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By Richard Pagliaro | @Tennis_Now | Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Rafael Nadal understands why some fans now see the king of clay as king of controversy. 

Last month, Nadal was named new ambassador for the Saudi Tennis Federation sparking criticism from some who slammed it as a "sell out" by tennis' ultimate sportsman.

More: Richard Evans Q&A

In a new interview with host Ana Pastor on Spanish television's El Objetivo, Nadal said while he understands the backlash, he believes "it's logical" sports leagues and sports stars are partnering with the Saudis given their resources and investments.

Nadal said if he doesn't see meaningful change in Saudi Arabia over the next decade "I will say that I have been completely wrong."

"I don't think Saudi Arabia needs me to clean up its image," Nadal told Ana Pastor in comments published by Spanish site "It is a country that has opened up to the world, a country with great potential.

"It is logical that the world goes there and the feeling is that everything is bought with money. And now [some say] Rafa has also sold out for money. I do understand it [that people think about it.]"

In his new role, Nadal is "part of a long-term commitment to help the sport grow and inspire a new generation of athletes in Saudi Arabia," the Federation said in a statement.

The Spanish superstar's decision to partner with Saudi Arabia sparked some intense criticism from some fans who condemn the king of clay for "selling out" accepting the Kingdom's dollars as part of it's ongoing efforts at "sports washing" to clean its image. 

Human Dignity Trust, an organization that "uses the law to defend the rights of LGBT people globally," has condemned Saudi Arabia for "criminalizing same-sex sexual activity between men and between women."

Asked her reaction to Nadal signing on as ambassador given Saudi Arabia's history on human rights and charges of sports washing, world No. 1 Iga Swiatek, a devoted Nadal fan, said she's not quite sure what to make of it.

"There were a lot of rumors about WTA Finals going to Saudi. We're still waiting for the decision," Swiatek told the media in Melbourne at last month's Australian Open. "It was always hard for me to say if it's good or not because it's not easy for women in these areas. Obviously these countries also want to change and improve politically and sociologically.

"It's not easy to decide. Also in terms of many events that were held, there were rumors about sports washing. In my case, because I have nothing to do with Rafa and his decisions, it should be up to the federations and the governing bodies who decide if we're going to play there or not.

"If there would be some negative backlash, they should take the responsibility."

While critics say Nadal put business interest above human interest, he disagrees.

The former world No. 1 recently visited Saudi Arabia with plans for a Rafa Nadal Academy in the works for the Kingdom.

The Saudi Tennis Federation said the nation currently hosts 177 tennis clubs, which marks a near 150 percent increase in clubs compared to 2019.

Two-time Olympic gold medal champion Nadal believes sport can influence the culture, create common ground and promote growth and understanding. Nadal said he's optimistic we will see positive change in Saudi Arabia and if it doesn't happen, he will own this experience as a major error in judgment.

"What are some things that need to be improved today? Absolutely," Nadal told Ana Pastor. "It is a country that is lagging far behind in many things and has recently opened up.

"If it does not achieve the evolution that I believe it has to follow in the next ten years, I will say that I have been completely wrong.

"I think I'm going to have the freedom to be able to work with the values that I think I have to work on and that are right. If that doesn't happen later, I'll tell you, Ana, in the next interview, I made a mistake and I've made a mistake."

Photo credit: Saudi Tennis Federation