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By Richard Pagliaro | @Tennis_Now | Monday, January 15, 2024

The king of clay has signed on as tennis ambassador for the Kingdom.

Rafael Nadal has been named new ambassador for the Saudi Tennis Federation, the organization announced today.

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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 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.

"Growth and progress that’s important to see and the STF is working on that," Nadal posted on social media. "In a recent visit I saw the interest in both aspects and I want to be part of that role of growing the sport of tennis around the world.

"The kids are looking to the future and I saw they are passionate about sports… I want to encourage them to pick up a racket and enjoy the benefits of a healthy living."

The announcement signals Saudi Arabia's latest investment in tennis, which has created controversy and divided some in the tennis world.

Skeptics say seeing one of the game's greatest champions, who has exhibited respect and tolerance throughout his brilliant career, aligned with a regime that represses women and criminalizes same-sex relationships is a heartbreaking sell out.

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 sportswashing, world No. 1 Iga Swiatek 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 after her opening-round win over Sofia Kenin. "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 sportswashing. 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. For me it's hard to straightforwardly go one way and say anything. I didn't even know about Rafa's decision. Obviously men's sport is already there in Saudi. I don't know if it's a good decision or not. I'm kind of trying not to be too up front."

Supporters of Saudi Arabia's deepening ties in the sport, including Ons Jabeur, Billie Jean King and Jessica Pegula, say tennis can help create cultural and social impact in the middle east while receiving much-needed financial support.

Pointing to the Saudi funded Public Investment Fund launching its LIV golf tour that poached the PGA's top stars, supporters say tennis should embrace Saudi support of the sport and work cooperatively to grow the game and hopefully human rights awareness rather than run the risk of a rival tennis tour. 

Supporters say face facts: Saudis are already invested in tennis sponsoring the year-end Next Gen ATP Finals in Jeddah, hosting lucrative exhibitions and growing their own playing population. Given the instability in the world that can impact the tours (see WTA economic fall-out pulling out of China in protest of the Peng Shuai case), tennis should value and nurture this Saudi partnership that can truly benefit both sides.

Critics, including John McEnroe, Daria Kasatkina and Chrissie Evert, oppose it citing the Kingdom's human rights violations. McEnroe has called it "comical that it's even being brought up."

"I don't know why in the hell tennis would suddenly be, Let's talk to the Saudis after the debacle that you're watching in golf," McEnroe told the media in an ESPN Zoom call. "To me it's comical that it's even being brought up right now. A pun: Par for the course."

Tennis is the latest sports venture the Public Investment Fund, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, has tapped in moves critics call "sport washing"—an attempt to obscure Saudi Arabia's human rights violations and connection to the 9/11 terrorist attacks with high profile sporting investments.

Last November, The Athletic's Matthew Futterman reported Saudi investors have begun negotiations with IMG, which owns both Madrid and Miami, in an effort to purchase tournament rights. 

There is also the prospect of the Saudis buying a Masters 1000 event and moving the tournament to the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia has also reportedly negotiated for the rights to the WTA Finals.

McEnroe, who opposes Saudi investment in the sport because of its human rights violations, says given the millions of dollars at stake, and the fact the Saudis already created the LIV golf league in 2021, makes the Kingdom's increased investment in tennis virtually inevitable.

In fact, Hall of Famer McEnroe said "I'd be surprised if the Saudis don't buy those [Miami and Madrid] tournaments."

"It wouldn’t shock me, let’s put it this way, because it’s the old money talks," McEnroe told the media in an ESPN Zoom call last week. "Oh no, I wouldn’t do that. Wait how much was I offered? On second thought maybe I’ll do that.

"Personally, I disagree with it completely in golf and tennis. I mean the ladies are going to play the WTA Finals there? Are you kidding me? Because they treat women so well?

"So that part, to me, is laughable. But at the same time what is also laughable is that people can criticize tennis players or golfers for doing something that virtually every business and the government do which is deal with Saudi Arabia.

"So this idea that tennis players have to set the moral standard or golfers for that matter when they’re all making the money. It’s a total joke as far as I’m concerned. But we’ll see what happens. I’d be surprised if the Saudis don’t buy those tournaments, actually. Not that they will. I’ll be surprised if they don’t have them."

Photo credit: Saudi Tennis Federation