With the golf world already divided over Saudi Arabia’s emergence as a powerful force in the game, another major sport is debating whether to do business with the kingdom.
This time it’s women’s tennis, which withdrew from China last year due to concerns for the welfare of a player who accused a Chinese vice premier of sexual assault and then later disappeared from sight.
Saudi Arabia has approached the Women’s Tennis Association to host an event, possibly the Tour Finals, but the WTA has not considered the possibility of a tournament there formally.
WTA Chief Executive Steve Simon declined to be interviewed for this story, but a spokeswoman, Amy Binder, confirmed Saudi Arabia’s interest, saying in a statement: “As an organization global, we welcome inquiries received from anywhere in the world and seriously consider what each opportunity may bring.
In recent weeks, professional golf has been shaken up by the launch of the LIV Golf Invitational series, which is funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and pays $4 million in prize money to tournament winners, along with an entry fee that could reach $200 million. Players like Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson who quit the PGA Tour and joined LIV Golf have been accused by other players of helping the kingdom ‘sportswash’ its human rights abuses, including sponsored murder by the government in 2018 of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
Saudi Arabia’s interest in tennis was first reported by The Telegraph in Britain.
In recent years, the kingdom has invested heavily in sporting and cultural events as part of a wider effort to project a new image to the world. The women’s tennis tour would likely face questions if it staged events in Saudi Arabia, where women’s rights have been curtailed and women only won the right to drive in 2018. (Saudi Arabia has hosted professional women’s golf events, hosting the official European Ladies Tour stops each of the past three years.)
When veteran Chinese player Peng Shuai disappeared last year, Simon demanded a full investigation into her allegations. Peng eventually reappeared, but when Chinese authorities did not allow Peng to meet Simon and the WTA independently, Simon suspended all tour activities in China, including his 10-year contract to host the finals. of the tour in Shenzhen.
It was a blow for the WTA. China had paid a record price of $14 million in 2019, the first year of the deal. That was double the prize money of 2018, when the WTA Finals ended its five-year run in Singapore. The WTA moved the finals last year to Guadalajara, Mexico, which offered just $5 million in prize money and a significantly reduced payment for the right to host the event.
WTA executives have yet to announce the host city for the WTA Finals for 2022, and it remains a challenge, with the longer-term Shenzhen agreement still in place, to find interested candidates to apply for the Finals. for only one year.
Saudi Arabia, with its appetite for international sport and huge financial resources, fits the profile of a potential candidate.
“They’re interested in women’s sport and they’re interested in big events, so that’s for sure,” said Austrian businessman and tennis tournament promoter Peter-Michael Reichel.
The WTA has been organizing events in Arab countries, including Qatar and Dubai, for years. But Saudi Arabia has yet to secure an official men’s or women’s tour event despite increasingly serious offers.
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic were due to play an exhibition there in December 2018, but came under pressure to cancel it after Khashoggi was assassinated at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October of the same year. The exhibition match was eventually called off, with Nadal citing an ankle injury.
A year later, an exhibition of eight tennis players took place in Riyadh in December 2019 before the start of the men’s tennis regular season. The Diriyah Tennis Cup brought together leading ATP players Daniil Medvedev from Russia, Stan Wawrinka from Switzerland and John Isner from the USA and was played in a temporary 15,000 seat stadium. Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki al-Faisal, chairman of the Saudi General Sports Authority, called the hosting of the event “a new watershed moment for the kingdom” and struck the first ceremonial service.
Reichel helped organize the 2019 exhibition through his company RBG. He said the exhibition was due to be canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, but the plan was to relaunch the event later this year and include a women’s exhibition tournament.
“I’m very optimistic that we can develop the tennis business there,” Reichel said in a phone interview from London on Thursday.
Reichel said he thought it was appropriate for the sport to do business with Saudi Arabia, which he said has progressed as a society since he first went there in 1983.
“I was so positively surprised,” he said. “I was there several times. The international picture talks about the murder of Khashoggi and driving licenses for women. That’s what people know, and there’s a lot more to report, I think.
Reichel’s company owns and operates the WTA tournament in Linz, Austria, and the ATP tournament in Hamburg, Germany. He is a member of the WTA board of directors and was one of those who lobbied for Saudi Arabia to organize an official tour. But so far, these efforts have failed. The ATP recently rejected a proposal in which Reichel was involved to move an existing event to Saudi Arabia.
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“Hopefully we can achieve that next year,” Reichel said.
A former WTA board member, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the board, said: “I think the WTA is being polite in acknowledging the Saudi interest, but from there, to accept and move in that direction, I don’t see that happening for many reasons.
Reichel acknowledged that some board members resist the idea of hosting a women’s event in the kingdom due to political sensitivities.
“They think that by not going to China, we can’t go to Saudi Arabia,” he said. “I don’t want to see that comparison because China is a very specific thing with sexual assault for one of our players, and Saudi Arabia is a market that’s opening up to women and trying to support women, which is a good sign. But I’m in the middle of these talks with our tour, and I’m not sure we can get there in 23, but in 24, we’ll see.
Reichel declined to comment when asked if the Saudis are trying to bid for this year’s WTA Tour Finals.
The question is what the Saudis might choose to do in tennis if their efforts to secure an official tour event continue to be pushed back. Could they envision an equivalent of LIV Golf, creating a rival circuit by poaching superstar players?
Ari Fleischer, a communications consultant and former spokesman for President George W. Bush who worked closely with the Saudis to establish the golf circuit, said earlier this week that he was unaware of any no effort to create a new tennis circuit.
Reichel also said he had seen no indication that a new tour was in the works. He said he expected Saudi Arabia to work with tennis tours to organize events.
“But if the tours aren’t willing to work together, I don’t know,” he said. Referring to the Saudis, he added: “For sure they have the money to make it happen.”
Cindy Shmerler contributed report.