Saudi Arabia, Creator of LIV Golf, Casts Its Eye on Women’s Tennis

With the golf world already divided over Saudi Arabia’s emergence as a robust pressure within the sport, one other main sport is contending with whether or not to do business with the dominion.

This time it’s girls’s tennis, which pulled out of China final year over issues for the welfare of a participant who accused a Chinese vice premier of sexual assault and later disappeared from sight.

Saudi Arabia has approached the Women’s Tennis Association about internet hosting an occasion, probably the Tour Finals, however the WTA has not entertained the prospect of a event there in any formal vogue.

Steve Simon, chief government of the WTA, declined to be interviewed for this text, however a spokeswoman, Amy Binder, confirmed Saudi Arabia’s curiosity, saying in a press release, “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 current weeks, skilled golf has been upended by the beginning of the LIV Golf Invitational sequence, which is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and is paying $4 million prizes to event winners, together with participation charges reportedly as excessive as $200 million. Players like Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson who’ve left the PGA Tour and joined LIV Golf have been accused by different gamers of serving to the dominion to “sportswash” its human rights abuses, amongst them the 2018 government-sponsored killing of the Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

Saudi Arabia’s curiosity in tennis was first reported by The Telegraph in Britain.

The kingdom lately has invested closely in sports activities and cultural occasions as half of a broader effort to project a brand new picture all over the world. The girls’s tennis tour could be prone to face questions if it staged occasions in Saudi Arabia, the place girls’s rights have been curtailed and girls gained the fitting to drive solely in 2018. (Saudi Arabia has staged skilled girls’s golf occasions, internet hosting official Ladies European Tour stops every of the final three years.)

When the veteran Chinese participant Peng Shuai disappeared final year, Simon demanded a full investigation of her allegations. Peng ultimately reappeared, however when Chinese authorities didn’t permit Peng to fulfill independently with Simon and the WTA, Simon suspended all of the tour’s business in China, together with its 10-year deal to carry the Tour Finals in Shenzen.

It was a major monetary blow to the WTA. China had paid a document $14 million in prize money in 2019, the primary year of the settlement. That was double the quantity of prize money from 2018, when the WTA Finals completed its five-year run in Singapore. The WTA relocated the finals final year to Guadalajara, Mexico, which supplied solely $5 million in prize money and a drastically diminished fee for the fitting to host the occasion.

WTA leaders have but to announce the WTA Finals host metropolis for 2022, and it stays a problem, with the longer-term Shenzhen deal nonetheless in place, to seek out candidates focused on bidding for the Finals for only one year.

Saudi Arabia, with its urge for food for worldwide sport and big monetary resources, suits the profile of a possible bidder.

“They are interested in women’s sports, and they are interested in big events, so for sure,” stated the Austrian businessman and tennis event promoter Peter-Michael Reichel.

The WTA has held occasions in Arab nations, together with Qatar and Dubai, for years. But Saudi Arabia has but to safe an official tour occasion in males’s or girls’s tennis regardless of making more and more critical gives.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have been set to play an exhibition there in December 2018 however have been put underneath stress to cancel it after the assassination of Khashoggi on the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October of that year. The exhibition match was ultimately referred to as off with Nadal citing an ankle harm.

A year later, an eight-man tennis exhibition was performed in Riyadh in December 2019 forward of the beginning of the common males’s tennis season. The Diriyah Tennis Cup featured the main ATP gamers Daniil Medvedev of Russia, Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland and John Isner of the United States and was performed in a short lived 15,000-seat stadium. Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki al-Faisal, chairman of the Saudi General Sports Authority, referred to as internet hosting the occasion “another watershed moment for the kingdom” and hit the ceremonial first serve.

Reichel helped set up the 2019 exhibition by means of his company RBG. He stated the exhibition needed to be canceled in 2020 and 2021 as a result of of the pandemic however that the plan was to revive the occasion later this year and embody a girls’s exhibition event.

“I’m very optimistic we can develop the tennis business there,” Reichel stated in a phone interview from London on Thursday.

Reichel stated he believes it’s acceptable for sports activities to do business with Saudi Arabia, which he stated has superior as a society since he first went there on business in 1983.

“I was so positively surprised,” he stated. “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 event in Linz, Austria, and the ATP event in Hamburg, Germany. He is a member of the WTA board of administrators and has been one of these lobbying for Saudi Arabia to have an official tour occasion. But for now, these efforts have fallen brief. The ATP lately rebuffed a proposal that Reichel was concerned in to relocate an present occasion to Saudi Arabia.

“Hopefully we can achieve it next year,” Reichel stated.

One former WTA board member, talking on situation of anonymity as a result of they weren’t licensed to talk for the board, stated, “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 concept of holding a girls’s occasion within the kingdom as a result of of the political sensitivities.

“They think with not going to China, we cannot go to Saudi,” he stated. “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 remark when requested if the Saudis have been attempting to bid for this year’s WTA Tour Finals.

The question is what the Saudis would possibly select to do in tennis if their efforts to safe an official tour occasion proceed to be rebuffed. Could they contemplate a LIV Golf equal, making a rival tour by poaching celebrity gamers?

Ari Fleischer, the communications advisor and former spokesman for President George W. Bush, who has labored intently with the Saudis to ascertain the golf tour, stated earlier this week he was unaware of any effort to create a brand new tennis tour.

Reichel additionally stated he had seen no indication {that a} new tour is within the works. He stated he anticipated Saudi Arabia to work with the tennis excursions to stage occasions.

“But if the tours are not willing to work together then I don’t know,” he stated. Referring to the Saudis, he added, “For sure they have the money to make everything happen.”

Cindy Shmerler contributed reporting.

Back to top button