Tuesday, October 15, 2013

On Tunisian tennis: A season on the brink?

Malek Jaziri / The No. 1-rated Arab tennis player in the world.

At a glance, the order of play for last Friday's quarterfinal-round of the ATP Challenger event in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, which included three of the top four remaining seeds, seemed ordinary enough.

Except that it wasn't.

At 10 a.m. on Court No. 3, the order of play showed a scheduled match between two unseeded players, one an Arab, the other an Israeli. However, before play began in this lower-tier tennis tournament -- the minor leagues of professional men's tennis, if you will -- Malek Jaziri of Tunisia, ranked 169th in the world at the time but currently the top-rated Arab player, withdrew from his match against Amir Weintraub, an Israeli, who advanced on the walkover to the semifinals.

More often than not, a walkover is the result of one player being too injured to be able to play. Only, this time, Jaziri's inability to play was because of political interference and not because of a knee injury, diplomatic and convenient as it might seem -- regardless of what the tournament's website indicated as the official reason.

Instead, in a move that arguably shocked the tennis world and garnered the attention of both USA Today and Sports Illustrated here in the U.S. as well as various international media abroad, Tunisia's tennis federation ordered its best player off the court, forbidding him from playing. Simply because his opponent-to-be was an Israeli.

In an e-mail provided by Jaziri's brother and manager, Amir, to the Tunisian state news agency on Friday, the Tunisian tennis federation on Thursday stated: "Following a meeting this afternoon with the Ministry of Youth and Sports, I have the immense regret to inform you that you are ordered not to play against the Israeli player."

A sports ministry spokesman, Sadok Touati, confirmed for the Associated Press that the federation sent the e-mail on Thursday after it consulted the ministry.

"The ministry does not interfere in the affairs of the sports federations," said Touati. Meanwhile, the federation president was unavailable for comment.

Although Jaziri, 29, is ranked well below the top players in his sport  -- a little over a year ago he was 100 places higher (69th) before injuries and a string of losses against lower-ranked opponents derailed him -- by all indications he is afraid the Tunisian federation's decision could harm his career. Few besides Jaziri in Tunisia have achieved a world ranking that would garner much notice. And, Jaziri could have risen to 135th had he won the tournament in Tashkent. Instead, when the new rankings were released on Monday, his ranking changed from 169th to 165th following last week's tournament.

Malek Jaziri drapes himself in his country's flag after he won
his first round match in the 2012 French Open.

While Arab countries have over the past decades observed boycotts of varying degrees against Israeli athletes in a protest over Israel's treatment of Palestinians, it's a shame to see athletes today become pawns in a geo-political chess game. And, in a sport which prides itself on global competition and is played worldwide, it's a disturbing interference of politics by a country (Tunisia) which is still searching for a democratic balance after its Jasmine Revolution paved the way for other Arab Spring revolutions a little more than two years ago. Tunisia has been in the midst of a political crisis for many months as a result of deadlocked negotiations between the ruling Islamist party, Ennadha, and the opposition over new parliamentary and presidential elections.

"It's a pity for the athletes who get caught up in these situations that end up hurting their personal career," said Shlomo Glickstein, the director of Israel's tennis association. In a statement, he added that it was sad such incidents such as what happened on Friday still occur.

In an interview with L'Equipe, Selima Sfar, a former Tunisian professional tennis player and the only Arab woman to achieve a top-100 world ranking (she was once ranked 75th in 2001), said she was shocked and worried about the "regressive" behavior shown her country's tennis federation.

Selima Sfar
"I am angry and disappointed," Sfar told the French sports daily. "It is a very bad image for my country. We fought hard to become professionals and now we are not supported."

Sfar, who retired from the tour in 2011, believes that political interference is unbearable. "Our people fought also with blood to move towards democracy and openness, and instead we are moving backwards," she said. "To play against an Israeli does not mean you are being a bad Tunisian Arabic or a bad Muslim. I'm proud to be Tunisian, Arab and Muslim, but I am ashamed of my country when it behaves like that."

In this day and age, it seems to me that if an Indian (Rohan Bophanna) and a Pakistani (Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi) can separate their differences and unite as a formidable doubles team, putting the politics of their two warring nations aside and promoting peace on the court, then an Arab nation which is struggling to establish its identity in the world of tennis should allow its best player to face all comers -- even if the player on the other side of the net is Israeli.

Just imagine, Jaziri and Weintraub could have used their match to try to improve relations between their countries. Ironically, both belong to the same French tennis club, Sarcelles Tennis, north of Paris. If they can both get along and be friends on and off the court -- they have known each other for years through their sport -- why can't Tunisia work towards promoting tolerance and understanding with Israel and allow Jaziri and other Tunisian athletes to compete against Israelis?

According to various published reports, the president of the Sarcelles tennis club, Jonathan Chaouat, said he spoke to Jaziri last Thursday night and that the player was upset that he would be unable to play Weintraub.

"He explained to me that he could not play the match," said Chaouat. "When I asked him where the pressure not to play was coming from he replied 'my country.'

"What is certain is that it was not Malek who decided not to play this match. Malek was taken hostage."

Malek Jaziri
Although he was reluctant to discuss the matter, Weintraub told the Jerusalem Post that Malek "is a good friend" and that "he really wanted to play."

While Jaziri has not spoken publicly about last week's incident, earlier he described the challenges of being a professional tennis player in the Arab world in an interview published on the tournament's website.

"In Arabic countries there is not a tradition of tennis except in North African countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria," said Jaziri. "There are, however, professional events in the Arab world like in Dubai and Qatar, but the Arab countries should come out and give more opportunities to players from the region. Giving wild cards is not enough; they need to support players in other ways, too.

"Tennis is a tough sport. We as professional tennis players have to fight it out every day," he said. "One week is good, one week is bad. And, we have to go through these ups and downs. In some countries, the situation is favorable for tennis players because of the support of their associations. But in some countries, like ours, it is really bad. Life for us is a battle every day."

Asked about finding support in his home country, Jaziri said: "I had a national sponsor, but now my country is going through a very bad period economically and politically; it is not easy for me. I have a tough job at hand to manage my tennis. I want to travel with a coach, but can't afford one. But, I'm hoping that the situation will change for the better."

In an interview with Agence France-Presse on Monday, Amir Jaziri blasted the decision of the Tunsian tennis federation as "shocking, because it brings politics into sport. We are totally against that. And Malek is the first victim, because tennis is his career, his bread-winner.

"To be clear, Malek pulled out for sporting reasons, because he was injured. He did his warm up, something was wrong and the doctor found that his knee was swollen," Amir Jaziri said.

"But at the political level, we received an order not to play. It was an e-mail from the Tunisian Tennis Federation, via the technical director."

Amir Jaziri said in the interview with AFP that he didn't know whether his brother would have played the match if it weren't for the knee injury. He said he failed to understand how the Tunisian Tennis Federation could give such an order considering that Jaziri has previously faced Weintraub and Tunisia played against Israel in the 2009 Federation Cup.

"Tennis doesn't normally get much media coverage in Tunisia," said Amir Jaziri. "What happened was only done as part of an electoral campaign, and everyone profits (electorally) from this."

The International Tennis Federation (ITF), which has jurisdiction over federations (while the ATP -- the Association of Tennis Professionals -- has jurisdiction over the players), is investigating the whole matter involving the Tunisian federation forcing Jaziri to withdraw against his wishes at Tashkent. While it is unclear what, if any, sanctions might be imposed against the Tunisian federation, I'm in agreement with the ITF's ideals.

"The ITF believes that sport fosters good collaboration between nations," said ITF spokesman Nick Imison. "And, as such, players should be able to compete freely on the international circuit. If a federation were responsible for a player taking part that would go against the ethos of the organization and against the ITF constitution.

"The most important thing going forward is for Tunisian players to be able to play freely against any opponents in the future. That is the aim of all the tennis governing bodies."

A postscript: On Wednesday, the ATP released a statement saying it had completed its investigation and relieved Malek Jaziri of any culpability.

"We have found no wrongdoing on the part of the player and all of the information we have gathered has been passed  on to the ITF," the statement said.

Meanwhile, the ITF's investigation of the alleged forced pullout remains ongoing, said ITF spokeswoman Barbara Travers.

"The ITF takes any matter regarding discrimination very seriously and this incident will be discussed by the ITF Board of Directors at its regularly scheduled meeting (Oct. 31-Nov. 1) in Cagliari, Italy," Travers wrote in an e-mail. "We have asked the Federation Tunisinne de Tennis to make any relevant submissions to the ITF ahead of that meeting."

While Travers said the ITF would have no further comment until after the board meets, the ITF could bring sanctions against the Tunisian tennis federation, such as bans from Davis Cup competition, if it finds that the federation violated regulations. The ITF is also affiliated with the International Olympic Committee.

Malek Jaziri photographs courtesy of footplus.tn, rolandgarros.com and atpworldtour.com.
Selima Sfar photograph courtesy of tunisienumerique.com.

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