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.
There have been rare sports boycotts aimed at countries regarded as international pariahs, most notably the decades-long coalition against the apartheid regime in South Africa. But they require rare international consensus and cooperation to be effective, something clearly lacking in Israel’s case. Regardless, they have never been aimed at individual athletes who aren’t competing under the flag.
Even as the boycott against South Africa expanded, individual South African stars, like golfer Gary Player and tennis player Cliff Drysdale, were allowed to compete in tournaments. Similarly, when Yugoslavia was dubbed an outlaw nation and banned from international sports competitions, Serbian stars continued to play without incident.
Peer, a counter-puncher on the court, has used a similar tactic off it. She insists there is no place for politics in sports and that the hostile treatment of her is misguided. “It’s unfair because I have nothing to do with politics,” she told reporters in New Zealand. “I’m only a tennis player who wants to enjoy the tour like other players.”
I find myself only halfway there with her. The intersection of politics and sports is not only inevitable, but has proved an effective weapon against injustice in far bigger arenas than those that host sports competitions. The isolation of sports-crazy South Africa played a critical role in the fall of the all-white government in the early 1990s. And the politics of sports was instrumental in helping forge a new South African nation under Nelson Mandela. (See the recent movie “Invictus.”)
What is strange, however, is that peace groups with all their sanctimonious pronouncements should be so single-minded. The tournament in New Zealand provided far broader opportunities to rail against human rights abuses in the world. Peer is certainly less prominent than some of the players from China and Russia — two more proximate and powerful nations with poor records on human rights. And the American players, with all the controversy surrounding the United States’ long war on terror, might also seem an inviting target.
So why is the lone Israeli singled out for harassment? Some suspect it stems from a current of anti-Semitism that runs through elements of the political left. More likely, it reflects a failure of both vision and nerve. It is always much easier to bully the little guy.