Tennis helps Shahar Peer break barriers

DOHA, Qatar -- Just like any other tennis player who competes on the international WTA tour, Shahar Peer is a citizen of the world. But unlike any of the other top 100 players, the 24-year-old is also a citizen of Israel, and on occasion that's delivered complications in her career.

A number of years ago, Peer decided to stretch the boundaries: she wanted to play the 2008 Qatar Total Open in Doha. It was a bold decision -- never before had an Israeli athlete competed in a Persian Gulf state.

Qatar, which borders Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, is viewed as a progressive Muslim nation of about 850,000 people in the Middle East. While they're not bosom buddies with Israel, the two nations do have some level of diplomatic relations. Nevertheless, it's not as if Israelis were flying into Doha for vacation on a regular basis, so Peer's decision to want to play in Qatar was considered gutsy. It had people watching to see if she would be permitted to enter the country.

There would turn out to be no issue with Qatar. The then 17th-ranked Peer had the ranking to enter the tournament and was welcome to participate. Visa in hand, the 20-year-old arrived with her older brother, Shlomi, and her then coach on the Thursday before the tournament started.

At the time of her first visit to Doha, then tournament director Ayman Azmy was quoted as saying of Peer's visit: "Naturally, it is clear evidence that all nations are welcome in Doha to participate in our event." He took Peer and her traveling party to a Moroccan restaurant in the traditional Souk district marketplace her first night in the city.

Last week marked Peer's third visit to the Qatar Total Open. She reached the round-of-16 in 2008, and the second round in 2011. Last week, she lost a tough 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 third-round match to up-and-coming American Christina McHale.

While it would be Peer's preference for sports and politics not to mix, she understands that can be an idealistic vision. Although she chooses not to overemphasize the significance of being able to play in places Israeli's aren't usually invited, she's happy if in some way she's a conduit to bettering relations between Israel and neighboring countries.

"I think in general, and for the world, I think it's a positive thing to break barriers," said Peer, after her second round upset of eighth-seed Jelena Jankovic 7-6 (3), 6-2. "I'm trying to make sure that sport and politics don't get involved. I do for myself. This tournament does for itself. And everything is working out well."

As most can remember, it was not an as politically correct situation the following year when Peer decided to enter the 2009 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. The United Arab Emirates refused to issue Peer a visa and a firestorm ensued. The judgment call was a public relations nightmare for Dubai with international backlash. Critics condemned the country for its closed-door policy. WTA officials told Dubai tournament officials that there could never be a repeat of Peer being denied permission to play the tournament in the future -- all qualified players need to be able to play any official WTA tournament or the tournament can't receive WTA sanctioning.

The issue was resolved in Peer's favor in 2010 and she showed up determined to make her presence known. She didn't disappoint. She journeyed to the semifinals and the following year reached the quarters. In Dubai on Tuesday, Agnieszka Radwanska defeated Peer in second-round singles, 7-5, 6-4.

Nowadays, both tournaments are regulars on Peer's schedule and she's expected to attend. "Yes, I'm very comfortable here and in Dubai," Peer said. "Everything is good, they're taking care of me nicely here and also in Dubai. I'm enjoying always coming back."

The Doha tournament seems pleased she's continued to enter their event. Her matches have similar crowds to other matches, and her upset of eighth-seed Jelena Jankovic in the second round this week captured attention.

"The Qatar Total Open is honored to have Shahar Peer play in Doha this week," said former player Karim Alami, a Moroccan who is now the tournament director in Doha. "She has always been an amazing addition to the event and we wish her every success
for the rest of the season."

Peer is satisfied to be able to play wherever she wants regardless of her Israeli passport, but she's not quite as satisfied with where she sits on the corporate ranking ladder. Last January, Peer was at a career high ranking of 11, but this year she was sitting at No. 37 entering Doha.

She's working on improving with her head coach, former top-10 player Harold Solomon. He only travels part-time to key places such as the Australian Open, but she frequently goes to South Florida to work with him -- that's where she spent the 2011 offseason.

"We are really good friends and he is as hard a worker as I am," she said. "We are [trying] to get my game together. I am working hard to become the best tennis player I can be."

Peer admits that there's been times where she didn't always find pleasure in playing. But after ending last season early with a stress fracture in her back, she's pumped to have a good year in 2012.

"Mentally I found something that I keep enjoying it now because, you know, every year you're doing the same," she said. "It's not an easy life but even when things are not going well I keep enjoying and I like what I'm doing."

And she's thankful for some of the life experiences that have come her way because of who she is and might not have otherwise had the chance to do. Her most memorable opportunity: Being asked by Israeli officials to lead the annual "March of the Living" from the Auschwitz concentration camp to the Birkenau concentration camp in 2010.

"I did it with my grandmother [Yuliana] and my mom [Aliza] so it was three generations," she said. "It was an amazing walk, a very special moment for all of us. My grandmother was there in Auschwitz, actually [for six months when she was 14] This was her first time back and we had to convince her to come, to go back. It was very hard, really hard for her, but she did well. It wasn't easy for her, but she did it for me and my mom."

It hasn't always been an easy road for Peer to traverse in order to play professional tennis. But it's been a life that dreams are made of even if she doesn't fulfill her childhood ambition to win a Grand Slam title.