Tennis could be the latest sport to benefit from Saudi Arabian investment despite doubts over the country’s human rights record
Players such as Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Ons Jabeur and Jessica Pegula have cautiously supported the move as the ATP and WTA continue talks with Saudia Arabia
LONDON, ENGLAND – Tennis players such as Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Ons Jabeur have cautiously supported a potential investment from Saudi Arabia as talks continue between the country and the ATP and WTA.
Saudi Arabia have become a country which has caused a stir within sport as they look to continue to invest in different sports to bring more events to the country. Previous sports such as Formula One, Golf, Boxing and more recently Football have become the first beneficiaries of Saudi Arabia investment.
In football, Saudi Arabia have invested in Newcastle United which is a club that is now on its way to the Champions League because of the recent partnership. Furthermore they have bombarded the last two transfer windows with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema moving there while Steven Gerrard is also managing in the Saudi Pro League.
There have also been examples of LIV golf causing a stir with mixed results, while Anthony Joshua has boxed in the country before. Now it looks like Tennis is going to become the latest sport to potentially receive investment from Saudi Arabia with Andrea Gaudenzi, Steve Simon as well as Billie Jean King all holding positive discussions with the country over future investment.
Gaudenzi is looking to preserve the ATP product and cited Golf as an example as to how the investment could be successful.
“You have to preserve something which is almost sacred, the rules of the game. This is not a video game, this is not a movie,” Gaudenzi was quoted by Sports Pro Media as saying.
“There’s many ways to become an investor of the ecosystem. It’s not only about creating a new tour or buying a tournament. If you’re a golf fan you want to see the top players playing against each other. You want one ranking and you want one simple story.”
However there has been controversy attached to the investment with Saudi Arabia as the country is constantly questioned on their human rights record. The use of torture against anyone who criticises the country has been widely condemned with their also being criminalisation against anyone who is from the LGBT community.
An issue that the head of the WTA Steve Simon, notes could be a problem and obstacle ahead of a potential investment from Saudi Arabia which is why the WTA will take its time in making a decision.
“We haven’t made any decisions or entered in to any formal negotiations. They’re talking to a lot of different sports right now. We’re evaluating like everybody else,” Simon explained to Sports Pro Media.
“It’s a very difficult and challenging topic that’s being measured by many groups right now. In February I went to Saudi Arabia to see it for myself. We took a couple of players as well. We wanted to see what the change was.
“There are still tons of issues in Saudi Arabia but the advancement for women’s rights and where they are coming from is transformational right now. They have a long way to go, but they’ve made huge strides. I want to understand what their perception would be.
“This is a big one. And it’s a controversial one and I value their voice. There are still tonnes of issues in Saudi Arabia, with respect to the LGBTQ+ community there, that have to be done. We have had conversations and we will continue to have conversations.”
Given Saudi Arabia’s approach to the LGBT community, it would be shocking to learn that Billie Jean King is supportive of the move as she hopes it will inspire even more young girls to take up the sport.
“I’m sure they [the tours] will [go to Saudi Arabia]. I think they will. There’s a lot of money, which is very important to keep having money to help the players, but also help run the WTA, run the ATP and all that,” the 12-time Grand Slam singles champions explained to The National.
“I think the only way people change is engagement. If you don’t meet people and you don’t discuss and you don’t ask for new things to happen, they don’t. So it’s really important that we help the change to make things more equal for everyone. I’m huge on engagement.
“To see it, is to be it. So when we go to a country and play a tournament, just think, if you’re a little girl, or a parent, that they get to see these women being very successful and great athletes, and it helps change the hearts and minds of people and how they think I know when I played Bobby Riggs [in the Battle of the Sexes] for instance, 50 years ago in 1973, by beating Bobby it changed the hearts and minds of the men, more than women.
“And I cannot tell you how many men have come up to me and said, ‘I never thought about my daughter that much, but I do now, and I want her to have as much as my son. And I never would have thought about it if I hadn’t watched that match’.”
Saudi Arabia’s potential investment into tennis has several dilemmas for tennis players as they may have to choose between money and ranking points or morality. Speaking on Media day Novak Djokovic was open to the idea of Saudi Arabia being involved in tennis as long as the deal would benefit the sport.
“I think personally was just question of time when they were to start some kind of negotiations or conversations in tennis to try to enter tennis. They’ve done that with pretty much all other global sports, except maybe basketball,” Djokovic stated.
“We see what’s happening in football for the last few years, the stars that are going there for tremendous amounts of money. We know that Formula 1 is there, all the other sports, golf, et cetera. You mentioned golf. I think that we as individual sport on a global level are probably closest to golf in terms of how we see sports.
“I think from that example we can probably learn a lot, some positives, some negatives, and try to structure a deal if it’s going in that direction in a proper way that is going to protect the integrity and tradition and history of this sport, but still be able to grow it in such way that it will be appropriate.”
Djokovic’s opinion will carry a certain amount of weight from a players perspective as he is the leader of the PTPA, which represents a good percentage of players who are competing on the tour.
Another member of the PTPA is Ons Jabeur and the Tunisian was very passionate about bringing tennis to Saudi Arabia.
“I think is a completely different situation than golf. If it benefits for the player, I’m 100% there. Again, I said, and I hope in Saudi they will not just invest with ATP, I hope with WTA. I believe in Saudi they’re doing great giving women more rights,” Jabeur explained.
“It’s time to change things. Believe it or not, we have the best two womens (sic) in Arabic world right now playing in tennis. It’s now or never. I hope they really invest in WTA. I went to Saudi last year, and I was very impressed. I was very impressed with the people there.
“I believe it could be a great idea to go there and play tournaments. Yeah, let’s see what the deal will be. I hope they will see us for players, not just an investment but to give us more benefits than what we’re having right now.”
Jabeur is looking to inspire the next generation of Arab players and therefore it’s no surprise to hear her reason as to why she’s so desperate for it to happen. Meanwhile Andy Murray admitted it would be a difficult decision but ultimately ranking points would be a key factor in making his decision.
“In the past when we were asked to go and play there, we were asked to go and play exhibition tournaments,” Murray stated.
“If they become, like. major tournaments on the tour, it becomes a slightly different question, and it’s a difficult one, really, based on how the tour and the rankings and everything work, how important they are to get into other events and stuff.
“When you start missing them, you obviously get penalised for that. Yeah, it’s definitely something I would have to think about. Unfortunately it’s the way that a lot of sports seem to be going now.”
Broady compares football and tennis investment, Ruud acknowledges ‘sportswashing’
As a Manchester City fan, Liam Broady is all too familiar with state funded investment as Abu Dhabi United Group own the current Champions League winners. Speaking on the topic, Broady admitted it was a moral dilemma but in the end the Brit said he wouldn’t turn down the offer would he be asked to go there.
“I think the stuff that goes on over there is obviously pretty unacceptable at times,” Broady said.
“It’s difficult as a City fan because obviously it’s tough with football because you’re always going to back your club to the hill. It’s a tough one because you try and back them as far as you can but then it’s getting to the stage now where things are getting worse and worse and now with Newcastle as well.
“Newcastle fans are always going to back their team as well but obviously I saw kind of there was that guy that was recently he went to a game. He was involved in the Khashoggi stuff. When it gets to that then it’s not OK is it? It’s beyond ridiculous, then it becomes a parody of sport. I mean it can’t get to that at the end of the day. It’s as simple as that.
“I don’t know where we draw the line but it can’t start becoming a tool where people who are involved in the murder of innocent people have just been allowed to reassimilated into society. Then it’s not OK.
“I think it’s a moral dilemma for everyone. But at the end of the day it’s my job and I need to support my family. And I think it’s the decision every player would have to make. It’s different in like Football and other sports like Golf where Rory McIllroy can turn down three to four billion pounds and not be worse for wear.
“Whereas in Tennis, if you got offered a million pounds for someone in my position and at this stage of my career then it’s impossible to turn that sort of money down really. Which is why I’m saying I’ll leave those decisions to the guys at the top of the game, if they decide not to take the investment then it’s not an issue with me.
“But I mean if they did take the investment then I’d have to make a decision about walking away from my career for good or hopefully I’m just able to carry on playing the sport and doing what I love.”
One thing that will be interesting about Saudi Arabia’s investment will be whether they decide to stage tournaments involving the bigger plays or whether they target the players that need it the most in the form of the lower ranked players.
Something that Broady referred to was the idea of sportswashing and that’s something Casper Ruud when asked about the investment.
“It’s a lot of debate obviously in many different sports. Whether that’s good or not, I think it seems to me that they are trying to modernize the country a lot and hosting these sport events,” Ruud said.
“So you can call it sportwashing or whatever you want. But in the end, I think it’s good that the country, they have the economy and they want to be big in sports. I don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to do that. It hasn’t happened yet obviously in tennis, but if it happens, I’m sure that they will have the possibility to host many tournaments.”
Kasatkina dismisses money as priority, Pegula leads prize money argument
As mentioned one of the main human rights is the fact that lesbian or gay people are not welcomed into the country. One of the very few openly gay players on the tour, Daria Kasatkina talked about the investment hinting at safety concerns and said that money isn’t her number one priority when considering whether to play there or not.
“Many issues concerning this country. Honestly, tough to talk about,” Kasatkina said.
“Of course it’s easier — and also they are talking with ATP. 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. So as I said, 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.”
Speaking of money one thing that the WTA will be eager to negotiate is whether they can get more equal prize money with the ATP through this deal.
This is something WTA Council member Jessica Pegula is keen to explore as negotiations continue.
“I definitely don’t think I’m against doing something just because I think that they’re going to do what they want anyways. The PGA kind of went through a rough patch, then they decided to do something with them. A lot of the players felt really blindsided by it. I don’t think we want to get to that point,” Pegula said when comparing the situation with Golf.
“I don’t think we want to repeat what they just did. Hopefully we can kind of learn from that situation as far as whatever relationship we have with them. I trust Steve obviously to make the right decision on what he feels is best for the WTA. I think we all do on the council. I’m sure we’ll talk and go about it.
“Especially, I mean, if they could help getting us to equal prize money, even though there are negatives, I think there’s a lot of positives that can come out of it as well. Hopefully, yeah, we don’t just look at the negative and we can see the positives. Yeah, hopefully something good comes out of it the right way.”
Conversations will continue for the rest of the year as there are still reservations about whether accepting the Saudi Arabia investment is the right thing to do morally.
However at the moment, it looks like tennis has the backing of the players to go ahead with the investment as the sport looks to become the latest weapon in the Saudi Arabia armoury.
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