Saturday, 26 February 2011

DooBye: A Plea for Perspective


Every year sees a variant of the same ol’ same ol' ritual: Shahar arrives under heavily armed guard and remain sequestered at a remote part of the venue from which she only emerges to attend her matches – low key affairs typically hosted on an outside court with one entrance and exit. 


Once she loses, media outlets roundly declare the situation as “deplorable”, (rightly) lament Shahar’s plight, soundly condemn the authorities for inheriting a problem not of their making, and  comfortably pretend that nothing that occurred in the region in the last 60 or so years could possibly have given rise to this state of affairs.


I’ve long since given up on the issue ever being tackled honestly.

What makes some of the dialogue particularly grate this time round has been the callous ease with which some call for the tournament to be “canned”.


Let’s be clear.


I have the greatest of respect for Shahar as a player – her work ethic and determination to fight (losing battles) to the very end and in the very best of spirits embodies, to a large extent, the finest aspects of the sport I love. It was on display when she first broke into the top 20 back in 2006 (often only with a fraction of the talent of some of the other up and comers) and has remained with her ever since.

Like many others, I disagreed with Dubai’s refusal to issue her a visa back in 2009. It was frankly an embarrassment for the sport. Even so, the commentary of the time was notable for the absence of any recognition at all of why such a debacle came to be. And of course there were those that sought refuge (as they always do) in the very tired, very blasé “tennis and politics don’t mix” line. I think you’ll find they’re inextricable dearie.

That said, and in common with many other voices (not merely Arab, but European, American and many of them from inside Israel itself), I strongly disagree with many of her country’s policies.

That’s neither here nor there. It’s not what this post is about and I certainly don’t intend to trivialise what’s likely the most divisive issue of our age by presuming to suggest that mentioning it (in passing) on a tennis blog comes anywhere near to giving it the treatment it so duly deserves – for which, by the way, well-written, well-researched, dedicated blogs already exist.

But I do feel it’s time we stopped pretending that there isn’t another (far more complex) side to this story and that the fallout from events in that region (going back over half a century) either shouldn’t exist, or shouldn’t, at any rate, intrude upon our enjoyment of a tennis tournament.

How very inconsiderate of them. How very inconvenient and tiresome for us.

Is it fair to Shahar? Absolutely not. Is it right that she should remain sequestered away under armed guard whilst being made very aware of other players prancing around in photo shoots you, frankly, wouldn’t want to be seen dead in were you able to move freely? No, of course it isn’t.

And in a perfect world it wouldn’t happen.

The trouble is, we don’t live in Disneyland: far more distressing and tragic compromises have been made in a conflict going back several decades (and counting). Like it or not, legitimate grievances do exist the consequences of which continue to reverberate globally.

Shahar will, at least, be handsomely rewarded for her progress at the event. Try comparing that with someone growing up in the Occupied Territories who can never even conceive of becoming a tennis player, not because they have no tennis infrastructure, but because in some cases they have no infrastructure at all. Or any economy to speak of.

The outrage over her treatment would be more convincing if it was coupled with even a cursory nod at the events and circumstances that have led to such a hostile reception in a country which, after all, has no diplomatic relations with Israel.

Venus and ARod’s “principled” stand would be even more principled if it contained even a hint of recognition that the seeds of the “discrimination and exclusion”, Venus in particular spoke out against, are at the very heart of what’s driving the conflict (many, including ex-President Jimmy Carter have described some of  Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians as a form of ‘apartheid’).

People would probably have screamed it’s not their place to comment and it certainly wouldn’t have changed anything – it would, however, have represented a more nuanced, equitable stance.

So let’s “can” the event then? Clearly that’s the only way forward. Better still, let’s never hold another event in the middle east again (no that doesn’t sound myopic at all).


Funny. I thought tennis fans existed worldwide and that the sport as well as the right to enjoy it belonged to everyone – not just those that happen to share aspects of your foreign policy.

I realise not everybody calling for its removal is being this blinkered – trouble is, when you broach an issue as emotive as this with such casual derision, it smacks of precisely that.

A funny and rather beautiful thing happened in Doha a couple of days ago. JJ was drawn to play an Omani WC, Fatma Al-Nabhani. A virtual unknown, Al-Nabhani moved up from the top 1000 to the top 400 last year – her finest moment to date being the doubles QFs of junior Wimby.

JJ won in straights as expected. Though the 19 year old, clearly outclassed and obviously inexperienced (and having lost the first set 6-1) rebounded admirably in the second, showcasing her big serve and the kind of forehand winners off the back foot that JJ can only dream of. All at a moment when it would have been only too easy to fade away.

She still lost it 6-3, but held herself throughout with the kind of calm dignity and composure that still remains beyond many top 20 players. Unsurprisingly, the commentators loved her.


We might never see her again (not everybody is destined to “make it” – see Ancic, Mario), but without hosting events in that region, she might never have got that sort of exposure.

In other words, it was good for her, it was good for Oman and it was, I hardly need add, good for all of us to come into contact with a player from a culture we might not be accustomed with and one not, frankly, known for its tennis tradition.

We’re sometimes more cynical than we should be as regards the role of sport as a “unifying force” – it always tends to evoke a wince from me, and its significance is, at any rate, overstated all too often.

But moments like this tend to garner universal approval. As they should.

Aren’t these exactly the kind of values the WTA should be upholding? Isn’t a very large part of its remit to foster the spread of tennis this way? Particularly in countries with little or no tennis heritage.


One can only assume (and hope) that those calling for it to be “canned” don’t realise how insular they sound.

Of course $$$’s are involved. When has this ever not been the case?

The situation is what it is: you either rule out ever staging a tournament anywhere in the middle east or you’re forced to make certain compromises – God knows it wouldn’t be the first or the greatest.

It’s one thing to sensibly, objectively and justly debate whether Shahar’s treatment is a compromise too far (don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen) and entirely another to indulge idle, callous rants that call (effectively) for around 300 million people to never see a tennis event staged in their home nation. If the latter sounds insular, it’s because it is.
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