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LaRosa's Sweet Spot: Feb 18 ,2009

2/18/2009 3:43:00 PM

LaRosa's Sweet Spot Main Page

Feb 18, 2009

No sooner do I write a column giving props to what tennis does right when it turns around and does something terribly terribly wrong.

By now we've all read the brouhaha about Shahar Peer being denied a visa at the 11th hour to play this week's Dubai Tennis Championships. We've read the Official Tour Response saying they're disappointed, we've heard the comments from the players that Shahar is a great girl, she works hard and doesn't deserve this. And yet, the tournament continues, fully loaded.

The timing strikes me not only because of the column I'd just written, but also because of another piece of mine running at the same time on another site. I'd written an article for last month's Tennis Magazine about the 10th anniversary of Amelie Mauresmo's coming out as a lesbian at the Australian Open. It was the hook to a broader piece about the history of gays in tennis. Part of my research had me talking to some of the biggest names in the game, and one of my interviewees, a certain Ms. Billie Jean King, was so candid and insightful that the magazine's site is running it in full as a companion piece.

Billie Jean spoke of her experience as the first prominent athlete to talk about her homosexuality when she was outed in a palimony suit back in 1981. She also talked about what it would take for a guy to come out (in the history of the sport, there's never been an out male player. Ever.) She said, in essence, that it had to start at the top. Federer, Nadal and those guys had to say, hey, we don't care, all are welcome here and they must have our full and total support. She believes that the top players are obligated to set the tone and look out for whoever's getting a bad deal. That comes with the big bucks, that comes with the endorsements. That comes with the gig.

Now here we have a WTA player who qualified for a tournament getting outright denied entry. Just denied. No money, no points. And yet the show goes on. 

It burns me.

This is the tour that Billie Jean King helped found, taking a huge career risk in doing so. Women players weren't getting a fair shake back in the day so BJK and colleagues broke from the tour to start a new one. One in which the players would be treated equally. That took guts. Who knew if they'd ever play to packed stands again? But that sacrifice and struggle paid off. Now the WTA tour, and the women rolling in the millions it affords them, are offering up a most gutless reply when faced with one of their own getting a bum deal.

Shahar Peer was denied a visa entry into Dubai for the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships.
The tour claims they didn't want to penalize the other players by pulling the plug. Or the sponsors, or the fans. Very noble. You know what would've been more noble? If they pulled it so hard it created a vortex that would've sucked the tournament into the ground forever. Or if the players themselves, at least those at the very top who are obligated to stand up for the little guy, said, you know what, I made a few million last year, I can take this week off.

But the WTA today looks little like Billie Jean's maverick tour of old. It's slick. It's well-funded. It's the kind of all-powerful governing body Billie Jean and her pals may have splintered from lo those many years ago. And I know it takes a special person to be a Billie Jean (I know because there's only one), but couldn't someone take a cue and woman up?

The truth is, for all the support players have thrown Peer's way, they never once considered boycotting the tournament. Billie Jean's heir apparent Venus Williams, who was on the front lines for equal prize money at Wimbledon and was the first to benefit when it was finally awarded, told the BBC today: "Sponsors are important to us. We wouldn't be here without sponsors. We can't let sponsors down."

This has been a monster news story. It was in CNN's top ten the second it broke and has remained there as it's slowly, painfully unfolded. Peer's been interviewed, along with WTA Tour head Larry Scott and several of his star players. People were listening. Now was the time to act. Instead, we got promises of looking into it in the future. Well I feel better.

Some have acted swiftly and decisively. Wall Street Journal Europe pulled its sponsorship of the tournament immediately. And Tennis Channel has decided not to air the tournament in protest. These are statements. Everything else is just words.

Now word is Israeli doubles specialist Andy Ram has also been denied a visa for the men's tournament next week. If that ends up being the case, whatever will the ATP's statement be?