support that I got from the players and whoever stood up for me - if it's Andy Roddick or it's Venus Williams - really helped. I'm happy I could manage to be here."

Roddick withdrew from the following week's men's tournament last year. Peer said the American had done "a huge thing" in pulling out. "I went to him personally in Indian Wells last year, which was the first tournament where I could see him, and thanked him," she said. "He said: ‘No problem. It's OK. I did what I felt.' It was really good of him to do it."

Pablo Giacopelli, Peer's coach, thought that all the issues surrounding her presence here had made her stronger. "I think it's working for her," he said. "It's like when she played in Auckland, when she had to deal with protesters who were shouting out some disgraceful things. It almost set something off inside her, made her want to prove a point."

Giacopelli has been working with Peer for 14 months and has been delighted with her progress. "I knew it was a big challenge," he said. "When I started working with her, her forehand was a liability, her serve was a liability, she couldn't volley that well. She was No 45 in the rankings. Then she slipped to No 67 after she was out for several weeks with a broken foot last summer."

Missing Dubai 12 months ago had broken her momentum. "I knew I needed Shahar to play three months of solid tennis to see the benefits of the work we were doing," Giacopelli said. "She had built up some momentum and to be denied the chance to play here interrupted everything."

Giacopelli said Peer had worked hard on her fitness, particularly during a three-week training block in South Africa over the winter, and was now a much better all-round player. How good does he believe she can be? "It's not just about hitting a tennis ball. When you start to build momentum in your career there are usually two ways things can go. You can have a reality check, which blocks your progress, or you can carry on what you're doing, keep your discipline, and see where it takes you.

"Sometimes players who explode into the top 10 can drop out of it just as quickly. It's often better if you can just ease your way into it, soaking up knowledge and experience so that those things become part of you.

"I definitely think she can be a top 20 player, top 15. After that, who knows? You just have to keep doing the right things over and over, keeping your discipline."

Giacopelli said he had seen big changes in Peer. "When I started working with her she was a 21-year-old who thought that life and tennis owed her something. She depended a lot on her family and on the people who worked with her. I told her she had to change. I think she's now a fuller individual, someone who can decide things for herself. She knows she has to go out and take her chances, which was what she did today.

"Confidence makes a big difference. She came out with all guns blazing today and that was important, but she also kept her discipline.

"Shahar used to be a counter-puncher who ran from side to side and waited for her opponent to make a mistake. Sometimes she can fall back into that habit, but for the most part she has learned that there are times when she needs to be positive and to attack."

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