Venus Williams took a swig from the courage chalice, too, when, upon receiving the Dubai championship trophy Saturday, she spoke about Shahar Peer, the Israeli player who was refused entry by the United Arab Emirates on the eve of one of the world's most lucrative tournaments. In front of the Dubai crowd, Williams referenced Peer's plight, and later expounded on her decision to speak publicly about sport's political hot potato, when a simple curtsy and "thank you" would have made for a safer exit.
"I felt like I had to talk about her," said Williams, after earning her 40th singles title by defeating France's Virginie Razzano, 6-4, 6-2. "I thought it was brave of (Peer) to come here and try and play despite knowing that it is not going to be easy for her. My dad grew up in an area where if you spoke too much, it was your life. So I felt I had a small opportunity to say something where everyone will listen.
"I am not here to rock any boat or upset people, I am just here to do things that are right," Williams said. "And I think right things are already happening next week and right things will happen next year."
Next week is when the men arrive for their spin around the world's most lavish sporting playground. Whether the game is tennis, golf, cricket or soccer, Dubai goes to extraordinary lengths to please visiting professional athletes, as long as they do not hail from Israel. The prizes are lucrative, the amenities obscene. Even in this economy, sponsors and well-heeled fans flock to events in Dubai, an upper-class cousin of Las Vegas and ostensibly one of the Middle East's more modern locations. That Roddick chose to boycott the tournament he won last year says everything you need to know about his class, his cojones.
Clearly, the Dubai tennis officials haven't an ounce of either, choosing to announce that the 45th-ranked Peer's visa had been denied a mere 12 hours before the women's tournament began last week, after the other players had already arrived in Dubai. Peer, whose name was in the main draw, had applied for the visa two months earlier, with assurances from the Women's Tennis Association that she would be welcome in Dubai. But at the last minute, tournament organizers cited concerns for Peer's security, saying they feared anger over Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip would evolve into huge protests and riots throughout the Persian Gulf if she were allowed to play.
The backlash over the tournament's cowardly decision apparently trumped whatever fear officials had of an Israeli tennis player hitting backhands on their luxurious grounds, because the UAE suddenly reversed form, deciding Andy Ram, another Israeli, would be allowed to play in the men's tournament after all. The decision, said tournament officials, was "in line with the UAE's commitment to a policy of permitting any individual to take part in international sports, cultural and economic events or activities being held in the country, without any limitation being placed on participation by citizens of any member country of the United Nations."
There was no mention of Peer, no apology. A cynic might wonder why they so feared a female Israeli. By waiting until the 11th hour to deny Peer's visa, government officials and organizers knew it would be extremely difficult for sponsors to cancel or relocate the tournament. Nonetheless, the Tennis Channel refused to air coverage of the tournament and the Wall Street Journal Europe withdrew its event sponsorship. Courage beat financial commitments.
Barclays, the tournament's main sponsor, has been curiously silent about the issue, never even mentioning on its Web site Peer or her banishment, or Venus' statement to the crowd, or Roddick's personal boycott. Cowardice rules financial gain.
It would have been fantastic, if unrealistic, had Sony Ericsson, the WTA Tour's namesake, pulled up stakes and left the tournament high and dry in the desert in the hours after Peer was denied entry. But after days of immense pressure from many ports, the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour did levy an unprecedented series of fines, penalties and warnings against the event. The tour's board, in an emergency meeting, decided Peer will receive monetary compensation (some will go to her doubles partner Anna-Lena Groenefeld of Germany), and fined the tournament $300,000 for breaching tour rules. The Dubai tournament will also have to meet a number of conditions if it wants to stage the event next year, including the guarantee that Peer will earn at least a wild card in the main draw. Money muscle trumps words.
It would have been outstanding, if surreal, had any of Peer's friends and colleagues chosen to take the ultimate stand, and step away from a tournament that discriminates. The UAE government cost Peer ranking points and prize money, the two links that chain together every tennis player. Tennis by nature is a selfish sport, with everyone out for themselves; we'd be fools to think they are singing Kumbaya in the locker room.
But just as politics and sports have long been intertwined, individuals in tennis have been known to fight for the common good. In the height of apartheid in the 1970s, Arthur Ashe endeavored to have the South African tournament removed from the tour. In 1973, after the Yugoslav tennis federation suspended Niki Pilic, 81 of his fellow professionals withdrew from the Wimbledon championship in protest.
What would it take for today's players, especially those on the female side of the draw, to put down their racquets in Dubai, or any other place that placed bigotry over fairness? Jelena Jankovic, a Serbian who understands political strife, said, "[Peer] is a great player. She has the right to play in this tournament and she's an athlete. This is sport. And you shouldn't mix sport and politics." But Jankovic didn't leave the tournament until she lost in the third round.
Venus Williams was asked Saturday if she'd contemplate not returning as the defending champion, maybe follow in Roddick's footsteps.
"Obviously, Andy Ram got his visa, so I'll be happy to come and defend next year," she said. "If everyone is not given the equal opportunity to play, I'd rethink. But I love this tournament. They really care about the players."
Unless they are from Israel, she might have added. This is not to pick on Venus, who along with her sister Serena has faced an inordinate amount of discrimination. The Williams sisters correctly, bravely have held their own personal boycott of the tournament in Indian Wells, Calif., following a vow they made in 2001 to never return after the sisters and their father were cruelly heckled during a match.
Roddick seems to be standing alone, for the moment. His reason for skipping a tournament with $2 million in prize money was both simple and profound. "I really don't agree with what went on over there," he said. "I don't know if it's the best thing to mix politics and sports, and that was probably a big part of it."
Both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have withdrawn from this week's Dubai Tennis Championships, Federer citing a recurring back injury while Nadal has a knee injury. Federer, especially, will be missed, considering his home and primary training facilities are in Dubai. He has talked often about the city's cosmopolitan flavor, its tourist-friendly hotels and restaurants and opulent sporting grounds. Would he dare speak against the UAE and its duplicitous policies? His back problems, while quite real (he has also pulled out of an upcoming Davis Cup match), are a convenient solution to an inconvenient mess.
We think we spot courage all the time on courts and fields, in stadiums and gymnasiums. In truth it's still a rare commodity, even amongst the strongest.