Shahar Peer relieved as threats of pro-Palestinian protesters dissipate

Shahar Peer’s first-round match at the Australian Open passed without incident Wednesday despite threats of a pro-Palestinian protest. Israel’s top tennis talent woke up to headlines in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper claiming that protesters were planning to target her match against Lucie Hradecka of the Czech Republic on an outside court.

But there was no sign of any trouble during her 6-7 (5-7), 6-2, 6-1 win here over Hradecka. “I heard there was going to be something, but I didn’t know what was happening,” Peer said. “I’m a tennis player – that’s what I’m concentrating on.”

Peer may be focusing on tennis, but the protesters are focused squarely on her. Peer’s appearances at the season-opening WTA event in Auckland, New Zealand were disrupted by demonstrators against Israel’s policies on the Palestinians.

It all started a year ago, at the same two tournaments – Auckland and the Australian Open. At those events, in the immediate wake of Israel’s Gaza offensive, Peer quickly realized that her status as the Israel’s most famous individually performing athlete had become more of a liability than an asset.

Photographs of her in an Israel Defense Forces uniform made things worse. The group Australians for Palestine used the photo on posters depicting images of destruction in Gaza and a child’s face plastered over Peer’s racket strings. Emblazoned across the montage were the words: “Shahar Peer serves for apartheid Israel.”

Shortly after the Gaza operation, Peer was refused a visa to play in the Dubai Tennis Championships. The Women’s Tennis Association reacted to the snub with a heavy fine on tournament organizers (Dubai authorities have already extended Peer a visa for this year’s tournament long before such authorization is usually extended).

Why Peer and not Dudi Sela, the Israeli competitor in the Australian Open’s men’s bracket? (Sela was ousted in four sets at Monday’s first-round match with Ivan Sergeyev.) Why is there no resistance to soccer player Yossi Benayoun of Liverpool or Tel Ben Haim of Portsmouth, a club with an Israeli coach in Avram Grant to boot?

Members of the British group the Palestinian Return Center said there is a difference between Israeli sportsmen who play on English teams and those who play individual sports, like tennis, or on one of Israel’s national teams.

The tennis player, it seems, never merely represents him or herself, but will always be a kind of national ambassador. Many of Peer’s colleagues are chafing at what they see as a conflation of politics and sports – U.S. superstar Andy Roddick sat out Dubai as protest against the Dubai slight, and Serena Williams offered supportive words of her own.

“This is absurd, but I’m glad there were no protests in the stadium,” Israel’s ambassador to Australia, Yuval Rotem, told local media at Peer’s match yesterday.

Referring to the Munich Olympic massacre of 11 Israeli athletes, he said, “You must remember that to us, every such threat reminds us of 1972.”

Peer takes on 100th-ranked Tzvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria in today’s second-round match. Security and police officers are expected to be out in force.

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