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Anti-Israel protests target young tennis star

In response, 22-year-old Shahar Peer insists politics have nothing to do with her match on the court.

Israel's Shahar Peer at the Wimbledon tennis championships, in London, June 24, 2009. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

BOSTON — The weather at the Australian Open has been unusually damp this week, but the mood in Melbourne is sunny. After a few years in which its game seemed to flag almost as much as its economic underpinnings, women’s tennis appears poised — with a star-studded cast — for a revival season.

The Williams sisters are back, looking for a redemption: big sister Venus after a year in which she battled injuries and failed to win a Grand Slam tourney for the first time since 2006; little sister Serena following a year in which, despite two major titles, her most memorable moment was an ugly tantrum during her losing final at the U.S. Open.

The Belgians are back too, two fierce rivals and former world No. 1s returning to the fray after two-year hiatuses. Justine Henin has already knocked off the No. 5 seed Elena Dementieva and hopes to duplicate the feat of her countrywoman Kim Clijsters, who, as an unseeded entry, won the first Grand Slam tournament following her comeback.

And Maria Sharapova, one of the most popular players in the game, is back too. The 22-year-old Russian, whose sexy stylings off the court — unlike Russia’s former tennis hottie Anna Kournikova — have been coupled with a polished game on it, returns after a lost season in which she was plagued by injury.

Sharapova leads the charge of young, Eastern European talent, with five different Russian and Serbian players having reached Grand slam finals over the past two years. (Her alluring looks may be undiminished, but her game appears creaky; she exited the Open swiftly after a first-round loss to unseeded, fellow Russian Maria Kirilenko.)

Amid so much talent and so many enticing story lines, it is strange that so much unwanted attention is being focused on 22-year-old Israeli star Shahar Peer. None of it has to do with Peer’s prowess on the court, though in the early going she has played well, making it through to the third round after trouncing Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria 6-1, 6-4.

Rather Peer, who did mandatory military service when she was 19 and has worked as a secretary for the Israeli military, has been targeted for protests aimed at Israel and its military for human rights abuses against Palestinians.

Last year it was hardly shocking when the United Arab Emirates, in the wake of conflict in Gaza, denied Peer a visa to play in a major tournament in Dubai. (Peer says she already has a visa for this year’s Dubai event.) It is a little strange, however, to see raucous peace protesters heckle her at every match during a recent tournament in New Zealand.

While anti-Israel protesters showed up at the same tournament in Auckland last year, this time they escalated their rhetoric as well as the demands made on the young Israeli player. They demanded that she withdraw from the event as a public demonstration of her “commitment to peace.” And they called for an international sports boycott aimed at Israel.