Saudi Arabia, creator of LIV Golf, draws attention to women’s tennis

FROM the world of golf is already divided with Saudi Arabia becoming a powerful force in the game, another major sport is struggling to do business with the kingdom.

This time it’s women’s tennis, which pulled out of China last year over concerns for the well-being of a player who accused a Chinese vice premier of sexual assault and then disappeared from view.

Saudi Arabia has approached the Women’s Tennis Association to host an event, possibly a final round, but the WTA has not considered hosting the tournament there in any official form.

Steve Simon, chief executive of the WTA, declined to be interviewed for this article, but spokeswoman Amy Binder confirmed Saudi Arabia’s interest, saying in a statement, “As a global organization, we appreciate inquiries from anywhere in the world. world, and we are seriously looking at what each opportunity can bring.”

In recent weeks, professional golf has been turned on its head with the launch of the LIV Golf Invitational, which is funded by Saudi Arabia’s Sovereign Wealth Fund and pays out $4 million in prizes to tournament winners, as well as participation fees reportedly as high as $200 million. . . Players such as Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, who left the PGA Tour to join LIV Golf, have been accused by other players of helping the kingdom launder human rights abuses, including the 2018 government-sponsored murder of a Saudi journalist and dissident. Jamal Khashoggi.

Saudi Arabia’s interest in tennis was first reported by The Telegraph in the UK.

In recent years, the kingdom has invested heavily in sports and cultural activities as part of a broader effort to create a new image around the world. The Women’s Tennis Tour is likely to run into problems if it hosts events in Saudi Arabia, where women’s rights have been restricted and women won the right to drive only in 2018. stops each of the last three years.)

When veteran Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai disappeared last year, Simon demanded a full investigation into her allegations. Peng eventually resurfaced, but when the Chinese authorities did not allow Peng to face Simon and the WTA independently, Simon suspended all tour business in China, including his 10-year contract to host the tour final in Shenzhen.

It was a significant financial blow to the WTA. China paid out a record $14 million in prize money in 2019, the deal’s first year. This is twice as many as in 2018, when the five-year WTA Finals in Singapore ended. Last year, the WTA moved the final to Guadalajara, Mexico, which offered just $5 million in prize money and a drastically reduced entry fee.

WTA leaders have yet to announce the host city of the WTA Finals for 2022, and with Shenzhen’s long-term deal still in place, it remains a challenge to find candidates interested in the Finals for just one year.

Saudi Arabia, with its appetite for international sports and vast financial resources, fits the profile of a potential contender.

“They’re interested in women’s sports and they’re interested in big events, so that’s for sure,” said Austrian businessman and tennis tournament organizer Peter-Michael Reichel.

The WTA has been hosting events in Arab countries for many years, including Qatar and Dubai. But Saudi Arabia has yet to host an official men’s or women’s tennis tour despite increasingly serious offers.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic were supposed to play an exhibition there in December 2018, but were forced to cancel it after Khashoggi’s murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October of that year. The exhibition match was eventually canceled due to Nadal’s injury.

A year later, in December 2019, an eight-person tennis exhibition was held in Riyadh before the start of the regular men’s tennis season. The Diria Tennis Cup featured top ATP players Daniil Medvedev of Russia, Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland and John Isner of the United States and was held in a temporary 15,000-seat stadium. Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al Faisal, chairman of the Saudi Arabian General Authority for Sports, called the holding of the event “another watershed for the kingdom” and served the ceremonial first serve.

Reichel helped organize the 2019 exhibition through his company RBG. He said the show had to be canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, but the plan was to revive the event later this year and include a women’s exhibition tournament.

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

Reichel said he thinks it’s appropriate for the sport to do business with Saudi Arabia, which he says has advanced as a society since he first went there on business in 1983.

“I was so pleasantly surprised,” he said. “I have been there many times. The international image speaks of the murder of Khashoggi and driving licenses for women. It’s something that people know and I think there’s a lot more to be communicated.”

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 board of directors of the WTA and was one of those who lobbied for an official tour in Saudi Arabia. But so far, these efforts have been unsuccessful. The ATP recently rejected Reichel’s proposal to move an existing event to Saudi Arabia.

“Hopefully we can achieve that next year,” Reichel said.

One former WTA board member, speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak on behalf of the board, said: “I think the WTA is politely acknowledging the Saudi interest, but from there to accept and move in that direction, I don’t see for this to happen for many reasons.”

Reichel acknowledged that some board members are resisting the idea of ​​hosting a women’s event in the kingdom due to political concerns.

“They think that without going to China, we can’t go to Saudi Arabia,” he said. “I don’t want to see this comparison because China is a very specific sexual assault thing for one of our players and Saudi Arabia is a market that opens up to women and tries 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 if we can make it on the 23rd, we’ll see on the 24th.”

Reichel declined to comment when asked if the Saudis were trying to bid for this year’s WTA Tour final.

The question is what can the Saudis do in tennis if their efforts to stage an official tour continue to be rebuffed. Can they consider the creation of a rival tour by poaching superstars as the equivalent of the LIV Golf?

Ari Fleischer, a communications consultant and former press secretary for President George W. Bush who worked closely with the Saudis on the golf tour, said earlier this week that he was not aware of any efforts to organize a new tennis tour.

Reichel also said he saw no sign that a new tour was in the works. He said he expects Saudi Arabia to work with tennis tours for events.

“But if the tours don’t want to work together, then I don’t know,” he said. Speaking of the Saudis, he added: “Of course they have the money to make things happen.”

Cindy Schmerler made a report.