Barring another last-minute pivot, the women’s professional tennis tour is preparing to announce that the season-ending WTA Tour Finals will take place in Saudi Arabia, marking the latest step in the country’s huge investment in elite sport.
WTA Tour chief executive Steve Simon has been holding talks with Saudi officials for the past year and if a deal is agreed, the 2024 finals will take place there at the end of the season, according to several of the sport’s top officials. The WTA has been here before, though, as recently as last summer, when it was close to a deal with Saudi Arabia but pivoted at the last minute amid public pressure.
In a statement on Thursday, a WTA spokesperson said the process is ongoing, with the intention of a final decision and announcement later this month.
“As everyone knows, we are working through a process to select a host venue for the WTA Finals,” they said. “There has been no final decision and we will continue to engage with players through the ongoing process.”
The Athletic has contacted Saudi representatives for comment.
One top tennis official, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak for the WTA, called the potential deal with Saudi Arabia “the worst kept secret in the sport.” The WTA is said to have reached the point where it is fully confident in Saudi Arabia’s ability to produce a top-level event but remains concerned about the ancillary criticism that will come with taking its signature event to a country that does not grant women equal rights.
The deal for the WTA Finals would represent the latest step in Saudi Arabia’s efforts to become a major destination for international sports. It could also signal the beginning of the country landing more big tennis events.
Saudi Arabia has been seeking to acquire a top tournament since at least the middle of 2023. While it remains unclear whether that will happen, several top tennis events are beginning the process of searching for new host sites. Leading tennis officials expect Saudi Arabia to be a significant player in the process given its hunger for sports events and the need among the top organizations in tennis for new sources of investment.
The International Tennis Federation, which organizes the Davis Cup international team competition for men and the Billie Jean King Cup for women, will soon begin searching for new sites for the final rounds of those events for the coming years.
The Billie Jean King Cup is in its final year in Seville, Spain. King, who owns 49 per cent of the event with her wife and business partner, has already thrown her support behind bringing the WTA Finals to Saudi Arabia, arguing that engagement with the government there is the best way to bring about change.
In soccer, Saudi’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) purchased the Premier League team Newcastle United in 2021 and some of the biggest names in soccer have moved to clubs in the Saudi Pro League, including Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Saudi Arabia is also set to host the 2034 World Cup.
In golf, Saudi Arabia pledged to spend $2billion on a new competition, LIV Golf — again attracting some of the sport’s biggest names to take part — and the country has become the home of elite boxing in recent years. Formula 1 has held races in the city of Jeddah since 2021 and there has also been considerable Saudi investment in Formula E. You can read more about the Saudi takeover of sport here.
Saudi Arabia hosted the ATP Tour’s Next Gen Finals — which pits the best young male players against one another — in November and exhibition matches between Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic and Aryna Sabalenka and Ons Jabeur the following month.
As the tennis world gathered in Melbourne for the Australian Open two weeks ago, Rafael Nadal announced a deal to become an ambassador for Saudi Arabia’s tennis federation. The move caught the tennis establishment off guard since Nadal has a well-established reputation for avoiding political controversy.
While Djokovic played the recent exhibition match and voiced his support for further Saudi investment in the sport, he has stopped short of pursuing a deeper relationship with the country.
For months, there have been discussions between the WTA and the International Tennis Federation about the need to bring the tour-ending finals and the Billie Jean King Cup Finals — which is the World Cup of women’s tennis that happens the following week — closer together and perhaps even to the same location. That would make it easier and more likely for the top eight players, who qualify for the elite tour championship, to play in the international team competition, though it is not clear whether a single market could support both events.
The ATP Tour, which organises men’s elite tennis, has a deal for its finals event with Turin, Italy, that expires in 2025. The ATP and WTA have been working more closely than ever to find ways to grow their operations since tournaments that feature both men and women are the most popular. The idea of the tours one day combining their season-ending championships has also been discussed, though not in a definitive way.
The WTA was close to an agreement last summer to bring its event to Saudi Arabia as it scrambled to find a site to replace Shenzhen, China, which terminated its 10-year deal with the tour in response to the tour’s decision to boycott China for 18 months over the country’s refusal to investigate whether a former top government official sexually assaulted the former doubles player Peng Shuai.
The tour baulked at the last minute and chose to hold the championship in Cancun, Mexico, for one year amid pushback on social media from two of the biggest names in the sport — Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.
The former on-court rivals, who are now close friends, renewed their public resistance last week, penning a joint essay in The Washington Post arguing that a deal with Saudi Arabia would represent a step backwards for women and women’s sports.
Saudi Arabia has passed a series of reforms in recent years aimed at making women a more substantial part of public life, including allowing them to drive, own businesses, and socialize in public with men. But it has maintained other restrictions. Women cannot marry without the permission of a male guardian and must obey their husbands if those men do not want to allow them to practice the rights the government has granted.
In addition, like other countries in the region, Saudi Arabia criminalizes homosexuality, though that has not prevented the WTA from holding tournaments in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
“We fully appreciate the importance of respecting diverse cultures and religions,” Evert and Navratilova wrote. “It is because of this, and not despite it, that we oppose the awarding of the tour’s crown jewel tournament to Riyadh. The WTA’s values sit in stark contrast to those of the proposed host.”
But unlike last summer, when Saudi Arabia stayed largely silent as critics of the plan to bring a major tournament there pilloried the country in the press, Saudi Arabia met the criticism head-on this week, a move that tennis executives saw as an attempt to buck up its potential partner.
Princess Reema Bandar Al Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, released a blistering response to Evert and Navratilova, accusing them of having “turned their back on the same women they have inspired and it is beyond disappointing.”
Bandar Al Saud criticized Evert, Navratilova and other voices from overseas who write off Saudi women as voiceless victims and the voiceless.
“Perfection cannot be the price for admission,” Bandar Al Saud wrote. “For a tennis tournament or any other once-closed space that our women want to enter.”
Discomfort and resistance to an event in Saudi Arabia have waned among female players in recent months. Several top stars, including the world No 1 Iga Swiatek, noted the difficulties faced by women in the region but seem resigned to eventually playing there.
“I definitely don’t support the situation there,” the U.S. Open champion Coco Gauff said at the Australian Open, “but if we do decide to go there, I hope that we’re able to make change and improve the quality and engage in the local communities and make a difference.”
(Top photo: Robert Prange/Getty Images)