- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2009

NEW YORK (AP) — Billie Jean King was set to celebrate the return of women’s tennis to Madison Square Garden with the Williams sisters and former President Bill Clinton on Monday night.

The founder of the Women’s Tennis Association was still upset about the visa troubles at the Dubai tournament two weeks ago and adamant the tour won’t return there next year if the problem recurs. Shahar Peer of Israel was denied a visa to play in Dubai, with the government citing security concerns.

“Believe me, it will never happen again,” King told The Associated Press. “We won’t be there, I can guarantee you that. Our sport has to set an example of freedom and equality.”

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The WTA fined the tournament a record $300,000, and Dubai officials later allowed Israel’s Andy Ram to play in the men’s tournament the following week. Officials had said they feared fan anger over Israel’s recent military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Venus Williams, who was to play former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic in a semifinal at the Garden for the Billie Jean King Cup on Monday night, was optimistic there would be no visa issues next year.

“I think everything was resolved,” Williams said Monday at a press conference. “Unless there’s further issues, I think it’s all been resolved and we’ll be fine next year.”

Williams won the Dubai tournament on Feb. 21 and addressed the controversy during the trophy presentation, saying she’d return to defend her title next year if everyone was given an equal chance to play.

“As players, we all support each other,” she said. “Of course, we were very supportive of Peer.”

King said the WTA was “blind-sided” and learned at the press conference announcing the draw that Peer wouldn’t be competing in the tournament.

“They threw a curve at the last second,” King said. “They’ve promised that she’ll be all right next year. But we’ll see.”

In the meantime, fans were to get a chance to see the top women’s players compete at the Garden for the first time in nearly a decade. The one-night exhibition was also to feature top-ranked Serena Williams against Ana Ivanovic, playing for $1.2 million in total prize money. The winner of the three-set final receives $400,000.

Clinton was to participate in a ceremony honoring King, and the tennis great was to join John McEnroe and Mary Carillo in the booth for the live broadcast on HBO.

“I hope it blossoms into an annual event,” HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg said. “If you can get Grand Slam champions showing up at Madison Square Garden every year, why not?”

The Garden hosted the WTA season-ending championships every year but one from 1977-2000. The event then hopscotched around the world to Munich, Los Angeles and Madrid before landing last year in Doha, Qatar, where it will be held through 2010.

“The reason it moved is people kept offering more money to have it,” King said. “Asia started to get interested in tennis and so they started offering big bucks because the government paid.

“You’ve got a free enterprise system here trying to compete with a government system there, and it can’t. They absolutely pay astronomical amounts. It doesn’t matter if the tournament makes money to them, they want to have the event. Then you’ve got Middle East money — it’s humongous.”

The Williams sisters will continue their boycott of the tournament at Indian Wells, Calif., one of the mandatory events on the WTA schedule. In 2001, Venus defaulted with a knee injury before a semifinal match against Serena and they were booed by the crowd. They’ve skipped the tournament the last seven years.

King is among a group of investors at Indian Wells, along with Chris Evert, Greg Norman, Pete Sampras and others. She isn’t expecting the Williams sisters to play in the March 11-22 tournament in their home state.

“I’d love them to play if it was in their hearts to play,” King said. “I totally understand why they don’t. I’d like them to forgive, so they can move on, whether they play in the tournament or not.”

BNP Paribas is sponsoring the Billie Jean King Cup. StarGames, which brought the sold-out Pete Sampras-Roger Federer exhibition match to the Garden last March, is producing the event.

The tournament is part of “Tennis Night in America,” an effort by the U.S. Tennis Association to get youth registered for the sport. More than 750 tennis and community centers are signing up kids for spring and summer leagues, the USTA said.

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