Wednesday 22 February 2012

Love Story: Shahar Peer and the Dubai Tournament

During a press conference after her last Fed Cup match three weeks ago, Shahar Peer was asked what her plans for the following period were. She answered "I'm going on Sunday to Paris, and then to Doha and Dubai. That's it, 3 tournaments and afterwards I have the US swing - like every year (smile)". At the time, she was on the entry list to Doha, but her ranking wasn't enough to put her in the main draw for Dubai.

About a week later, an article in the Israeli press mentioned that Peer was originally going to skip Dubai, and that she tried to get a Wild Card to play in the smaller tournament in Memphis, but was denied. At the time, it seemed as if Peer's only option would be to play in the qualifying draw in Dubai, if she wished to enter the tournament.

However, two days before the start of the tournament (after the qualifying matches already started without her), it turned out that Peer, in fact, got a Wild Card to play in Dubai's main draw. A lot of eyebrows (including both of my own) were raised at that, as back in 2009 the UAE denied her a visa to play in the tournament, for what seemed to be political reasons. In the aftermath, the tournament organizers were forced to pay a fine, and to post large sums of money as guarantees for the 2010 edition of the tournament. They were also obliged to give Peer a WC in 2010, if she couldn't qualify for the event directly. This obligation turned out to be unnecessary, and Peer played in the tournament with great success, reaching the semifinals in 2010 and the quarterfinals in 2011.

I admit that when I first heard about the WC, I was sure that this was an extension of the original sanctions in some way - I couldn't think of a situation in which the organizers of the tournament would voluntarily invite Shahar Peer (ISR) to play in Dubai once again. In the past years, she spent her time out of competition sequestered in a separate lodging, with enforced security. All of her matches were scheduled at the same distant court, in the same hour of the morning, with minimal presence allowed. The only change came in the QF in 2011, when she played the no. 1 seed Wozniacki - the tournament was forced to move her to a court that allowed TV cameras to be installed, though it still wasn't the main court of the complex.

This hasn't changed this year - both her singles matches (she lost in the 2nd round to A. Radwanska today) and her doubles match were played as the first matches on the same "Court no. 1" she knows so well. However, despite all the special measures that Peer's presence forces on the organizers, it seems that this time, the tournament indeed invited her to play. Apparently, Peer "has made such a good impression [in Dubai] in the last two years", that the tournament director, Salah Tahlak, gave her the wild card. Moreover, the Israeli press reports that Peer's camp has been in contact with Tahlak for some weeks already, including a meeting on the issue during the Australian Open. Peer's camp were quoted to say that they're "in a great contact with the organizers of the Dubai tournament, and are happy that they chose to do this brave and noble act. It proves that it's a progressive country and they're willing to bridge over all the political issues through sports".

P.S. The tournament's official twitter account was tweeting all the matches' results today... except for Peer's. I guess she hasn't made an impression on them, yet ;)

Monday 6 February 2012

Thoughts About Fed Cup

As I promised, I spent an extended weekend in Eilat, watching 4 days of action in the Europe/Africa Group I Fed Cup matches. You can find all of my pictures on the blog's Facebook page, and I'd like to share some thoughts after the event.

View of the Edom Mountains from Centre Court (Eilat)
The format is great for the fans.
For a hardcore fan, this tournament can be a little tennis heaven. There aren't a lot of tournaments where you might sit just behind Agnieszka Radwanska while she's watching her sister play, for instance. Almost every country had at least one top-50 player in its team, with a lineup that could well be seen in a WTA International tournament. The venue is pretty small, so everything is very close - you're just near the players as they practice and play, and you can quickly skip from watching Radwanska to Pironkova to Halep to Martic. Or you can watch two young Greek girls taking on the veteran Anne Kremer from Luxembourg, whose age is both their ages combined. There's a lot of tennis around, and I had 4 wonderful days of doing nothing but watching it.
A. Radwanska watching U. Radwanska
The format is awful for the players.
Most of the teams in Group I have either one good player (say, top-50) in an otherwise weak team (if you go by the rankings), or a couple of medium-ranked players (around 70 or so). The latter are those who end up qualifying (Great Britain and Sweden, this year), due to the relative depth that they have. In most cases, each team's No. 1 has to play both singles and doubles with half an hour for rest in between - for four straight days. It is therefore not surprising that by the end of the tournament, the players are taped, strapped and plastered all over their bodies, in an attempt to last just a little bit longer. The grueling format, coupled with the fact that only two teams out of fifteen actually qualify, makes the players invest a lot of effort for no actual result (the last day of the tournament comprises of matches to determine rankings, even for those teams who can't qualify or be relegated).

2 out of 3 tapes Aga had on the last day
The Israeli tennis fans aren't that bad, you know
The Israeli crowd is notorious for its mocking of Maria Sharapova's grunting in the 2008 Fed Cup, and for its general tendency for rude behaviour during Davis Cup or Fed Cup ties in Ramat Ha-Sharon (Israel's largest tennis facility). However, the crowd in Eilat is a different matter entirely. Since it's the most southern point in Israel, quite far from the country's centre, the only people who come there are serious tennis fans (or just Eilat residents). As a result, there's silence during the points, almost no interruptions between serves - a proper tennis crowd. There was a single attempt to imitate Michelle Larcher De Brito's grunt, but the kid was quickly shushed.
So... this may not mean much, but not all of us are bad. Really.

Team spirit is everything
Poland, who were the favourites, lost their last crucial doubles match both because the players were tired, and because of an obvious lack of communication between the two sisters. Before the match they had some sort of an argument with their captain (regarding who will play, I assume), and neither looked to happy on court.
Great Britain's team was the complete opposite. While they had a freshness advantage (each of the 4 players played one match every day), what distinguished them the most out of the teams I saw was their team spirit. They cheered each other constantly, and looked genuinely happy to be together. The result was a great celebration, seen here courtesy of Israel Tennis Results:

My biggest achievement as a tennis fan - I made a player laugh on court! Sang "I like big butts and I cannot lie" to Laura Robson during her doubles match vs Israel (it was just for the protocol, so it didn't hinder a proper match). She giggled ^_^

All in all, it was a great event, and I had lots of fun there. Congrats to GB and Sweden for going through!