With the golf world already divided over Saudi Arabia’s emergence as a powerful force in the game, another major sport is contending with whether to do business with the kingdom.
This time it’s women’s tennis, which pulled out of China last year over concerns over the welfare of a player who accused a Chinese vice premier of sexual assault and later disappeared.
Saudi Arabia has approached the Women’s Tennis Association about hosting an event, possibly the Tour Finals, but the WTA has not entertained the prospect of a tournament in any formal fashion.
Steve Simon, chief executive of the WTA, declined to be interviewed for this article, but a spokeswoman, Amy Binder, confirmed Saudi Arabia’s interest, saying in a statement, “As a global organization, we are appreciative of inquiries received from anywhere in the The world and we look seriously at what every opportunity may bring. “
In recent weeks, professional golf has been upended by the start of the LIV Golf Invitational series, which is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and is paying $ 4 million to win tournament winners, along with participation fees reportedly as high as $ 200 million. Players like Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson who have left the PGA Tour and joined LIV Golf have been accused of helping other players “sportswash” its human rights to the kingdom, among them the 2018 government-sponsored killing of the Saudi journalist and dissident. Jamal Khashoggi.
Saudi Arabia’s interest in tennis was first reported by The Telegraph in Britain.
Recent years in the kingdom have invested heavily in sports and cultural events as part of a broader effort to project a new image around the world. The women’s tennis tour will likely face questions if it is staged events in Saudi Arabia, where women’s rights have been curtailed and women have gained the right to drive only in 2018. (Saudi Arabia has staged professional women’s golf events, hosting official Ladies European Tour stops each of the last three years.)
When the veteran Chinese player Peng Shuai disappeared last year, Simon demanded a full investigation of his allegations. Peng eventually reappeared, but when Chinese authorities did not allow Peng to meet independently with Simon and the WTA, Simon suspended all tourist business in China, including a 10-year deal to hold the Tour Finals in Shenzen.
This was a significant financial blow to the WTA. China had a record $ 14 million in prize money in 2019, the first year of the agreement. That was double the amount of prize money from 2018, when the WTA Finals finished its five-year run in Singapore. The WTA relocated the finals to Guadalajara, Mexico, last year, which offered only $ 5 million in prize money and a dramatically reduced payment for the right-to-host event.
WTA residents have yet to announce the WTA Finals host city for 2022, and it is currently facing a challenge, with the longer-term Shenzhen deal still in place, to find candidates interested in bidding for the Finals for just one year.
Saudi Arabia, with its appetite for international sport and huge financial resources, fits the profile of a potential bidder.
“They are interested in women’s sports, and they are interested in big events, so for sure,” said the Austrian businessman and tennis tournament promoter Peter-Michael Reichel.
The WTA has held events in Arab countries, including Qatar and Dubai, for years. But Saudi Arabia has yet to secure an official tour event in addition to men’s or women’s tennis making increasingly serious offers.
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic were set to play an exhibition there in December 2018 but were put under pressure to stop the assassination of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October of that year. The exhibition match was eventually called off with Nadal citing an ankle injury.
A year later, an eight-man tennis exhibition was played in Riyadh in December 2019 ahead of the regular men’s tennis season. The Diriyah Tennis Cup featuring the leading ATP players Daniil Medvedev of Russia, Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland and John Isner of the United States and played in a temporary 15,000-seat stadium. Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki al-Faisal, chairman of the Saudi General Sports Authority, called the event “another watershed moment for the kingdom” and hit the ceremonial first.
Reichel helped organize the 2019 exhibition through his company RBG. He said the exhibition was to be canceled in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic but that the plan was to revive the event later this year and include a women’s exhibition tournament.
“I’m very optimistic we can develop the tennis business there,” Reichel said in a telephone interview from London on Thursday.
Reichel said he believes it is appropriate for sports to do business with Saudi Arabia, which he says is advanced as a society since he first went there on business in 1983.
“I was so positively surprised,” he said. “I was there many times. The international image of talking about the murder of Khashoggi and driving licenses for women. This is what people know, and there is much more to be reported, 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 has been one of those lobbying for Saudi Arabia to have an official tour event. But for now, those efforts have fallen short. The ATP recently rebuffed a proposal that Reichel was relocating to an existing event in Saudi Arabia.
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“Hopefully we can achieve it next year,” Reichel said.
One former WTA board member, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for the board, said, “I think the WTA is recognizing the Saudi interest in polite but from there to accept and go in that direction, I don ‘ Don’t see it happening for a lot of reasons. “
Reichel acknowledged that some board members are resisting the idea of holding a women’s event in the kingdom because of political sensitivities.
“They think not going to China, we cannot go to Saudi,” he said. “I don’t want to see this comparison, because China is a very specific thing with one of our players for sexual assault, and Saudi is a market that is opening up for women and trying to support women, which is a good sign. But I’m in the middle of these discussions with our tour, and I’m not sure we can achieve it in ’23, but in ’24 we ‘ll see. “
Reichel declined to comment when asked if the Saudis were trying to bid for this year’s WTA Tour Finals.
The question is whether the Saudis might choose to do so in tennis if their efforts are securely rebuffed to continue an official tour event. Could they consider a LIV Golf equivalent, creating a rival tour by poaching superstar players?
Ari Fleischer, the communications consultant and former spokesman for President George W. Bush, who has worked closely with the Saudis to establish a golf tour, said earlier this week he was unaware of any attempt to create a new tennis tour.
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 stage events.
“But if the tours aren’t willing to work together then I don’t know,” he said. Referring to the Saudis, he added, “For sure they have the money to make everything happen.”
Cindy Shmerler contributed reporting.