Advertisement

Oil-rich Saudi Arabia scoops up WTA Finals tennis

Iga Swiatek won last year's WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico (CLAUDIO CRUZ)
Iga Swiatek won last year's WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico (CLAUDIO CRUZ)

Saudi Arabia will host the WTA Finals for the next three editions, the Women's Tennis Association said on Thursday, following widespread speculation and criticism from some of the game's greats.

In just the latest high-profile Saudi sporting acquisition, the capital Riyadh will first hold the season finale featuring eight singles players and doubles teams from November 2-9.

"Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, will host the next three editions of the WTA Finals from 2024-2026," the WTA posted on X, formerly Twitter, on its official account.

The widely anticipated deal comes just weeks after Saudi's Public Investment Fund, a sovereign wealth vehicle, announced a "strategic partnership" with the Association of Tennis Professionals, which runs men's tennis.

It also follows criticism from legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who slammed the prospect of holding the WTA Finals in Saudi in a Washington Post opinion piece.

"We did not help build women's tennis for it to be exploited by Saudi Arabia," the players wrote in January, in a nod to the "sportswashing" allegations often levelled at Saudi owing to its human rights record.

"The WTA's values sit in stark contrast to those of the proposed host," they added.

The Saudi ambassador to Washington, Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, accused Evert and Navratilova of repeating "outdated stereotypes", while Tunisian player Ons Jabeur urged critics to be "more informed".

- Growing links -

The season-ending tournament joins a list of major sports events hosted by the world's biggest oil exporter as it tries to diversify its economy.

Formula One, heavyweight boxing, horse-racing and some of football's biggest stars now appear regularly in the desert nation, which will be rubber-stamped as hosts of the 2034 World Cup later this year.

Saudi's PIF is also responsible for the LIV Tour, which has shaken up the world of golf, and took a majority stake in English football club Newcastle United in 2021.

At the start of its transformation, from 2018 Saudi Arabia, which hosts Islam's two holiest sites, allowed women to drive, reopened cinemas and started issuing visas to non-Muslim tourists.

However, despite rapid social change, critics argue that legal discrimination remains in place in areas like divorce and child custody, and that women are frequently ensnared in an ongoing crackdown on dissent.

Saudi has quickly established links with tennis. In February, the PIF announced its multi-year tie-up with the ATP, in which it becomes the naming partner of the men's rankings.

PIF will also partner with ATP Tour events in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Beijing and the ATP Finals, in addition to the Next Gen ATP Finals, hosted in Jeddah until 2027.

Last year, the Next Gen ATP Finals became the first ATP event in Saudi, which also hosted exhibition matches featuring Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz, Aryna Sabalenka and Jabeur.

And in January Rafael Nadal, winner of 22 singles Grand Slams on the men's side, was named ambassador for the Saudi Tennis Federation.

bur/th/mw