Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Game, set, match = world peace, if for just 71 minutes

Tunisia's Malek Jaziri / 
Center of attention in a political hot-button issue.

In 2013, Tunisia's Malek Jaziri found himself the center of attention in a political hot-button issue no athlete ever wants to be in. The top Arab tennis player in the world was ordered by his country's governing tennis body, the Tunisia tennis federation, to withdraw from an ATP tournament in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, rather than face a Jew, Israel's Amir Weintraub, who happened to his scheduled opponent.

In response to Jaziri's abrupt withdraw, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) banned Tunisia from Davis Cup competition for an entire year, in 2014.

The basic principle is that sports has nothing to do with politics. However, it should be noted that many Arab countries have for decades observed, to varying degrees, boycotts against Israeli athletes as a matter of protest over the situation of Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

"What a lot of people don't understand is that it's a difficult situation for the player no matter what," Reem Abulleil, a Dubai-based tennis journalist for Sport360.com, told the New York Times' Ben Rothenberg during a 2015 tennis podcast No Challenges Remaining. "There's always consequences, whether you like it or not."

Malek Jaziri was the top-seeded player at Istanbul.
Fast forward to this past week in Istanbul, Turkey, where Jaziri was the top-seeded player and Dudi Sela of Israel was the tournament's No. 2 seed in an ATP Challenger Tour tournament, tennis' version of the minor leagues. If the seeds held true – and they did – it would mean an Arab and a Jew would play for the championship of the American Express Istanbul Challenger. Mind you, most tennis fans throughout the world were focused on the semifinal round of the Davis Cup competition.

As the Sunday final approached, despite the fear that the Tunisian tennis authorities may again intervene, the championship match between the 70th-ranked Jaziri and the 74th-ranked Sela went ahead – and without incident. Unlike three years ago, Jaziri's career has been on the upswing this year under the guidance of coach Dejan Petrovic. He's playing better and his visibility on the court has been enhanced by a new clothing endorsement with Hydrogen, an Italian athletic wear company. Earlier this year, the Tunisian achieved a career-best ranking of 53rd. Facing the possibility of further sanctions, perhaps it's safe to assume that the Tunisian tennis federation wised up to the possibility of harsher sanctions by the ITF if it ordered Jaziri off the court. Or, maybe, it has changed its stance on matters of allowing its athletes to compete against all comers without political interference.

Dudi Sela (left), umpire Adel Nour, and Malek Jaziri.
At 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon, Jaziri and Sela, friends off the court, posed for a pre-match photo with Adel Nour, an Egyptian chair umpire. And, the final was on. At the conclusion of their 71-minute match, won by Jaziri, 1-6, 6-1, 6-0, the Tunisian and the Israeli shook hands at the net with sincerity and without any outward appearance of awkwardness. (I must confess, I watched the match at home in the U.S. on my iPhone 6 using the free ATPWorldTour.com feed that was absent of any commentary.) 

The Center Court crowd applauded both players, and when Jaziri returned to the court, he waved and tapped his heart with his right hand. He seemed very genuine in his emotion and appreciative of the reception he received from the fans in attendance.

Malek Jaziri and Dudi Sela shook hands at the net.
The victory gave Jaziri his third ATP Challenger Tour of the season and sixth of his career. Importantly, he earned 90 ATP points, which boosted his ranking to No. 55, as he heads on to his next tournament in Metz, France, this week. The Istanbul champion's purse of $10,800, although modest, was most welcomed by Jaziri.

As the news spread across the Atlantic, a couple of prominent American tennis journalists expressed their sentiment via Twitter. "Forget Davis Cup," tweeted Ben Rothenberg of the New York Times. "This is the biggest thing happening in tennis today. Jaziri-Sela heading toward a third set." Then, after the match, Rothenberg tweeted again: "Game, set match: World Peace. Jaziri, a Tunisian pressured to withdraw against Israelis before, plays, beats Sela." 

Malek Jaziri posed with the championship trophy.
Also, TennisChannel host and commentator Brett Haber tweeted: "Pleased to see Jaziri play Sela in Istanbul final today. I choose to believe motivation was geopolitical progress & acceptance, not Pts & $."

Jaziri got to compete, the fans who attended witnessed a significant match, and the tournament organizers were not short-changed by an empty final. Most importantly, sport overruled decades of Arab-Israeli political differences. 

A source who has been in touch with Jaziri since his victory Sunday suggested to me that there are different people controlling sporting issues within Tunisia than three years ago, which may explain why Jaziri didn't meet any resistance in playing Sela. According to the source, Jaziri suggested that what happened to him in 2013 will not happen again.

For once, there would be no boycott. Instead, it was the players – not the politicians – who decided the outcome of the match.

Photos: Courtesy of Istanbul Challenger Facebook page, Malek Jaziri Facebook page, ATPWorldTour.com live match stream, and @tenisdunyasi via Twitter.

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