'I feel very proud': Israel's Shahar Peer on playing tennis in the UAE
"It was different in Dubai," Shahar Peer says as she glances around the plush players' lounge at the Madrid Open. Her memories of being the first Israeli woman to play sport in the United Arab Emirates, when she competed in a surreal and threatening atmosphere at the Dubai Tennis Championships in February, are made vivid by this contrasting backdrop.
In Madrid, young athletes are lost in a world of humming laptops and tweeting iPhones as, without talking, they stretch out on designer sofas while waiting to go on court for another match or for a chauffeured ride back to their five-star hotel. Peer, ranked 19th in the world and preparing for the French Open which begins this weekend, is on familiar terrain. She has twice been a grand slam quarter-finalist and, in Madrid, she beat Svetlana Kuznetsova, the world No6 and defending Roland Garros champion, before losing to Venus Williams in the semi-final last Saturday. In her sixth season on tour Peer has seen countless player lounges.
But in Dubai she prepared for her matches in a concrete block far from the main dressing room and deluxe lounge available to the other players. Her only company was a phalanx of Arab bodyguards who marched Peer to and from a back court where, in the broiling sun, the uncovered plastic seats were ringed with tarpaulin and wire.
"There were five bodyguards with me all the time, and I got to know them really well," Peer says, "and then there were 20 or 30 I didn't get to know much. When I walked to the court there would be maybe 30 of them around me. There was a lot of security but the main thing was my safety. The security had to be very strong and so they kept me separate from the other girls."
The risk of a possible attack on Peer, Israel's most famous sporting figure, was clear. Three weeks earlier Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a commander of the Palestinian group Hamas, had been killed in Dubai. It was believed he had been assassinated by the Israeli security agency, Mossad, whose operatives used forged British passports and disguised themselves as middle-aged tourists in tennis kit. The hotel in which al-Mabhouh was murdered stood 300 metres from the two back courts where Peer played her matches.
A year before she had been refused entry to the UAE because she was an Israeli. Andy Roddick withdrew from the men's tournament in protest, the Wall Street Journal terminated their sponsorship and the Dubai organisers were fined a record $300,000 by the WTA.
"I got a lot of support last year," Peer says. "Andy did a big thing. He stood up and said, 'No, I'm not playing because of this.' That helped but it was very bad timing. It affected me because I was playing really well until then. I had just come back from a great Federation Cup and I got to the semis in Pattaya, having beaten some good players. Two hours before my flight from Pattaya to Dubai, I got a call to say: 'OK, you don't have a visa. You can't get on the plane.' I had to go back to Israel.
"I was off for almost three weeks and lost my momentum. So this year I was very happy when Stacey Allaster [chief executive of the Sony Ericsson WTA tour] was really behind me. She said, 'If there is no visa for Shahar then there is no tournament' – which is fair enough."
Peer, a former Israeli soldier during her compulsory military service, remains realistic about her involvement in an ancient political conflict. Yet, having just turned 23, she is also a young woman who tweets innocently on Twitter – telling the world "I love Big Brother – it's sooo good", that her life is "Crazy crazy crazy" or, in Madrid, "1st time I really had Argentinean food!!! Was sssoooo good!!" You can imagine her hanging out with her friends in any major city of the world – but not Dubai.
"On my way there I was fine," Peer says. "But, suddenly, when I landed I was, like, 'Woooahhh, I'm here!'"
Peer's eyes widen. It's hard to forget she comes from a family of Holocaust survivors and that she and her grandmother, who was at Auschwitz, led a 'March of the Living' as 10,000 people descended on the concentration camp last month.
She smiles when asked how she coped in Dubai. "I got off the plane and I saw my dad. So I started feeling a bit better then but, still, I had the toughest draw you could imagine. There was something going on in my heart that was more than a usual tournament."
In the first round she faced the world No14, Yanina Wickmayer, on that barren outside court. A few weeks before, Peer had lost to Wickmayer in Auckland, in the semi-finals of a tournament where she had been barracked by demonstrators protesting against Israel's occupation of Palestine. It took more courage to play in Dubai.
Afterwards, having won a fraught match 7-5 in the third set, Peer could not stop her tears. "I've cried after losing, but never after a win. It was really emotional because I'd lost to her before and this was Dubai. You cannot ask for more. I was 4-2 and 40-15 down on my serve in the third [set]. It was tough but I didn't want to go all the way to Dubai and lose in the first round. I wanted to be there as long as I could, doing the best I can. That's why I cried.
"In the next round I beat [Virginie] Razzano, who made it to the final the year before. And then it was Caroline Wozniacki [the current world No3 and top seed in Dubai]. I had never won a set before against her but it was amazing that, match after match, I beat the toughest players. I guess when things are hard I play better and get inspired."
Peer described her place in the dusty wastelands as "my little court" as she swept Wozniacki aside. She then beat the higher-ranked Li Na to set up a semi-final against Williams. Alan Mills, the former Wimbledon referee officiating in Dubai, admitted that, if Peer won, he did not know how he would cater for 5,000 spectators who had booked tickets for a centre court final.
Williams ended an extraordinary journey; but Peer's impact was articulated best by her opponent. "I can't imagine playing as well as Shahar in these circumstances," Williams said. "I have to give her congratulations and props. She's courageous. I don't think anyone else on tour could do what she's doing."
Peer looks up proudly. "Venus was really nice. Even the way she handled playing on an outside court was good. But she is very humble and understood the importance of me playing in Dubai."
A couple of days later Peer reappeared on Twitter, having been silent throughout the tournament. "I had a TV crew following me the whole day," she tweeted. "It was really nice." She added a smiley face to her message.
Seeing her features lit up by that same expression in Madrid, a simplistic question comes to mind. Did her time in Dubai give her any hope that peace may eventually come to the Middle East? "Yes, I did feel that. We talked a lot – me and the bodyguards – and they were very kind. The way they treated me was amazing. They also feel [peace] is possible. But we are not the ones making the decisions and of course there is so much history – it's not just simple people like us talking."
The warmth Peer felt towards her Arab bodyguards means she is already anticipating her return. "Next year I would like to go back. I hope there will be no problems but I will leave it to the organisers to decide the security. It's probably better to be safe."
Peer's experience in Dubai led to her invitation to lead the march of remembrance to Auschwitz. "Straightaway I said 'yes'. For me it was a big honour. My mother said she was coming and we tried to convince my grandma. She really hesitated and then, a week before, she said, 'I'm coming.' It was hard because she had never been back to Auschwitz."
Her eyes glitter as she recounts the childhood her 82-year-old grandmother endured. "When she was a girl she spent a lot of years inside the concentration camps. She was 14 when she went to Auschwitz. Most of her family died in the Holocaust, and only she and her sister survived.
"She didn't know what to expect but I was so happy to see her marching with me. It meant a lot to see where she had been in that camp. It was a tough trip for her – but a great experience for me. She always said she didn't want to go back to Auschwitz but when they asked me she had to come."
Peer seems strengthened by her visits to Dubai and Auschwitz. Reflecting on her highest world ranking of 15, she admits her last two seasons were beset by uncertainty. "I had a lot going on but I'm playing really well now. I'm improving all the time and doing great in the big tournaments.
There is a gathering sense that Peer could break into the top 10 before the year is out. "I hope so. The French [Open] and Wimbledon are coming, and I want to keep going. The competition is tough but I'm on the right path now."
The players' lounge has almost emptied at the end of another long day. A few players yawn and stare vacantly at a widescreen television while a couple tap away on their phones. But Peer looks inspired by the knowledge that she does not exist in a tennis-ball shaped bubble. "I have experienced many more things than most tennis players – and, obviously, the Holocaust is part of our past. It has some problems but my life is a bit more interesting than most. I feel very proud."