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By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, August 25, 2023


Hall of Famers John McEnroe and Chrissie Evert oppose Saudi sponsorship of pro tournaments, while Billie Jean King and Ons Jabeur favor the move.

Photo credit: Pete Staples/USTA

Stars convene at the US Open–and remain divided on the subject of Saudi sponsorship in tennis.

Some champions say given the financial hit the sport took during the pandemic, tennis must engage new nations and tap new revenue streams in order to grow.

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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, want 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.

Tennis Express

Tunisian trailblazer Ons Jabeur says she “100 percent” supports Saudi investment in women’s tennis and sees it as an opportunity for both the sport and the culture.

“You know, as an Arab player, I'm very excited to be there,” Ons Jabeur told the media at her US Open pre-tournament presser. “I am someone pushing for a change, pushing to give more and more opportunities especially for women.

“I know in Saudi they're changing things and they're evolving. I've been there last year to give, like, a speech and interview there. It was very nice meeting a lot of amazing womans there. For me, I was trying to push to have something, tennis, there in Saudi. I think it's a great step.

"I think it's something that could help the Arab world to have more tennis players, to get more involved in sports. Yeah, if they play there, and hopefully if I qualify, it will be a great honor and opportunity for me to go and play there, especially meeting a lot of women.”

Chasing Saudi dollars does not make sense to Daria Kasatkina. Former Indian Wells finalist Kasatkina, who came out as gay last year, said Saudi Arabia’s restrictions on women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, create “tough conditions” to play there.

"Many issues concerning this country. Honestly, tough to talk about," Kasatkina said at Wimbledon last month. "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."

This week, the ATP announced it will move the ATP NextGen Finals from Milan to Saudi Arabia.

There is growing speculation the WTA will move its prestigious year-end WTA Finals, which were staged in Fort Worth, Texas last fall, to Saudi Arabia.

Eighteen-time Grand Slam champion Chrissie Evert staunchly opposes Saudi sponsorship of tennis calling it “sports washing.”

In an ESPN Zoom call with the media this week, Evert said she's against moving the WTA Finals to Saudi Arabia because of the nation's treatment of women and its shoddy human rights record.

“I would prefer not to go to Saudi Arabia to play the WTA Finals,” Evert said. “Not that I'm going to go play, but for me, I would prefer the WTA not go to Saudi Arabia.

“Obviously they have the human rights issues and everything, just the way they treat women. I would be against it. But I don't have a vote.”

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.

American No. 1 Pegula proposed today a compromise suggesting 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.”

Hall of Famer John McEnroe has called Saudi investment in tennis absurd asserting it's "comical that it's even being brought up right now" given "the debacle you're watching in golf."

The PGA Tour recently 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.

McEnroe says everyone has a price tag, but asserts tennis is wrong to ignore the human rights violations in the nation in favor of the cash infusion.

Furthermore, McEnroe says while he’s dead-set against tennis partnering with Saudi Arabia, he blasts critics as “hypocrites” for focusing on pro sports cashing in while ignoring U.S. government and American businesses' deep commercial connections to the Kingdom.

If you want to be outraged, McEnroe says, be angry by all of it, and the rampant hypocrisy at play, not just tennis and golf selling out for Saudi sponsorship.

“This is something that is being bandied about obviously since golf did this, but I think a lot of the people - I'll preface this by saying - are hypocrites that sit around and say that golf or tennis shouldn't go there while tons of businesses and tons of these people that you know about, including our government and many, many others go there and do business, but all of a sudden it's outrageous that sports athletes do it,” McEnroe said. “Having said that, I wouldn't do it. I don't think our sport needs it. I don't think it would benefit from it, and I don't think we should do it, personally.

“But as Chrissie said, it's not up to us. This is just something that I don't understand why we're going in that direction.”

Hall of Famer Billie Jean King says she believes in "engagement" and dialog leading to a greater understanding among cultures and cites Saudi financing as fuel to help grow the game globally.

Amid reporting the Saudis were bidding to host the ATP's NextGen Finals, Nick Kyrgios tweeted "sign me up" along with 10 emojis of money bags.

"Finally. they see the value," Kyrgios tweeted. "We are going to get paid what we deserve to be get paid. Sign me up."

Ultimately, money talks and McEnroe suggests tennis will heed the call of Saudi sponsorship and the millions that come with it.

"I suppose it's only natural. Unfortunately it's like money talks," McEnroe said. "That's all that matters. But I don't think that's all that matters.

"Eventually you get bought out. It's like at some point someone will offer too much. 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.

"To me it's comical that it's even being brought up right now. A pun: Par for the course."


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