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By Richard Pagliaro | @Tennis_Now | Friday, November 3, 2023

Saudi Arabia is targeting two of tennis' top 1000 tournaments—the Miami Open and Mutua Madrid Open—as it increases its investment in the sport.

The Athletic's Matthew Futterman reports Saudi investors have begun negotiations with IMG, which owns both Madrid and Miami, in an effort to purchase tournament rights. If Saudi Arabia acquires either tournament, it would be a major player in the sport.

Sabalenka: Very Disappointed with WTA

There is also the prospect of the Saudis buying a Masters 1000 event and moving the tournament to the Kingdom.

Skeptics charge tennis is flirting with a fault line taking money from Saudi Arabia given the Kingdom’s record on human rights violations and the fact same sex activity for both men and women is illegal in Saudi Arabia.

Why would tennis, a sport that prides itself on equality and integrity, sell out foundational values to partner with a regime that represses women and criminalizes same-sex relationships, critics ask?

Supporters say tennis can help inspire positive change by competing in Saudi Arabia, increase player prize money, tap a valuable revenue stream and potentially grow the game in the Middle East.


A post shared by #MMOPEN (@mutuamadridopen)

Players supporting Saudi investment in tennis cite several positives, including:

* Saudi Arabia is already invested in tennis as it hosts the ATP NextGen Finals this month. By working with the Saudis as tournament owners and Tour allies, the game's governing bodies not only increase revenue, they decrease the chances of the nation launching its own rival tennis tour, as it did with the LIV golf tour, and poaching top stars away from the ATP and WTA.

* The Tours receive an infusion of resources from a wealthy investor, which is particularly vital to the WTA, reportedly battling financial issues.

* Players could see more prize money and benefits, which has been a primary aim, with the WTA goal of equal prize money at all tournaments more feasible with more money in the game.

Last summer, the PGA Tour announced its plan to merge with Saudi-sponsored LIV Golf. It's 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.

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."

"Due to the opacity of Saudi Arabia law enforcement, it is not possible to provide accurate estimates of the number of arrests, prosecutions, and executions [of gay people]," Human Dignity Trust said in a statement. "There have been consistent reports of discrimination and violence being committed against LGBT people in recent years, including murder, assault, harassment, and the denial of basic rights and services."

Several current and former pros, including Billie Jean King, Nick Kyrgios, Ons Jabeur and Jessica Pegula support tennis partnering with Saudi Arabia.

At the US Open, Pegula suggested some revenue from a WTA-Saudi Arabia partnership could go toward creating or supporting women’s rights or women’s sports groups in the nation. Taking that approach, Pegula asserts, could help create positive change for women in the Kingdom.

Pegula, whose parents own both the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, suggested in this competitive sports market, the WTA is not in a position to say no to massive investment from the Saudis.

“I think that if you look at a pros and cons list, we'd obviously have to see there be a lot of pros overweighing the cons to feel comfortable going there, whether that's seeing them as a group maybe have to donate money to women's sports or women's rights in Saudi Arabia, to see some sort of change or action going towards helping those causes in their country,” Pegula told the media at the US Open. “I think that would be something really important that, if we did end up going there, we would want to see.

“At the same time, yeah, there's obviously a lot of hot topics on that and issues, but at the same time if we can go there and create change, that's also a great thing. I think it's just going to have to be the right arrangement and we're going to have to know if we go there, okay, well, we want to be making a change, and you need to help us do that.

"If that was the case, I think unfortunately a lot of places don't pay women a lot of money, and it's unfortunate that a lot of women's sports, like we don't have the luxury to say no to some things.”

Daria Kasatkina, who came out as gay last July, has suggested Saudi Arabia's record on women's rights and LGBT rights makes it a "tough condition" for tennis, particularly women's tennis, to accept the nation's financial backing.

Kasatkina joins Hall of Famers John McEnroe and Chrissie Evert, who both oppose Saudi Arabia buying a stake in tennis.

"Many issues concerning this country. Honestly, tough to talk about," Kasatkina said during the summer. "It's easier for the men because they feel pretty good there, let's say. We don't feel the same way.

"So it's going to be, let's say, money talks in our world right now. For me, I don't think that everything is about the money. Unfortunately not everything is dependent just on us, and particularly me, for example. So it's in the hands of the bigger people, unfortunately.

"Unfortunately now in the world money talks and take very big part. Also, as Nick Kyrgios said, he would be so happy to go there just for a big check. For me, money is not No. 1, No. 1 priority in this case, for sure."

Photo credit: Miami Open