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UAE rejects visa for Israeli tennis player

world Updated: Feb 16, 2009 22:09 IST
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The top official of women's tennis reprimanded the United Arab Emirates on Sunday for blocking an Israeli player from a premier Dubai tournament, calling the decision to deny her a visa "regrettable."

But the absence of Shahar Peer could extend beyond the matches under way. The WTA Tour is planning to review its future in Dubai, and the country _ which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel _ could face possible blows to its ambitions of becoming an international hub for big-ticket sports.

"Ms. Peer has earned the right to play in the tournament and it's regrettable that the UAE is denying her this right," WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott said in a statement issued after the UAE's last-minute decision to reject the visa.

Scott said the tour was "deeply disappointed" by the decision to keep Peer, ranked 48th, from the Dubai Tennis Championships, a joint ATP and WTA event, which includes all the top-10 women's players.

"All the players support Shahar. We are all athletes and we stand for tennis," said Venus Williams. "The players have to be unified and support the Tour whichever direction they take on the issue."

Reigning French Open champion Ana Ivanovic said: "I really don't like sports to be mixed with politics."

Peer broke barriers last year in Qatar when she was the first Israeli to play in a WTA Tour tournament in the Persian Gulf. But the UAE _ locked in a rivalry with Qatar to host major sports events _ could face setbacks if the WTA and other federations grow skittish of planning events with the prospect of Israeli athletes being blocked.

Last month, Peer was the focus of protests in New Zealand over Israel's recent three-week offensive in the Gaza Strip against Hamas militants. She was provided extra security at the ASB Classic tournament.

But tensions have been high between Israel and Arab countries since the assault started Dec. 27. About 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the offensive, which sparked mass anti-Israeli protests across the Middle East.

Emirates officials did not respond to repeated calls and e-mails for comment. A brief statement by the Dubai Tennis Championships organizers said Peer was notified of the visa rejection on Saturday and "therefore did not travel to Dubai" after finishing a tournament in Thailand.

The UAE has no diplomatic relations with Israel, but Israelis with dual citizenship have entered the country for international sporting and business events using second-country passports. On some occasions, Israeli passport holders have been allowed entry for meetings held by the United Nations or other international agencies. It was not clear whether Peer was traveling on an Israeli passport.

She had been drawn to play 15th-seeded Anna Chakvetadze on Monday. The revised draw _ which added Japan's Ayumi Morita in Peer's place _ said only that Peer "has withdrawn." Peer's brother and spokesman, Shlomi Peer, said the 21-year-old player applied for a visa months in advance and was assured by tournament organizers that she would be allowed entry. "Ms. Peer and her family are obviously extremely upset and disappointed by the decision of the UAE and its impact on her personally and professionally," said the statement by Scott. He said the current tournament will proceed, but WTA tour officials will "review appropriate future actions with regard to the future of the Dubai tournament."

The WTA "believes very strongly and has a clear rule and policy that no host country should deny a player the right to compete in a tournament for which she has qualified by ranking," Scott said. Peer had planned to travel to Dubai from Thailand, where she lost in the semifinal of the Pattaya Open to fifth-ranked Vera Zvonareva of Russia on Saturday.

Peer is expected to return to Israel later Sunday. She could not be reached for comment.