Anyone else find it strange that Agassi is in Dubai this week? When he's always been "Mr. Vegas," loves his hometown, has all his charitable works there and his home, and now there is finally an ATP tournament there where he would be King Supreme of Las Vegas, he opts to play halfway around the world. Was it simply money talking?
-- Diane, N.Y.
Dubai has emerged as a real player on the tennis-scape chiefly for one reason: money. The amount of cha-ching being lavished on players is stunning. The appearance fees are off the charts, rumored to be in the $1 million range for the top names. Prize money is tremendous. Players leave the event with jewelry, watches and, at least in one case, a horse.
What's more, there's a seven-star (yes, seven) hotel not far from the tennis center. If you were a WTA player, would you have been in Memphis last week?
In the case of Agassi, we hear that he committed to Dubai long in advance (he was eliminated by Bjorn Phau on Wednesday). But yes, especially, in a culture in which changes in scheduling and last-minute pull-outs are commonplace, it's more than a little disappointing that he is missing the ATP's inaugural event in his hometown to make a mint half a world away.
The big money makes it all the easier for both tours to overlook some weighty -- and uncomfortable -- sociopolitical issues. The current "ports controversy" has laid bare the United Arab Emirate's role as a financial and logistical hub in the planning of the 9-11 attacks. As for the tennis, as I wrote a few years ago, the U.A.E. does not exactly have a sterling record on women's rights. Further, like other Arab nations, the U.A.E. doesn't have diplomatic relations with Israel.
Reader Lance Harke called this
link to our attention. Note this prominent line: "Nationals of 'Israel' may not enter the U.A.E." If I'm, say, Shahar Peer, the top-40 Israeli player, I'm sure not happy that my tour is sanctioning events in countries in which I am not welcome. It's not a perfect analogy but we'll make this one anyway: Would the WTA or ATP ever even think about sanctioning an event in a country or club that excluded African-Americans? (Then again, if the country in question were offering $1.5 million in prize money, high six-figure guarantees and had a duty free shop that was a chief sponsor of the tour. Well, maybe. )
We asked the ATP and WTA about this issue and both tours reported that before giving their sanction, they had assurances that no player would be denied entry into the Dubai event. I was struck by how closely the logic parallels President Bush's position on the ports. While this country isn't perfect, let's use this as an opportunity to bridge gaps and establish trust.
Here's WTA CEO Larry Scott: "The Sony Ericsson WTA Tour and our player and tournament members believe that through sport we can act as a positive influence for social change and equality, particularly in the area of women's rights. We are one of many sporting organizations that has reached this conclusion on the role that sport can play in diverse countries throughout the world."
Like many of you, I have a hard time with Scott's situational ethics. And I also recognize that the U.A.E.'s monopoly money is playing a huge role in the equation. But another part of me is inclined to give him (and the ATP) the benefit of the doubt. Bringing women's tennis to a moderate Arab country may ultimately lead to improving women's rights as well as a better understanding of the West. Who knows? It might even lead to a day when Peer and the 10 other Israeli players ranked by the WTA don't need special permission to enter the country.