Feb 5 7:45 PM

Next up on center court, the Arab-Israeli conflict

Tunisian tennis player Malek Jaziri during an injury timeout at this year's Australian Open.
Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters

The men’s professional tennis tour announced this week it is looking into the suspicious mid-match withdrawal of a Tunisian player whose country may have forced him to serve up a snub against Israel.

Malik Jaziri, one of the Arab world’s highest-ranked players ever — currently 65th on the ATP tour — was up a set against Denis Istomin in their first-round match at the Open Sud de France in Montpellier on Wednesday when the 31-year old pulled out, citing an elbow injury. Had he gone on to win, Jaziri would have faced Israel’s Dudi Sela in the next round. He and Spanish partner Marc Lopez were also slated to play an Israeli, Jonathan Erlich, in the quarterfinals of the doubles tournament.

Though the ATP confirmed in a written statement that Jaziri’s elbow injury was “verified” by a tour physiotherapist, it said an investigation was a “matter of prudence” given a previous incident in 2013, when the Tunisian Tennis Federation told Jaziri he could not step on court to play Israel’s Amir Weintraub at a satellite tournament in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (Jaziri officially cited a knee injury). Tunisia was subsequently banned from the 2014 Davis Cup — an annual World Cup for tennis — for “interfering with international sporting practice.”

International sports federations have long struggled to accommodate Israel in international competitions, given its testy relationship with most Arab and Muslim nations. Israel’s international soccer affiliation was changed in 1994, when it was moved from the Asian confederation, which included many Arab and Muslim countries that refused to play against Israel, to the European confederation, UEFA. More recently, however, major players at European professional clubs such as Didier Drogba and Frederik Kanoute have publicly challenged Israel’s policies. The Palestinian national soccer federation has also threatened to seek Israel’s expulsion from FIFA, the game’s international governing body, because of the occupation’s negative effect on the development of Palestinian soccer programs.

But Israel-related drama is new to tennis, an individual sport that until recently has had relatively few Arab or Israeli stars, and only recently began holding major tournaments in the Middle East. The highest-profile incident to date happened back in 2009, when Shahar Peer, a former top-20 player from Israel, was denied a visa to the United Arab Emirates on the grounds that her presence “would have antagonized” fans at the tournament she hoped to enter. The Women’s Tennis Association reacted by threatening to eliminate the Dubai event, which also lost a major sponsor over the controversy. The visa policy was quickly reversed.

Increasingly, though, international sports arenas have been targeted as a venue for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement – or BDS – which seeks to pressure Israel economically and culturally to change its policies. In September, when Jerusalem entered a bid to host the 2020 UEFA games, 75 Palestinian teams and NGOs wrote a letter to the association’s chief, Michel Platini, arguing that Israel should not be “rewarded” for its recent offensive in Gaza that left over 2,000 people dead – including several Palestinian soccer prospects. In 2010, Platini himself said, “Israel must choose between allowing Palestinian sport to continue and prosper or be forced to face the consequences for their behavior.”

Unlike in soccer, however, few prominent tennis players or federations have chosen to take such a stand. As a community, tennis has long claimed to transcend political divides, doling out the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award to an Israeli-Pakistani doubles team in 2002 and an Indian-Pakistani one in 2010. At the height of the international sports boycott of apartheid South Africa, when the country faced bans from world soccer, cricket and rugby, tennis remained largely immune — although the country was briefly banned from participating in the Davis Cup, its professional players continued to play on the international pro circuit.

When Israel’s Peer was denied her visa to the UAE, the women’s players association reportedly even mulled a boycott of the event. “We are all athletes, and we stand for tennis,” commented Venus Williams, a multiple Grand Slam champion and one of the sport’s respected diplomats.

Writing in reaction to the Peer incident, The New York Times’ Harvey Araton urged the women’s tour to pull out of the UAE, saying that tennis was “a globetrotting sport of individuals, choosing its tour stops based on merit and good will.” He also noted that the sport should not risk jeopardizing major advertising revenues by wading into politics.

It isn’t clear how or if measures of international opprobrium, such as the BDS movement, would apply to a sport like tennis, where players only nominally represent their countries at tour events. Outside of cases like Jaziri, a journeyman player who has long been reliant on his country’s federation for funding, the decision to boycott Israel or its players is usually in the hands of the players themselves, rather than their governments.

And taking a stand can be costly. Had Jaziri finished off Istomin on Wednesday, he would’ve taken home another $3,500, keeping himself in the running for the $88,000 champion's purse.

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