Wednesday, February 25, 2009

2009: First Israeli athlete plays in Dubai

Protected by two bodyguards as he walked on the court, Andy Ram on Wednesday became the first Israeli to play in Dubai. He and partner Kevin Ullyett lost a doubles match a week after Israel's Shahar Peer was denied a visa for the women's tournament.

Spectators had to leave their belongings outside, and metal detectors were set up outside the court. There were no protests or incidents, with about 100 spectators watching the match on an outside court.

Ram did not hold a news conference afterward, but organizers issued a transcript of comments made to a pool reporter.

"It was obviously something big, history here, what's been done, the first Israeli coming to play sport in Dubai," Ram said. "I fought for something really, really big and coming here was something big because it showed that we should not involve sports with politics."

Ram was granted special permission late last week to play in Dubai after Peer was barred from entering the country for her tournament.

At the time, organizers cited security concerns, prompting widespread protests and pressure to allow Ram to compete.

"It was different. It was an experience for me," Ram said. "They did everything possible to secure me. ... Coming to the court, obviously with a couple of bodyguards, was nice. I felt like, OK, as soon as we start the match, hitting the first shot to warm up, I was thinking tactics and concentrating to win the match, but it did not happen today."

Ram said he was well received in Dubai, encountering no hostility.

"Not at all, really," he said. "From the first moment I arrived to the airport, (they) took me to the hotel, (treated) me very good. (I) went out ... obviously with the body guards, the guys were watching me. Just really, they let me feel very comfortable."

United Arab Emirates has no diplomatic relationship with Israel, but Israelis with dual citizenship have entered the country for international sports and business events using second-country passports.

On some occasions, Israeli passport holders have been allowed entry for meetings held by the United Nations or other international agencies.

Dubai tournament organizers said Peer was denied an opportunity to play in the women's event because they feared fan anger over Israel's recent military offensive in Gaza. The WTA fined organizers a record $300,000 last week and the UAE granted a permit to Ram to play this week.

Ram's next brush with politics is not far away. The Davis Cup series between Sweden and Israel next week will be played in Malmo without spectators. Swedish organizers said they anticipated anti-Israeli demonstrations.

"When I heard about the decision playing without crowd, that freaked me out," Ram said. "This is really something bad I think, and there's nothing I can do about it."

Ram was chosen for the Israeli Davis Cup team on Tuesday, along with Dudi Sela, Harel Levy and Noam Okun. (info from The Associated Press)

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