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 for the welfare of a player who accused a Chinese vice premier of sexual assault and later disappeared from sight.
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 there 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 world and we look seriously at what each 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 prizes to 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 by other players of helping the kingdom to “sportswash” its human rights abuses, 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.
The kingdom in recent years has 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 would be likely to face questions if it staged events in Saudi Arabia, where women’s rights have been curtailed and women 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 her allegations. Peng eventually reappeared, but when Chinese authorities did not allow Peng to meet independently with Simon and the WTA, Simon suspended all of the tour’s business in China, including its 10-year deal to hold the Tour Finals in Shenzen.
It was a significant financial blow to the WTA. China had paid 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 last year to Guadalajara, Mexico, which offered only $5 million in prize money and a drastically reduced payment for the right to host the event.
WTA leaders have yet to announce the WTA Finals host city for 2022, and it remains 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 men’s or women’s tennis despite 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 cancel it after 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 start of the regular men’s tennis season. The Diriyah Tennis Cup featured the leading ATP players Daniil Medvedev of Russia, Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland and John Isner of the United States and was played in a temporary 15,000-seat stadium. Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki al-Faisal, chairman of the Saudi General Sports Authority, called hosting the event “another watershed moment for the kingdom” and hit the ceremonial first serve.
Reichel helped organize the 2019 exhibition through his company RBG. He said the exhibition had 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’s appropriate for sports to do business with Saudi Arabia, which he said has 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 is talking about the murder of Khashoggi and the 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 involved in to relocate an existing event to 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 are being polite in recognizing the Saudi interest but from there to accept and go that direction, I 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 the political sensitivities.
“They think with not going to China, we cannot go to Saudi,” he said. “I do not want to see this comparison, because China is a very specific thing with sexual assault for one of our players, and Saudi is a market which 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 what the Saudis might choose to do in tennis if their efforts to secure an official tour event continue to be rebuffed. 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 the golf tour, said earlier this week he was unaware of any effort to create a new tennis tour.
Reichel also said he had seen no indication that a new tour is in the works. He said he expected Saudi Arabia to work with the tennis tours to stage events.
“But if the tours are not 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.