Playing away from home

Last updated 10:32 29/10/2012
Lebannon explosion
Anyone for tennis?: The scene in Beirut after the huge car bomb that killed a leading politician.

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The term "hostile environment" can mean many different things in sport. However, it's undoubtedly accurate to say the 2013 New Zealand Davis Cup tennis team will be venturing into a hostile environment.

OPINION: The New Zealanders travel to Beirut in February to take on Lebanon. If they survive that, they progress to a tie in Pakistan.

There are many times in sport when visiting teams or players are made to feel less than welcome.

I once attended a Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal football match and the ill-feeling between rival supporters was palpable. It's the same or worse in other great football rivalries - Celtic v Rangers, Brazil v Argentina, Barcelona v Real Madrid, Inter Milan v Juventus, Czech Republic v Slovakia and so on.

Davis Cup ties are sometimes played in difficult spots.

Czech players Ivan Lendl and Tomas Smid were so appalled by the Paraguayan spectators' behaviour in Asuncion in 1983 that they clambered into the stands to deal to them.

New Zealand cricketers have returned from India with tales of firecrackers being let off as the bowler delivered a ball, and mirrors reflecting light into the eyes of visiting batsmen.

Europe's Ryder Cup golfers claimed foul play at Brookline in 1999 when American players leapt on to the green after Justin Leonard had sunk a vital putt, meaning Leonard's opponent, Jose Maria Olazabal, had to cool his heels.

More threateningly, New Zealander Kevin Barry had bottles and chairs thrown at him after his victory by disqualification over American favourite Evander Holyfield at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

All that pales compared to what visiting cricket teams, including New Zealand, have had to contend with when touring Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Two bomb explosions in Sir Lanka prematurely terminated New Zealand tours there and another caused the abandonment of New Zealand's 2002 tour of Pakistan. In 2009 the Sri Lankan team was shot at while on a bus in Lahore.

The task ahead for the tennis players is at least as frightening.

Beirut, where intelligence official Wissam al-Hassan has just been assassinated in a car bomb explosion, is again becoming a battlefield for anti and pro Syrian fighters.

And international sport in Pakistan has virtually ceased because of security concerns.

The New Zealand Davis Cup team lost to Uzbekistan, India and Chinese Taipei this year and have been relegated to the Asia Oceania Group II section, alongside Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

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It's another indication of how tennis has plummeted in New Zealand.

Brian Fairlie, Onny Parun, Chris Lewis, Kelly Evernden and Brett Steven were once genuine New Zealand sports personalities.

Their matches, including eight years in the prestigious Davis Cup world group, drew big crowds and television audiences.

If Artem Sitak, Daniel King-Turner, Michael Venus and Rubin Statham - today's Davis Cup squad - walked down Queen St or Lambton Quay holding tennis rackets, few would give them a second glance.

We're a long way removed from the heady days of 1982, when we made the Davis Cup semi-final.

Now New Zealand has a Davis Cup ranking of 42nd, barely ahead of Pakistan (53) and Lebanon (69).

Instead of contemplating meeting great players in famous venues, the New Zealanders will be scanning the news pages to read about Middle Eastern and Asian wars, random bombings, slaughter and mayhem.

That is truly what I would call a hostile environment.

- The Wellingtonian


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