Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

CAUSING A RACQUET | What to Make of Saudi Arabia’s Impending Takeover of Professional Tennis

In this edition of “Causing a Racquet,” Robbie Werdiger (CAS ’24) discusses Saudi Arabian “sportswashing” and the kingdom’s hefty investment into the tennis world.
Ministry of Sport | Tennis great Rafael Nadal signed as an ambassador for Saudi Arabian tennis.

If you think sports serve as just a trivial form of entertainment, think again. 

In a generational effort to diversify its oil-centric economy, Saudi Arabia has turned to sports to spearhead its modernization and rebuild its international image. However, many are skeptical about flocking to the stands and cheering for this monumental experiment, citing that the desert kingdom is attempting to cover up its human rights abuses through a classic example of “sportswashing.”

We have never seen anything quite like the recent financial investment that Saudi Arabia has infused into the sports world. Backed by the government’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), oil firms and other sovereign wealth funds, Saudi Arabia has poured at least $10 billion into six major sports. 

In soccer, Saudi funding purchased the Premier League’s Newcastle United in 2021, and Saudi soccer leagues have since lured Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, among other superstars, to the Saudi Pro League with lucrative contracts. 

Additionally, Saudi Arabia essentially bought the 2034 World Cup, which the country will host, in a vote riddled with controversy. 

In golf, the Saudis pledged $2 billion to the LIV Golf Tour, which has since merged with and engulfed the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Tour and the PGA European Tour. In Formula 1, Saudi Arabia hosted a new circuit in Jeddah during the 2021 World Championship, backed by PIF funding. The kingdom has also hosted elite boxing and WWE fights, cricket matches, horse races and Formula E races. 

Up next, Saudi Arabia plans to infiltrate professional tennis. 

In 2023, Saudi Arabia first hosted the Next Gen Finals, a tournament featuring the world’s top 20-and-under singles players of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour. The competition took place over five days at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah in late November and early December. 

A month later, in December 2023, top players Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz, Aryna Sabalenka and Ons Jabeur participated in the “Riyadh Season Tennis Cup” exhibition. Djokovic is set to return to Riyadh for the “6 Kings Slam” exhibition in October 2024, an event that will also feature Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner, Daniil Medvedev, Holger Rune and Rafael Nadal. 

In an unexpected personal move, Nadal recently broke from his apolitical tendencies and signed as an ambassador for Saudi Arabian tennis. In addition, the Saudi PIF has committed $100 million to sponsor the ATP’s men’s rankings, as well as several tournaments. At the Indian Wells Open this past week, the PIF logo could be seen on the stadium’s center court.

Saudi Arabia has its sights on more than just exhibitions, though. 

In a heated meeting with the sport’s top executives at Indian Wells, leaders of the PIF pledged a $1 billion investment into the tour, which would include the rights to higher-profile events. The Saudis also have a pending deal to host the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tour Finals and are pushing to create and host a top-level mixed event. The proposed investment would increase total revenues in tennis by 33%, which would dramatically increase prize money, appearance fees and support for smaller tournaments. 

However, the tennis world is morally divided on the impending partnership.

Tennis legends and former rivals, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, wrote a column together in The Washington Post titled, “We did not help build women’s tennis for it to be exploited by Saudi Arabia,” arguing against the deal.

“Not only is this a country where women are not seen as equal, it is a country where the current landscape includes a male guardianship law that essentially makes women the property of men,” Navritilova and Evert wrote. “A country which criminalizes the LGBTQ community to the point of possible death sentences. A country whose long-term record on human rights and basic freedoms has been a matter of international concern for decades.”

Former world No. 1 John McEnroe echoed their statements, but noted that virtually every government and business deals with Saudi Arabia.

In response, Princess Reema Bandar Al-Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, accused Evert and Navratilova of having “turned their back on the same women they have inspired.”

Although Saudi Arabia still has some sexist restrictions in place, reforms in recent years have provided women with increased freedoms in public life, such as the right to drive. This is little to celebrate in comparison to the human rights standards in most Western countries, but is nonetheless an improvement. 

Tennis great and women’s rights pioneer Billie Jean King recognizes the financial support that Saudi Arabia can provide and believes that bringing tennis to Saudi Arabia is one of the best ways to improve gender equality in the Middle East and inspire young Saudi girls.

“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,” King told CBS in June 2023. “I’m a huge believer in engagement. I don’t really think you can change unless you engage. That’s just me personally, I’m not speaking for anyone else here.” 

With seven dysfunctional governing bodies in tennis each competing for their own interests, an endless calendar that is grueling on players and confuses even avid fans, a financial framework that allocates players a lower percentage of revenues than athletes in team sports and WTA media rights that are roughly one-seventh of those for the men’s tour, perhaps Saudi Arabian money and consolidated control is just what tennis needs to ensure future access. 

Money talks, and Saudi Arabia is shouting into the megaphone at a time when the ears of the tennis world are wide open.

View Comments (1)
More to Discover

Comments (1)

All The Hoya Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • T

    Thomas EderMar 22, 2024 at 12:42 pm

    I saw the PIF signs on the backdrops at Indian Wells as well as a “ hospitality “ tent. Professional tennis as we know it will soon go the way of the dinosaurs😞😞😞