Williams sent to fringes but beats Peer pressure

Security concerns over Israeli player forces world No 5 to play on outside court holding just 440 fans
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The Independent Online

Venus Williams played the 699th singles match of her professional career here yesterday but in her 16 years on the circuit it is doubtful whether the American has ever experienced such a surreal occasion.

While one of the world's most famous sportswomen was playing her semi-final in the Barclays Dubai Championships on an outside court with seating for just 440 people, a sell-out crowd in the 5,000-capacity main stadium had to make do with a doubles match featuring four players whose names they probably barely recognised.

Williams, who could not remember the last time she had played in such a humble setting, was sent to the fringes of Dubai's Aviation Club because her opponent was Shahar Peer, the first Israeli woman to play in a tournament in the United Arab Emirates.

Peer, who lost 6-1, 6-4 at the end of one of the best weeks of her career, played all her matches here on outside courts for security reasons. She has been surrounded by bodyguards, has had no contact with other players except on the court and travelled only between her hotel and the tennis site, where she was given a small room and changing facilities in a separate block from everyone else.

While Peer has had only praise for the kindness of those who have been looking after her, it has been a bizarre week for the world No 22. Nevertheless she put the pressures to one side and beat three higher-ranked players in Caroline Wozniacki, the world No 3 and top seed, Li Na, the No 10, and Yanina Wickmayer, the No 15. "She's got so much character," Williams said. "I don't think anyone else on tour could do what she's doing."

Twelve months ago this tournament was fined a record $300,000 (about £194,000) after Peer was refused a visa to enter the country as a result of Israel's military offensive in Gaza. This week she has played amid heightened tensions in the UAE following the murder last month of the Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, at a hotel just a few hundred yards from the tennis stadium. Dubai police think that he was killed by Israeli agents.

That may have explained the rigorous security measures that were again in place for yesterday's match. Spectators had to pass through security scanners via a single entrance and reporters and photographers were searched.

The early-afternoon temperature approached 30C, but nobody was allowed to take in any drinks. Stewards instead poured water into plastic cups for the 1,000 or so spectators, more than half of whom watched from seats behind adjoining courts. It was no wonder that tempers frayed among some of those who had bought tickets for 150 dirhams (£26) and expected to be watching both semi-finals on centre court.

If you had read the half-page advert in yesterday's Gulf News you would not even have known that Williams and Peer were playing out on Court Two. The newspaper listed only the other singles semi-final – in which Victoria Azarenka beat Agnieszka Radwanska 6-3, 6-4 to reach tonight's final against Williams – and the two doubles semi-finals.

The UAE has no diplomatic relations with Israel and the local media have tiptoed around Peer's presence all week. Her quarter-final victory was mentioned only briefly in most of yesterday's newspapers.

Peer was not allowed to hold press conferences like the other players. After some of her matches only one reporter, escorted by bodyguards, was allowed to speak to the Israeli in her room on behalf of the 250 accredited media. Asked yesterday what she would remember most from the past week, Peer joked: "This room."

When Williams won the first set in 23 minutes it seemed that Peer might make a rapid exit. She struggled to cope with the sheer weight of the world No 5's strokes, served erratically and made a succession of mistakes.

Peer, however, is the grittiest of fighters and recovered from 0-2 down in the second set to lead 3-2 after a marathon game of nine deuces. Williams made the decisive break two games later, after which she served out for victory, converting her third match point when Peer netted a backhand.

At the end the players embraced at the net as Peer thanked Williams for her support. After winning the tournament last year Williams took the opportunity at the post-final presentation ceremony to speak out on behalf of Peer following her exclusion. As a result Williams was presented with an award by the Anti Defamation League, which defends Jewish people around the world, in New York last summer.

"I'm sure for Venus it wasn't ideal to come to Court Two, but she's a professional player," Peer said. "At the end I told her that I really appreciated her support the whole week and last year. She's an amazing person. I think she has a really good heart."

When Peer left the court via the back entrance to return to her room she turned and waved to the crowd, who gave her generous applause. "I guess they were appreciating what I've been through and what I achieved this week," Peer said. "It was a different experience, but a nice one. I'm sure I will remember this tournament for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, I couldn't manage to win it, which would be my dream actually, but there are no complaints.

"I think I achieved a lot in this tournament both professionally and also mentally – for myself, for my inside, you know? I think I've been going through a lot of things and I'm really happy how I managed this week."

*Britain's Anne Keothavong, playing her first main tour event after returning from a six-month injury break, reached the semi-finals in Memphis by beating Karolina Sprem 6-4, 6-3. She was playing Sweden's Sofia Arvidsson last night. Elena Baltacha, Keothavong's successor as British No 1, was beaten 6-2, 7-5 by Maria Sharapova in the Memphis quarter-finals.