A major row over the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) decision to refuse a visa to Israeli tennis player Shahar Pe’er is escalating ahead of next week’s men’s championships, at which another Israeli is due to play.
International tennis organisations have hinted they may pull out of the $10 million (£7m) Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships if Israeli doubles player Andy Ram is also denied entry.
Larry Scott, chairman and chief executive officer of the Sony Ericsson WTA tour, said his organisation was already “deeply disappointed” by the UAE decision over Ms Pe’er and would “review appropriate future actions with regard to the future of the Dubai tournament”.
Francesco Ricci Bitti, president of the International Tennis Federation, warned: “Sport should not be used as a political tool but rather as a unifying element between athletes and nations.”
The Tennis Channel decided not to cover the tournament in protest at Ms Pe’er’s ban and the Association of Tennis Professionals, which runs next week’s tour, said that it would be “very troubling” if Mr Ram was also barred from the championships. The Wall Street Journal (Europe) has withdrawn as a sponsor of the tournament.
Jewish groups have also condemned the UAE move. The president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, has called on international sporting federations to suspend all events in the UAE until fair and equal treatment for all players, including Israeli ones, is ensured.
Ms Pe’er, 21, said she was confident that tour organisers would act to ensure there would be no repeat of what she described as an “injustice. There should be no place for politics in professional tennis or indeed any sport.”
But organisers of the tournament blamed the decision to refuse entry to Ms Pe’er, ranked 45th in the world, on concerns over her safety and wider security fears following Israel’s Gaza operation last month.
“Public sentiment remains high in the Middle East and it is believed that Ms Pe’er’s presence would have antagonised our fans who have watched on TV attacks in Gaza,” said a spokesman.
If both the WTA and the ATP withdraw it would severely endanger Dubai’s status as a venue for world tennis.
Michael Klein, chairman of the Israeli Tennis Association, called for urgent action over the ban to be “so severe that no one will ever attempt to boycott an athlete again”.
Meanwhile, Sweden’s upcoming Davis Cup tennis match against Israel will be held behind closed doors, Malmö city council ruled on Wednesday.
The match was scheduled to be played from March 6 to 8 at a venue which can hold 4,000 spectators. Police had said the match could go ahead and that the public could be admitted.
The decision to ban the public was made after a long campaign to stop the match altogether.