FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. — Historically, African-Americans and Jews were the biggest outsiders in the white-Anglo-Saxon country club sport they call tennis. African-Americans were largely excluded, so they created their own tournaments and formed their own organizations (like the ATA). Jews were banned from many a club.
It wasn’t Rosa Parks taking a stand by sitting in a bus seat, but things changed in 1956, when Angela Buxton, a British Jew, teamed with African-American Althea Gibson to win the women’s doubles title at Wimbledon. (One newspaper reported their win under the headline “Minorities Win.”)
Some five decades later, there’s another African-American-Jewish partnership that’s flourishing. When, in February 2009, Israel’s Shahar Peer was denied a visa and therefore blocked from playing in Dubai, Venus Williams was one of the first players to step forward and voice her disapproval.
After defeating Peer 7-6(3), 6-3 in the fourth round at the U.S. Open on Sunday, Williams revisited the incident, saying she spoke out because she could empathize with Peer’s plight.
“I think just because of my history, too, as the African-American,” said Williams, who may have a monstrous serve but is rarely hard-hitting when it comes to discussing matters of race or politics. “My parents both came from the South in the ’40s and ’50s, and it was an outrage, really. Are you serious? Can you really exclude someone? This is professional tennis in 2010. We’re all athletes here. We’re not politicians or anything like that. So the feeling inside of me was just one of almost rage and discontent. Like, Is this for real?”
Andy Roddick pulled out of the men’s Dubai event. Then the Tennis Channel pulled the plug on its coverage, and the then-WTA chief Larry Scott fined organizers $300,000 and even considered canceling the tournament. When Williams won the ’09 title, she gave a nod to Peer, telling the crowd it was “a shame that one of our players couldn’t be here.”
“She was the only one kind of step up and spoke for me and show that she cares about these things,” said Peer, ranked No. 19. “I did get, like, two or three e-mails from other players who felt like that the year I didn’t get the visa. But she was the only one — and obviously Andy Roddick — that didn’t play the same year, last year. So these two were the only ones that spoke up.”
The UAE relented in 2010, and Peer was granted a visa, but her presence there seemed less than appreciated. Security was tight, to say the least. She trained separately. She had an entire hotel floor to herself. But she advanced to the semis, where, ironically, she met none other than Venus. With stringent security measures in place, the match was played on a backcourt, with only 1,500 or so fans in attendance.
“She was very humble. It’s hard for me to say it in English — but she’s always very support [sic]. She always feel’s for me also. She understands what I feel,” said Peer. “She was really supportive for me, and she was also always on my side and always stood up. Doesn’t matter if it was this year or the year before when I didn’t get the visa, she stood up in that final and spoke for me.”
“I think in that way we do relate because, unfortunately, the world is what it is now,” said Williams. “People don’t get along for whatever reason. I think as professional athletes, in a way we’re ambassadors almost for peace, because sports brings everyone together.”
At least it’s supposed to.