MIAMI — Two years ago, Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer made world headlines when she was denied a visa to enter the United Arab Emirates to compete in the 2009 Dubai Tennis Championships.
The ban backfired, not only because the tournament was fined $300,000 (US) and forced to allow Peer to compete for the next five years, but also because it strengthened Peer’s determination to play above expectations.
Peer recently entered the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, and the 23-year-old has demonstrated that her legacy in tennis will not be based on a single political incident. Rather, she channelled the anger and pain of the past and turned 2010 into her best year of competition. Ranked 38th in 2009, she returned to Dubai in 2010, finished as a semifinalist and went on to six other semifinals in international tournaments that year. In June 2010, her outstanding results, including a runner-up finish at the Moorilla Hobart International in Australia, raised her world ranking to No. 14, making Peer the highest-rated Israeli man or woman ever in tennis history.
“Sports and politics should never mix, and to this day, I never forgot the anger when I was banned. But I play better when someone tries to take something from me. I became more determined than ever to do well in tennis. Now that I made history in my sport for the right reason, I want to continue to get better,” Peer said following her second round match (a 6-2, 6-2 loss to Spain’s Anabel Medina Garrigues) at the Sony Ericsson Open.
Despite the loss, Peer has kept her momentum going. With two quarter-final finishes this year (Dubai and Indian Wells), she has continued to move up the rankings to a current position at No. 11. A top 10 ranking is within reach this year.
To that end, Peer has worked with some of the best coaches in tennis. For the past six months, she has been coached by Craig Kardon, who guided both Lindsay Davenport and Martina Navratilova to the No. 1 ranking in tennis. And she’s hired Harold Solomon, who was instrumental in Jennifer Capriati’s winning the 2001 French Open. Peer is hoping to improve her serve and net play.
“Shahar has as much of a chance as anyone in tennis to have her best year yet,” said former player Mary Joe Fernandez, who has done television commentary on Peer’s matches for many years. “With the Williams sisters [Serena and Venus] being injured for the past year, there is a void in tennis, and Shahar has the resolve and determination to get into the top 10. While Shahar does not possess a big weapon like an explosive serve, she rarely beats herself with unforced errors and has beaten top 10 players this year with her improved play at the net. With a will to always fight to the end in her matches, I think she can continue to finish deep at most tournaments.”
Since the Dubai incident and because of her international exposure at tournaments around the world, Peer has become one of the most recognizable Israeli athletes in the world. She has won both Woman of the Year (2009) and Athlete of the Year honours (2006-2009) in Israel, and she’s used her celebrity status to benefit others when she is honoured by Jewish and Israeli organizations at tournaments.
Peer received much praise for joining last year’s March of the Living in Poland, leading 10,000 students to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps. She was accompanied by her maternal grandmother, Yuliana Eckstein, an 81-year-old survivor who lost her parents and brother at Auschwitz and who was liberated in 1945.
“She [her grandmother] never told me the horrors until she went with me to the camps. Leading the March of the Living has given me strength and values that make winning or losing a tennis match not seem that important anymore,” Peer said.
Barring injury, Peer will be in Toronto to compete at the Rogers Cup from Aug. 8 to 14 at the Rexall Centre.
To learn more about Peer, visit www.shaharpeer.co.il.