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When sports and politics collide

Australian tennis may pay for refusing to play Davis Cup matches in India.

Australia's Lleyton Hewitt serves to Belgium's Olivier Rochus during a Davis Cup tennis match in Liege on Feb. 11, 2007. Now, Tennis Australia (TA) is refusing to send its Davis Cup team to India for a scheduled match. (Didier Mossiat/Reuters)

My recollection of the Australian Open final — a brilliant, perhaps last-gasp, effort by Roger Federer to stave off the reign of the new racquet king, Rafael Nadal — is quickly growing faint.

Since then, the sport of tennis has experienced nothing but bad news — most of it off the court. The game somehow finds itself at the center of a political pandemic, one in which politics, terror and fear all intersect to interfere with the games.

First was the embarrassment in Dubai, when the United Arab Emirates banned an Israeli player from a prominent women’s tour event. Then there was the Swedish-Israeli Davis Cup match, played in Malmo without spectators after Sweden, anticipating protests against Israel’s West Bank actions, insisted that banning fans was the only way it could assure adequate security.

That decision, which in effect cast the Israeli team as troublesome, costly and unwelcome interlopers, has now been overshadowed by another Cup flap. Citing security concerns, Tennis Australia (TA) has refused to send its Davis Cup team to India for a scheduled match this week in Chennai.

The International Tennis Federation had already rejected Australia’s request for a change of venue, saying the Indian security arrangements met its standards. But TA reiterated its conviction that security was inadequate to assure the safety of the Australian team. It pointed to continuing violence related to the ongoing Indian elections and, of course, didn’t need to mention the critical security lapses related to last November’s terrorist attack in Mumbai that killed more than 170 people.

Regardless of which side is right, the Aussie decision to stay home was shocking. Australia has been a Davis Cup mainstay and its 28 Cup titles are second only to the United States. Australia will not only forfeit the match — it is appealing that ruling — but it risks a year’s suspension from Cup competition as well as eventual relegation to its lower ranks.

There is no point for any writer to quarrel with Australia’s decision. The stakes are way too high, the world far too uncertain to suggest that it might be an overreaction. Testament to that is the Sri Lankan cricket team, which — with all the requisite promises of safe passage from Pakistani authorities — went ahead and traveled to Lahore, where it miraculously survived an attack on its bus that killed six security personnel.

Still, one wonders about all the considerations that go into such decisions. After all, Australia has shown no reluctance to send its soccer team from Qatar to Uzbekistan (though it did play Iraq in neutral Dubai) in pursuit of a coveted 2010 World Cup berth. And it apparently believes South Africa's assurances that it can provide adequate security as host of next year’s World Cup, though many in the international soccer community are openly skeptical of that.

Regardless of the merits of Australia’s decision, it would be a mistake to let Australia walk away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. That would simply embolden other countries to use security concerns as a tactical weapon to avoid and isolate political enemies. Australia may indeed be right, but sometimes being right comes at a cost.