The head of the Women’s Tennis Association said money was not a factor in allowing this week's Dubai Championships tournament to go ahead as planned after an Israeli player was prevented from playing as Jewish leaders called for a boycott of the $2 million event and cancellation of the 2010 Dubai games.
Jewish leaders called for the Women's Tennis Association to sanction the Dubai Championships and cancel the event in 2010 after top Israeli player Shahar Peer was barred from competing at this year's tournament because the United Arab Emirates, which has no diplomatic links with Israel, denied her an entry visa into the country.
"To discriminate as the UAE did against one player in this way smacks of bigotry and racism," the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said in a statement on Wednesday.
Politics influencing sports
Although the UAE's stand has angered the tennis community, the WTA allowed the lucrative $2 million event to be staged. Next Monday Dubai will host the men's tournament but the political row is expected to rumble on because Israeli doubles specialist Andy Ram is in the field.
The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), which governs men's tennis, said it would review the event's status once Ram is notified about his visa application. The Jewish organization called not to go ahead with the event if he was denied a visa.
"I had hoped in this day and age that sporting principles would be recognized as separate from politics and this is a big step back," said WTA chief Larry Scott. "It's a big step back for the region and a reality check for everyone that political influences will try to be imposed on sports from time to time.
Tensions have been heightened by the three-week Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip, which killed 1,330 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. Although the conflict ended in January, it caused deep anger around the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Observers felt the WTA's decision to proceed with the tournament was driven by the knowledge many Middle Eastern countries invest heavily in the sport, but Scott said the governing body of women's tennis gave it the green light for logistical reasons.
"That (money) does not factor into it. This is an issue related to principles, related to fairness to our athletes and being sensitive to what the affected player wants," Scott told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"Practically speaking, our athletes were already there ready to play ... and we did not really have much time to react to the situation. Just because Shahar was penalized she did not want to see all her fellow players penalized,” said Scott.
Pressure for action
While the UAE has been condemned by tennis players and officials for their stance against Peer, pressure was mounting for tennis authorities to take action.
The Tennis Channel, which had rights to broadcast the Dubai WTA event in the United States, has refused to air the tournament while the Wall Street Journal European edition has also withdrawn its sponsorship.
"This must be declared unacceptable by the WTA and all international sporting associations. As we learned in the past, failure to condemn such actions and take corrective measures, proves destructive to international sporting competition," said the statement by the Jewish leaders.
Scratching the tournament from 2010 calendar
The refusal to issue a visa to Peer violates WTA Tour rules, which state that any player should be able to compete where she wishes if she has the required ranking.
Like most Arab nations, the UAE has no diplomatic ties with the Jewish state and Israeli citizens are usually denied entry. Last year, however, Qatar granted Peer a visa to play in the Doha Open.
Tournament officials defended their stance, saying local fans would have boycotted the event if an Israeli was allowed to compete and that Peer's safety could also have been compromised.
Scott said nothing justified their action and said he would not hesitate to scratch the tournament from the 2010 calendar if the situation could not be resolved.
He added that if Dubai does not back down he was sure there would be "significant financial implications" for the WTA, and that "this can't happen again regardless of any economic impact."