Peer advances in Dubai, comfortable with security
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP)—When most players at the Dubai Championships finish their matches, they mingle in the clubhouse eating and chatting. For Shahar Peer, it’s back to a guarded compound where she watches movies with her father Dov.
But it could be worse for Peer. She was denied a visa by the United Arab Emirates to play in Dubai two years ago because of anger over an Israeli military offensive in Gaza. The UAE doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel and tournament organizers were penalized by the WTA and forced to meet conditions to stay on the world tour.
Peer entered the event a year ago and unexpectedly surged to the semifinals, beating top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki en route.
This week, her security detail is less obvious than last year, though there are still metal detectors outside the stadium and she’s still confined to her compound—the only resident player—in the shadow of the Aviation Club tournament site. But the 23-year-old Peer insists she feels welcome and comfortable in the Gulf city in which she’s discouraged from sightseeing.
Peer and the WTA, on the advice of local authorities, aren’t allowed to comment on security for the player. But Dov Peer told The Associated Press that “it’s more relaxed than last year,” before he was ushered away.
“It’s the same people around me, like really nice people around me taking good care of me,” the soft-spoken Peer said on Tuesday in an interview at her compound. “It feels like kind of a home, so you can get the same inspiration because you feel very comfortable … I feel great here. Try to be here as long as possible.”
She stayed longer than anyone expected last year as an unseeded player, beating three seeded players before losing to eventual champion Venus Williams in the semis. Williams had threatened not to defend her title if Peer wasn’t allowed to play.
Williams couldn’t play this week after injuring her hip at the Australian Open, but Peer—seeded ninth—has made another good start in Dubai by winning her doubles match on Monday and opening singles Tuesday, beating Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez of Spain 6-4, 6-1.
Like last year, Peer plays all of her matches on Court 1, the furthest court from the Aviation Club entrance and most isolated.
She calls it her second home.
“I know every corner on the court and every bounce, so it’s nice,” Peer said.
Only 20 spectators watched her on Monday, and about double that on Tuesday to no great surprise. The tournament is poorly attended until the end of the week. Nobody showed pro- or anti-Israeli sentiment and security was light with no police officers on the court and only a few guarding each entrance.
Despite reaching the semifinals last year, Peer wasn’t shown on local TV. Cameras are only on center court, and Williams agreed to play the semifinal on Court 1, which Peer appreciated.
Peer has endured her share of off-court distractions since turning pro in 2004, many of which go far beyond the injury woes and competitive pressures her rivals have to confront.
Along with her visa problems, Peer has been the subject of pro-Palestinian protests in New Zealand and Australia. In 2005, a threatening letter was slipped under her door while at a tournament in New Zealand.
Most Israeli athletes have faced similar threats along with their share of hooligan violence but none more than Peer, who is the country’s most prominent athlete. She said she takes it all in stride and insists she has done better at tournaments where there have been protests.
“Everywhere I go and I have those problems, I do very well, if it’s New Zealand or whatever,” Peer said. “It just inspires me and I try to do better. I get from somewhere the power and I play better.”
Peer, who will travel to the neighboring Gulf state of Qatar next week to play in the Qatar Ladies Open, said she hopes her presence in Middle East states often hostile to Israel can build mutual respect between the two sides.
“Obviously, I’m not the president or whatever. I cannot do big changes,” Peer said. “If I can do something by playing in Dubai and Qatar and they say to me, ‘We really appreciate it,’ that puts the politics aside. This is very important. I think we are all trying to be human beings and to respect each other.”
Peer is more comfortable talking about her performance on the court. In 2010, she rose to 13th—the highest ever ranking for an Israeli—and had her best year, making appearances in one final, four semifinals and three fourth rounds, including at the French Open and the U.S. Open.
Peer hasn’t started well this year, losing in the third round at the Australian Open and failing to go beyond the second in events in Brisbane or Sydney. But she has set her sights in 2011 on breaking into the top 10, going beyond the fourth round in a Grand Slam and winning several smaller tournaments.
“I play very well now. I feel very good on the court,” Peer said. “I think everything will be fine. I just need to find the right time and the right tournament. Overall, I feel very comfortable, and I hope to keep the momentum up.”
A new coach has helped Peer to attack more, as shown by repeatedly rushing the net and using her serve to unnerve her opponent on Tuesday.
“I think I’m a bit more aggressive, trying to maybe come in when I can to the net,” she said. “Obviously, not trying to serve and volley but being more aggressive, more aware of where I am on the court. You know, try to just control more of the points. And you know, I’ve been serving much better. Just improving every day a little bit more and more.”