Israel, Politics, and the Curious Case of Tennis Pro Malek Jaziri
Tensions between Israel and various Arab nations are spilling over into the world of professional tennis and making for some dangerous situations.
Image via Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
The first week of February was supposed to be one of celebration for Tunisian tennis player Malek Jaziri.
Coming off of his career-best third-round appearance at the Australian Open, the 31-year-old reached a career-high ranking of No. 65 on February 2, and had a decent draw in the Open Sud de France, a low-level ATP indoor hard-court tournament in Montpellier, that week.
In the first round, he was playing against Denis Istomin, a player from Uzbekistan ranked No. 61 in the world. Jaziri won the first set fairly easily, 6-3. That's when things went off course. Despite the fact that he was in full control of the match, Jaziri retired from his match.
In the second round, he was slated to play Dudi Sela. From Israel.
For people who follow tennis, what happened against Istomin was far from surprising.
In fact, as soon as the draw came out for the Open Sud de France, tennis fans and media members keyed in on Jaziri's portion of the draw.
Jaziri was also entered in the doubles tournament of the Open Sud de France, but withdrew from that draw as well. Coincidentally—or, you know, not—he was slated to play Israeli Jonathan Erlich in his next doubles match.
The ATP investigated the incident by talking to Jaziri and medical staff at the tournament, and quickly cleared Jaziri of any wrongdoing. But obviously, there are few who take the ATP for their word on that due to what's happened in the past.
There have been many cries for the ATP to suspend Jaziri. After all, though it's likely that the pressure is coming from the Tunisian Tennis Federation (Jaziri is known to be friends with Israeli players, particularly Weintraub), at the end of the day it's still Jaziri who is pulling out of the matches. And while he is being punished in the form of the prize money and ranking points he forfeits, Jaziri's not the only one who suffers. A withdrawal or retirement of any kind creates a ripple effect that hurts the tournament and its fans.
Therefore, the ATP needs to send a strong message that political withdrawals are unacceptable in the world of tennis, right?
Well, it's not that simple.
In the past decade, we've seen sharp examples of tennis as a platform for healing and hope in the face of political or religious conflict. Most notably, Israeli Shahar Peer and Indian Muslim Sania Mirza played doubles together despite criticism from Muslim extremists, and Pakistani Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi and Indian Rohan Bopanna formed a successful doubles partnership dubbed the Indo-Pak Express. ("Stop war, start tennis" was their motto.)
But this is different. While the heated Arab-Israeli conflict has bled over to sports before, typically in competition between Iranian and Israeli athletes, tennis has not had to deal with this situation much before, primarily because there aren't many successful Arab tennis players. Jaziri's late-career surge has changed that.
Now the tennis community is being faced with some tough questions.
"What a lot of people don't understand is that it's a difficult situation for the player no matter what," Reem Abulleil, a tennis journalist from Dubai who has covered Jaziri's career closely, told New York Times journalist Ben Rothenberg on the tennis podcast, No Challenges Remaining. "There's always consequences, whether you like it or not."
Abulleil saw some of these consequences when she looked at Jaziri's Facebook page when he was slated to play Weintraub back in 2013. There were threats from extremists, some even against his family, if he took the court to play the match.
"It's pressure," Abulleil said. "It's not pressure because he agrees with them, it's pressure because he's from a small country in Tunisia and everyone knows who he is because he's famous there. His family lives there. People can actually hurt his family, because as you can see in the news this days, crazy things are happening.
"He worries, whether he admits it or not. It's a factor because there is a consequence if he plays a match like that."
It's easy to accuse Jaziri of damaging the sanctity of sport from afar, but for him and many others, it's about much more than a game.
"It's bigger than tennis," Abulleil said. "Things are spiraling out of control these days in more ways than one... It's an amazing idealistic notion that sport transcends everything and politics don't mix with sports. You know what? This is the real world and it does...even if the player doesn't want it to. It's coming from outside."
So where does that leave the ATP? With the popularity of tennis rising in Arab nations thanks to high-profile tournaments in Doha and Dubai, this is not an issue that's going away. It seems to be only a matter of time before this happens on a bigger stage than a 250-level tournament in France.
There's no easy solution, but it's clear that players dealing with difficult political climates need full support from the ATP. They need to feel safe while doing their job. There needs to be an open line of communication between the players, the tours, the tournaments, and fans. There need to be policies put in place addressing these issues, and there need to be concrete consequences if a player violates them.
Refusing to play a match because of racism is not okay. Refusing to play a match because of a legitimate safety concern? That's different. But neither situation is properly addressed by a faux injury report or turning a blind eye. It only serves to destroy the credibility of both the players and the organization.
Right now, in my eyes, the continued silence from the ATP is more insulting and infuriating than anything Jaziri has done.
Jaziri is finally enjoying the fruits of his life-long hard work and determination on the court. He is experiencing success that he could only dream of a few years ago when he was a 28-year-old who had never even been inside the top 100.
He deserves a chance to enjoy the rest of his career without a cloud of controversy hanging over his head. So do we.