Tennis Legends Join Battle Over Saudi Hopes To Host Women’s Tennis

The WTA board is due to meet next week on the Saudi question amid concerns about whether it is ‘sportswashing’ the kingdom’s human rights record.

AP/Bob Dear
Chris Evert, left, and Martina Navratilova in 1987. AP/Bob Dear

While the world’s top tennis players compete in the U.S. Open at New York, leading voices in the sport are waging a different kind of battle — over the prospect of Saudi Arabia hosting the finals of the Women’s Tennis Association. 

Current and former tennis stars are divided over the Kingdom’s offer to host the finals at the end of November, a decision that the WTA board is due to vote on at meetings at New York next week. 

“I am against playing in Saudi Arabia because it sends a message of support — support of poor human rights stances, especially towards women who are very much second-class citizens,” the American tennis player once ranked number one in the world, Chris Evert, tells the Sun.

Saudi Arabia’s bid goes against the WTA’s historical defense of women in sports throughout its fifty-year history, Ms. Evert proclaims: “We are about equality, respect, and freedom for women. I would rather see the WTA take a little less money, and continue to show dignity and leadership, as we have in the past.”

Ms. Evert’s great tennis rival, the Czech-American former professional player who holds the most WTA Finals titles in history, Maria Navratilova, agrees: “I would not go play tennis in Saudi Arabia,” she wrote in a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. 

Defending champion Martina Navratilova reaches to shake hands with the umpire, as a dejected Chris Evert walks off court, after their Women's Singles semi-final on the Centre Court at Wimbledon, Thursday, June 30, 1988. Navratilova won the match 6-1, 4-6, 7-5 and will meet Steffi Graf in the final.(
The defending champion, Martina Navratilova, reaches to shake hands with the umpire as Chris Evert walks off court at Wimbledon, June 30, 1988. AP/Robert Dear

To show the other side of the debate, the Tunisian player ranked number five in the world, Ons Jabeur, is celebrating the potential Gulf state destination for the season-ending tournament, which comprises the top-eight women’s players in the rankings.

“I think it’s a great step,” Ms. Jabeur said in an on-court interview after her first round win at the U.S. Open last week. “I think it’s something that could help the Arab world to have more tennis players, to get more involved in sports.”

The founder of the WTA herself, Billie Jean King, also argued that this partnership would further women’s rights in the Middle East. “I’m a huge believer in engagement. I don’t think you really change unless you engage,” she told the National in July, noting that the 2008 WTA Tour Championships held at Doha, Qatar, garnered “a lot of flak but a lot of wonderment.”

There are, though, “tons of issues” with hosting the finals in a country with an infamous record on women’s rights, the tour’s chief executive, Steve Simon, said at an event at London in June to honor the founding of the WTA.

Saudi Arabia is already set to host its first professional tennis tournament, a competition of under-21 male players, the Association of Tennis Professionals’ Next Gen Finals, at the city of Jeddah as part of a four-year partnership with the ATP.

Tennis star John McEnroe voiced opposition to ties between the Kingdom and the principal organizing bodies of women’s and men’s professional tennis. “I don’t think our sport needs it,” he said at an ESPN event. “I don’t think it would benefit from it.”

The issue of LGBTQ rights also looms large over this decision, given Saudi Arabia’s track record on the issue. If the WTA accepts the bid, it might draw further criticism from players like the Russian number one, Daria Kasatkina, who has been outspoken about her relationship with Olympic figure skater Natalia Zabiiako. “I want to ask the W.T.A. if I can play under the rainbow flag,” Ms. Kasatkina recently joked to the New York Times. 

The Gulf state’s bid to host the finals comes amid its recent history of leveraging financial prowess for global influence by throwing billions of dollars into sports deals in recent years. In 2018, the Saudi sports ministry signed a ten-year contract to host the World Wrestling Entertainment events, a deal that earns the wrestling company one hundred million dollars a year, its quarterly reports suggest. 

Through its 650 billion-dollar Public Investment Fund — the fifth-largest sovereign wealth fund in the world, run by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — the Kingdom has expanded its investments to host major events in boxing, tennis, horse racing, soccer, golf, and Formula 1 automobile racing. 

Notably, the Fund launched LIV Golf in 2022 as a competitor to the American-based PGA tour, but the two series agreed to merge in June after embroiling themselves in lawsuits over antitrust claims.

American lawmakers and human rights groups have warned that these investments could be an exercise in “sportswashing” by the Saudi government to boost its international standing.

“The country’s sports investments could have significant international implications,” the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in a July brief. “With a larger and more diversified economy, Saudi Arabia could chart a more independent foreign policy while enhancing its international image by tying it to recognizable cultural products.”

The WTA, though, has earned a reputation for standing up to authoritarian regimes. The organization suspended all of its events in the People’s Republic of China over concerns about the communist government’s treatment of its player Peng Shuai. She accused a former top Communist Party leader of sexual assault and was then pressured to retract her allegation. 

“Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022,” Mr. Simon said in a December 2021 statement

In 2022, the WTA tournament was held at Fort Worth, Texas, and the year before, at Guadalajara, Mexico. The Czech Republic also put in a bid to host the WTA Finals, which could match the Saudi offer, according to tennis journalist Jon Wertheim.

The New York Sun

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