Shahar Peer: 'I'm not here to play politics'

The world No 22 was banned from last year's Dubai Championships because she is an Israeli. She tells Paul Newman that she hopes her tennis will overshadow any controversy this year
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Shahar Peer does not see herself as a trailblazer but the 22-year-old will pass another significant milestone next week when she plays in the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships. Already the first Israeli ever to compete in a professional women's tennis event in a Gulf state, having played in the Qatar Open in Doha two years ago, Peer will appear in Dubai 12 months after her exclusion from the tournament caused a furore throughout the sport.

The Women's Tennis Association fined Dubai a record $300,000 (about £192,000) after the United Arab Emirates, which has no diplomatic ties with Israel, failed to grant Peer a visa last year. The WTA said it had been given earlier indications that Peer would be allowed into the country, but the UAE government appeared to change its mind in the wake of Israel's military offensive in Gaza in January.

Tournament organisers said at the time that Peer's presence "would have antagonised our fans who have watched live television coverage of recent attacks in Gaza" and warned that "the entire tournament could have been boycotted by protesters".

Peer, who received her visa for this year's tournament several weeks ago, said that she had learnt of her exclusion last year two hours before she was due to board a plane for Dubai. "I was in the draw already, but the WTA called to tell me that they would not let me in the country," she said. "I'm very happy to be able to go this year. It's a $2m tournament, a big tournament, and I'm really looking forward to it."

She added: "Sport should be outside of politics, so obviously I want to go and play there. I think we all need to be equal."

How had last year's experience affected her? "It hurt mentally and professionally, because I was playing very well. I was on a good run and I was ready for the tournament. It was a big tournament and I couldn't go, so it really stopped my momentum.

"To be barred from a country is not a nice feeling. I think there's no place for that in sport. I actually think that sport can make it better and help political situations, not make it worse."

While Peer returned home, her exclusion was condemned by a number of players and officials. The WTA imposed more than double its previous record fine on the tournament, ordered Dubai to post a $2m (£1.28m) financial performance guarantee to ensure its inclusion in the 2010 calendar and insisted that in future qualifying Israeli players should be given visas at least eight weeks in advance. Peer was awarded $44,250 (£28,400) and 130 ranking points in compensation.

With sport having played such a big part in Dubai's emergence on the world stage, the controversy briefly threatened to have major implications for the UAE. Another Israeli, Andy Ram, was eventually granted a visa to play in the men's event the following week after the Association of Tennis Professionals made it clear that Dubai would lose its place in the calendar if he was not allowed into the country.

Andy Roddick, who pulled out of the tournament, was among those who expressed his disapproval of Peer's exclusion. "I really didn't agree with what went on over there," he said. "I don't think you make political statements through sports."

Peer, who in the past has played doubles with a Muslim, India's Sania Mirza, said she had thanked Roddick "because he did a very brave and a nice thing. To do it was amazing." She added: "I wasn't expecting to be barred, but, from the moment that I was, I was really happy about the support I got from all around the world. I think they were behind me and most of the people also thought there was no place for that."

Dubai is not the only tournament where Peer's presence has been controversial. She has been the subject of protests in support of Palestinians at the pre-Australian Open tournament in Auckland, New Zealand, for the last two years.

"This year it was much more, from my first match," Peer said. "It was much louder and really not nice to hear those things. It was very difficult, especially with the way they were talking about me, like it was my fault, those things. But I'm here only to play tennis and not to concentrate on things like politics and those protests."

Peer reached the semi-finals in Auckland, where protesters were arrested. "When I heard all the stupid things and those things that I didn't like, I played better," she said.

The world No 22, who did compulsory national service in Israel, also played amid tightened security at the Australian Open last month. A group called Australians for Palestine put up posters around Melbourne bearing the headline: "Shahar Peer Serves for Israel". The posters showed Peer in military uniform with a photograph of a child from Gaza superimposed on her racket.

Ram was given extra security when he played in Dubai last year – he used a separate changing room and there was restricted spectator access to the court he was playing on – but Peer said she had no fears. "I'm really going there feeling comfortable," she said. "I played in Doha and I had a good time there, so I really hope I'll have a good trip to Dubai."


1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany

The Munich massacre occurred during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany, when eleven members of the Israeli Olympic Team were taken hostage and eventually murdered by a group of eight Palestinian terrorists, also known as the Black September Guerrillas.

The move into the European Sporting World

Many of the Israel's Arab neighbouring countries campaigned vehemently during the 1970's for their expulsion from Asian-orientated events. These tactics prevented Israel from competing in the 1978 Asian Games, and following this rejection Israel were forced to seek competitive sport elsewhere. Eventually they were accepted into the European sports' bodies, enabling the country to compete in many of the world's most prestigious competitions such as the European Athletics Championships, the European Swimming Championships, the Uefa football competitions, the European Basketball cups and all other major European tournaments.

Maccabi Haifa, Champions League football and the issue of security

Maccabi Haifa's stadium, Kiryat Eliezer, missed out on staging a series of historic events when Maccabi reached the group stages of the Champions League in 2002. It was the first time an Israeli club had made it that far in the competition, though the lucrative gate receipts expected to have been made by hosting matches in Israel were lost when Uefa forced Maccabi to look for an alternative venue outside of Israel due to security concerns. The fixtures were instead held at the Neo GSP Stadium in Nicosia, Cyprus.

The refusal of six Chelsea players to travel to Tel Aviv for a Uefa Cup fixture

Chelsea skipper Marcel Desailly, Emmanuel Petit, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Graeme Le Saux, William Gallas, and Albert Ferrer all decided to miss the Uefa Cup trip to Hapoel Tel Aviv in 2001 on safety grounds. Chelsea's weakened defence saw them crash to a 2-0 defeat, later losing 3-1 on aggregate.