In 2007 Shahar Peer became the first Israeli to reach the quarterfinals of a major tennis tournament – the US and Australian Open. With a highest ranking of 11th in the world, she netted 8 major tournaments, beat the world’s best, and throughout it all, never lost her sense of pride and personal responsibility when representing Israel and the Jewish people.

A visit to Auschwitz days before the French Open, refusing to play on Yom Kippur, serving in the IDF, and fighting for the rights of Israeli sportsmen against discrimination in the Arab world are among the memories she will treasure the most.

Leading March of the Living

In April 2010, when most tennis players were in the finishing stages of preparations for the upcoming French Open, Shahar Peer, the granddaughter of Holocaust survivor Yuliana Eckstein, accepted an invitation to lead March of the Living, which sees thousands of Jews of all ages march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, where over a million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

Peer with her grandmother in Auschwitz

“I grew up a half hour drive from my grandmother who lived in Jerusalem,” she told Aish.com.  “We had a very close relationship, but there were many things that she did not want to speak about. When the invitation from March of the Living arrived, it was in the busiest time of the tennis circuit but I knew I had to accept. In the end my grandmother, my mother and I all went together. It was an incredibly moving experience.”

With Rabbi Lau at March of the Living

Eckstein who passed away two years ago aged 82, was born in Czechoslovakia and spent six months imprisoned in Auschwitz, where her brother and parents were killed. Prior to Peer’s acceptance to lead the delegation, Eckstein had refused to revisit the camp.

“To go back to Auschwitz was very tough for my grandmother,” Peer recalled. “I remember how cold it was and that I just wanted to hold onto her.” She added, “Even though I was there officially leading the delegation, in my mind it was not a public event at all, it was so personal. I didn’t give any speeches or statements, it was just about being there with my grandmother.”

Making her grandmother proud

“My Grandmother was always happy when I won,” Peer says, “I’m not sure she would have been a natural tennis fan, but she always followed my successes as any grandmother would. She came to see me play a few times which was really special for me.”

“I always knew I would wear a black band if ever I had to play a tennis match on Holocaust Memorial Day,” she says. “It only happened once. It was in 2011 in the first round of the Spanish Open in Madrid, I don’t know if anyone else understood, but it was very significant for me.”

Proud of Israel, Proud to serve in the IDF

At the age of 19, two years into her professional career, Peer was conscripted to the IDF. She could have sought an exemption from but instead she embraced her service, becoming the first player to compete in major tournaments while serving in an army.

“After playing matches, I would put on my uniform and go back to my base,” she said. “Sometimes players would ask me about it and I would tell them, I have always been very proud of being an Israeli and it was very important to serve my country.”

She added, “When Reebok asked me what I wanted on my shoes, I immediately replied, ‘My name Shahar and the Israeli flag.’”

Yom Kippur in Tashkent

As a Jewish tennis player there were at times clashes of dates. “It has always been important for me to connect to my Judaism, wherever I am,” Peer said. One year she refused to play in the Tashkent tournament in Uzbekistan when one of her matches was set to take place on Yom Kippur. “I explained I wouldn’t complete unless there was a schedule change so I wouldn’t need to play during the fast.” In the end the match was moved.

“Jewish holidays have always been important to me. Wherever I was in the world I made sure to celebrate them. I spent Rosh Hashana with the Israeli Ambassador to Japan one year, and another year in a Chabad House in Beijing, and a number of times with different Jewish families around the world.“

Breaking Barriers

In 2008, Peer became the first Israeli to compete in the Arabian Peninsula, at the Qatar Total Open. But a backlash in the Arab world led her to be denied entry to the Dubai Open the following year.

“I was actually on my way to the airport when I was told I wouldn’t be allowed to get on the plane.” The authorities in Dubai argued that her presence there would lead to anger and unrest.

"It hurt mentally and professionally,” she said, “I was playing very well. I was on a good run and I was ready for the tournament. To be barred from a country is not a nice feeling. There's no place for that in sport. I actually think that sport can make things better and help political situations, not make them worse."

As Peer was forced to return home, several fellow tennis stars came to her support. Reigning champion at Dubai, Andy Roddick pulled out of tournament in protest forfeiting a potential $2million payout to defend his title. “I was very surprised he did that,” said Peer. “We didn’t know each other so well and I was very touched.” Momentum grew when Cable Network’s Tennis Channel decided not to televise the event and The Wall Street Journal dropped its sponsorship.

The United Arab Emirates caved in and allowed Peer to play the following year, although she was placed under strict restrictions with a heavy security detail. “I wasn’t allowed to mix with other players off the court at all,” she recalls “I was forced to use a separate changing room and gym to all the other girls.”

On the tennis court in Dubai she played her heart out, knocking out No.1 seed Caroline Wozniacki in the fourth round, eventually succumbing to Venus Williams in the semifinals who heaped praise on her after the game. "I can't imagine playing so well under these kinds of circumstances,” Williams said. “She is so courageous. I don't think anyone else on the WTA tour could do what she's doing."

After winning her opening game of the tournament Peer broke down in tears. “It was the first time I had ever cried after a game, but I knew it was so much more than a tennis match. I was representing Israel and the Jewish people and it was probably the tournament that defined my career.”