Soldiers, snipers and sniffer dogs - all for a game of tennis

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The Independent Online

Rarely has there been as much fuss surrounding an occasion of such little consequence. Andy Ram and Kevin Ullyett faced Marat Safin and David Ferrer in the first round of the Barclays Dubai Championships men’s doubles here today, but for all the safety measures and security personnel it might have been a summit meeting between great world leaders.

This was Ram’s first – and, for this year at least, last – appearance at an event where his presence has been as big a talking point as that of any of the sport’s usual headline-makers. The 28-year-old doubles specialist is the first Israeli ever to play here, having been granted a visa last week only days after his compatriot, Shahar Peer, had been denied entry into the United Arab Emirates to play in the women’s event. The UAE does not recognise Israel.

Peer’s exclusion drew worldwide condemnation and the Women’s Tennis Association fined the tournament a record $300,000. If Ram had been denied a visa, the Association of Tennis Professionals had indicated that it would be in no mood to return next year.

There were also fears that other sports in the region might suffer in the wake of further controversy. Sport has become huge in the Arabian Gulf, where it has become a major part of the drive to bring more tourists to the area. There was no public explanation as to why Ram had been admitted but not Peer.

Ram and Ullyett lost 6-3, 2-6, 10-8 to Safin and Ferrer, but the match, played on one of the outside courts at the Aviation Club, will be remembered only for the extraordinary security precautions surrounding it.

After police had patrolled the court with sniffer dogs, spectators were admitted through airport-style metal detectors at the only entrance, under the watchful eyes of security guards and soldiers. Snipers were said to be patrolling nearby rooftops, though they could not be seen. Mobile phones, bags and drinks were not allowed in. During the match thirsty spectators had to queue for water poured into plastic cups.

Barely 200 people were in the stand and most of them appeared to be Europeans and/or members of Safin’s female fan club. There was little noticeable support for Ram, but virtually no opposition either, with only one audible boo in the whole match and a brief chant of “loser, loser” at the end.

Ram put away smashes to win the first point and the first game – both to polite applause - but was the first to drop his serve, in the third game. Nevertheless, Ram and Ullyett – the Zimbabwean suggested the one-off partnership in the injury absence of the Israeli’s regular colleague, Jonathan Erlich - fought back well in the second set and the match was decided by a closely-fought champions’ tie-break.

The security was maintained post-match, with only one journalist allowed to interview Ram in his heavily guarded personal locker room, which was in a separate building from the main clubhouse. Ram was escorted to and from the court by bodyguards, who have been his constant companions here.

After Peer was denied a visa, tournament organisers said they feared her presence “would have antagonised our fans who have watched live television coverage of recent attacks in Gaza”. They said they had concerns about Peer’s safety and feared protests and even boycotts of the tournament.

Today’s security measures underlined the authorities’ absolute commitment to guarantee Ram’s safety, though they did seem excessive. Public demonstrations and disorder, after all, are hardly the norm in the UAE. When Venus Williams was asked for her view last week on the security risk that might have been posed by Peer’s presence she replied: “Do people protest here?”

Ram said he had enjoyed his stay in the UAE. “It was a nice experience for me coming here and obviously the first priority for everybody, including the tournament director and the ATP, was my security. They did everything possible to secure me. It was exciting, nice, different – not something bad.”

The Israeli said he had been treated well throughout. He described Emirates as the best airline he had flown with, said he had been treated with kindness and respect at his hotel and had even gone out to dinner with his bodyguards.

Asked what he thought of reported comments by Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, who had apparently urged him to boycott the tournament following Peer’s exclusion, Ram said: “This was something big. This was history, the first Israeli coming to play sport in Dubai. I fought for something really, really big and coming here was something big.

“It showed that we should not involve sports with politics. The Prime Minister is a friend of mine, but he’s a politician and I’m a sportsman. I’m focused on sport. That’s the beauty of sport. It’s so pure. It’s a bridge that connects people, countries, culture, religions, everything. I just hope this is the beginning of a great future ahead of us – in anything, in other sports, not just tennis.”

Ram said he had been dismayed by the news that Israel’s Davis Cup tie against Sweden in Malmo next week would be played behind closed doors for security reasons. “If they do this now it will open the door for any other place to do the same,” he said.