Sports

Saudi Arabia will host the women's tennis WTA Finals for the next three years

Saudi Arabia will host the WTA Finals as part of a three-year deal announced Thursday by the women's professional tennis tour that will increase the prize money for this November's season-ending championship to a record $15.25 million, a 70% increase from 2023.

The event for the top eight singles players and top eight doubles teams will be held in Riyadh from 2024-26, part of a recent wave of investment by the kingdom in tennis and various sports, despite questions about LGBTQ+ and women's rights there raised by Hall of Famers Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova and others.

"We're going into this eyes wide open that the investment in sport by Saudi certainly provokes strong views from people," WTA Tour Chairman and CEO Steve Simon told The Associated Press. "We've met with Chris and Martina and listened to their concerns and we have shared their concerns through our stakeholders as well, without prejudice. We've also shared the concerns around women's rights and LGBTQ+ rights within the Kingdom of Saudi. Our focus is on how we develop women's tennis for the benefit of everybody involved in the game. The reality of it is ... we are truly a global tour, a global business. We have players from over 90 nations now. We have over 90 events. ... We participate in many countries that have different cultures and values systems across the board."

As for any concerns about Saudi Arabia that current players might have, Simon said: "We don't plan to do any persuading. The players need to make their own choices, and we do believe that everyone who qualifies is going to want to play."

Locations in Europe, North America and Asia also were considered as possible new sites for the WTA Finals, which have moved around to five cities over the past five editions after a deal to put the tournament in Shenzhen, China, through 2030 was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic and concerns over the safety of retired Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai, who accused a Chinese government official of rape.

The cities that hosted in 2022 (Fort Worth, Texas) and 2023 (Cancun, Mexico) were not revealed until September each year, and last November's event was strongly criticized by players. Four-time Grand Slam champion Iga Swiatek beat Jessica Pegula in last year's title match; U.S. Open champ Coco Gauff and Australian Open winner Aryna Sabalenka were among the other participants.

Simon said Riyadh was selected by the WTA in late December, but the details of the agreement were just completed.

“This partnership will build on our exposure to a market and a region whose impact on the sports industry is certainly growing rapidly,” Simon said. “We certainly expect that you’ll see more events coming there in the future. So at the end, we believe that the WTA should be a part of this development, versus being on the outside.”

Saudi Arabia's Private Investment Fund (PIF) formed the LIV Golf tour and put money into soccer, for example, and the kingdom's role in tennis has been rising. The ATP Tour moved its Next Gen Finals for leading 21-and-under players to Jedda in November; the PIF is the title sponsor for the men's rankings; 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal recently became an ambassador for the Saudi Tennis Federation; he will join 24-time major champ Novak Djokovic and rising stars Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner at an exhibition event in Riyadh in October. There have been discussions about placing a top-tier Masters 1000 tournament in Saudi Arabia, too, part of a possible larger restructuring involving the WTA, ATP and the country.

Rights groups say women continue to face discrimination in most aspects of family life and homosexuality is a major taboo, as it is in much of the rest of the Middle East.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has enacted wide-ranging social reforms, including granting women the right to drive and largely dismantling male guardianship laws that had allowed husbands and male relatives to control many aspects of women’s lives. Men and women are still required to dress modestly, but the rules have been loosened and the once-feared religious police have been sidelined. Still, same-sex relations are punishable by death or flogging, though prosecutions are rare.

In an opinion piece published in The Washington Post in January, Evert and Navratilova urged the WTA to stay out of Saudi Arabia because, they wrote, staging the Finals there “would represent not progress, but significant regression” and asked whether “staging a Saudi crown-jewel tournament would involve players in an act of sportswashing merely for the sake of a cash influx.”

In response, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, said the two former athletes relied on "outdated stereotypes and western-centric views of our culture" and "turned their back on the very same women they have inspired and it is beyond disappointing."

The ambassador joined the head of the Saudi Tennis Federation and other women in a video conference with current WTA athletes to “speak to the changes that are happening and to what still needs to be done within the region,” Simon said.

The WTA said the Finals prize money will help work to meet the tour’s pledge, made last year, to increase pay and put it in line with what men earn in tennis. The $15.25 million on offer from Nov. 2-9, 2024 — an amount set to increase in 2025 and 2026 — is up from last year’s $9 million and eclipses the event-high $14 million at Shenzhen in 2019.

___

Howard Fendrich has been the AP's tennis writer since 2002. Find his stories here: https://apnews.com/author/howard-fendrich.

___

AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis


”Draft Draft Night in Duval: Thursday at 7PM on FOX30

Most Read