WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott tells how he brought pressure on Dubai Open officials to get Israeli players permission to compete

WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott, in his St. Petersburg office, has worked closely with Dubai Open organizers since 1993.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott, in his St. Petersburg office, has worked closely with Dubai Open organizers since 1993.

ST. PETERSBURG — The news from halfway around the world reached Larry Scott in his south St. Petersburg home shortly after 3 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 14.

It was the last thing the leader of women's professional tennis expected to hear, a stunning development in the dead of night that would quickly ignite an international firestorm entwining sports and politics.

Officials of Dubai, the most modern country among the United Arab Emirates, had denied Israel's Shahar Peer entry into the country for the Dubai Open. And they did so despite months of personal assurances to Scott that she would be allowed to compete.

"I was horrified," he recalled, upon being told that Peer was out with the tournament set to start in less than 24 hours.

The story made headlines around the world as outrage erupted over the exclusion of an Israeli athlete in an event in an Arab nation due to "security concerns," stemming from Israel's incursion into the Gaza Strip. It also placed Scott and the Women's Tennis Association smack in the middle of the backlash.

News outlets criticized the CEO of the WTA Tour for not promptly pulling his players out of the high-profile event in a show of solidarity with Peer.

The facts that surfaced in news coverage dealt mostly with Venus Williams winning the women's title amid the controversy and the abrupt announcement from organizers midway through the competition that Israel's Andy Ram would be allowed to play in the men's event that followed. (Andy Roddick refused to defend his Dubai Open title to protest Peer's treatment.)

But there is another story, one that played out over five intense days of behind-the-scenes efforts reaching from the Tampa Bay area to Israel and Dubai, orchestrated by Scott from his 15th floor office in St. Petersburg.

Scott, 44, spoke with the St. Petersburg Times to explain his decision to get Dubai officials to change their policy through a campaign of public and private pressure.

His approach stands in contrast to a collision of tennis and politics in the news this week. Swedish Davis Cup organizers decided to ban spectators at the match between Israel and Sweden today through Sunday in Malmo. They cite security concerns stemming from the host city's large Muslim population.

In Scott's case, the strategy of quiet diplomacy over confrontation appears to have paid off well. It helped lead to the Dubai officials' about-face on Ram and resulted in stiff sanctions against them and guidelines that guarantee the 47th-ranked Peer will be included next year if the tournament hopes to remain a tour event.

Scott's plan had the blessing of Peer, 21. Here is how he describes the saga.

'Deep level of comfort'

Scott is no stranger to Dubai tennis.

Before taking over the WTA reins in 2004, he was an executive on the Association of Tennis Professionals tour and worked closely with Dubai Open organizers when they began a men's event in 1993. The women's event was added in 2001.

"The people I was dealing with (this year) I've been dealing with for 15 years," he said. "I had a deep level of comfort and a long track record. And there was no reason to doubt that they would do what they said they would."

As the Dubai Open grew in prestige and prize money, the issue of hosting an Israeli player had never come up. On the women's side, Peer decided to enter this year's event, wanting to be a pioneer. She did so against the backdrop of heightened Israeli-Arab tensions in the region due to the Gaza situation. Peer was to be granted a "special permit" that allowed Israelis into the country. But two months before the event, no permit had been granted.

Scott responded by sending a letter that conveyed this message firmly: "You understand what your commitment is to us. You understand she must be allowed to play. You are at risk of losing your membership on the tour if Shahar is not allowed to play."

He was told not to worry. But as weeks passed, there was still no official approval, and Scott continued to press for it.

"The answer was always, 'Bear with us; this will be done.' " He was even apprised of security precautions in place, including the alias Peer would use. "They were going to wait until the last minute to make it official," Scott said.

No time to waste

On Friday night, Feb. 13, Scott went to sleep still certain the issue would be settled by the announcement of the draw, set for Saturday in Dubai. He awoke at 3 a.m. — noon in Dubai — and placed a call to make sure things were fine. They were not, and Scott had no time to waste.

"We had 80 players there, either in Dubai or on their way, for a tournament that's going to start Sunday morning," he said. "So I had to spring into action."

At 5 a.m. he called the player's father, Dovik Peer, in Israel to inform him his daughter had been denied entry to Dubai. A predawn news release was fired off condemning what happened. "We were still holding out some hope that it might turn around miraculously," Scott said.

Around 7 a.m. Scott reached Peer on her cell phone in Pattaya, Thailand, shortly after she had left the court in a tournament. She had already gotten word via a text message from her dad.

"I told her how sorry I was and that we would make this right as best we could for her," he said. "I talked to her about the players in Dubai and that I'd be talking to them. And I told her of the different options available to us, including walking away from the tournament and trying to organize a boycott on short notice."

But Peer was against boycotting, Scott said.

"Her words to me were: 'I'm the one with an Israeli passport. I'm the one who's suffering because of what's happening politically. I don't want my fellow players to suffer as well.' "

Hearing Peer's reaction helped Scott formulate his plan. "I came to the conclusion that our best course was — with the time that we had — not to try to withdraw our 80 players," he said. "It was to let the event carry on but use the platform we had to mount a campaign of international condemnation for what they had done — to take the high road, in a way. To me, getting this policy changed was what had to happen."

Pressure built up

The one thing Scott wanted to avoid was being overly confrontational, possibly precluding a positive resolution.

"Based on my years doing work in that part of the world, there's a fine line between mounting pressure and boxing people into a corner to the point you can't get the result you want," he said.

"One of my concerns was, if you pull the plug on the tournament, it would have been such a bloody nose for them and a loss of face that it might have made it impossible to leave them any wiggle room to change their policy."

For the next two days, he had conversations with the tournament organization, his board and his player advisory counsel, including Venus and Serena Williams. They agreed that players should express their feelings during interviews in Dubai, and Venus Williams spoke critically of Peer's exclusion while accepting the winner's trophy on the court.

Meanwhile, as negative media coverage mounted, corporate sponsors of events in Dubai and elsewhere in the region began asking questions about the status of their interests. "The pressure on the UAE built up very quickly," Scott said, "and started to create a snowball effect."

He took some hits in the media as well and received concerned calls and e-mails from members of the American Jewish community. So on Wednesday, Feb. 18, he organized a call to Jerusalem with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

"I wanted them to have some insight into what was going on, because there was a perception we had been complacent," Scott said. "I wanted advice. They understood our position that an eye for an eye wouldn't have accomplished much."

In addition, Scott called the Israeli foreign ministry and the UAE ambassador to Washington. "I think a lot of people saw the potential negative impact of what was happening, being possibly hugely damaging to the UAE and having ramifications beyond sports," he said.

One day later, a tournament news release was issued, reaffirming the policy that Israelis can play in Dubai. Ram was in. And Scott followed up by phone and in writing to the ambassador and tournament officials to make sure that applied to all Israeli athletes in the future, including Peer.

To show he was serious, Scott then levied the biggest fine in WTA history: $300,000 against the Dubai Open, double the previous largest amount, for excluding Peer. He now requires the tournament to finalize all visas eight weeks before the start date and post a $2 million bond to back up its assurances that Israelis will be allowed in, or it will lose that money and its spot on the tour.

Finally, if Peer fails to qualify for the tournament, organizers must still allow her to play as a wild card. He also awarded Peer $45,000, her average earnings, and enough points to ensure she wouldn't slip in the rankings.

"Shahar suffered from this, but she also made it possible for us to use the platform we did," Scott said. "And we used it to make a statement and affect a change."

WTA Tour CEO Larry Scott tells how he brought pressure on Dubai Open officials to get Israeli players permission to compete 03/04/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 5, 2009 6:43am]

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