Saudi Arabia to host WTA finals in money-spinning deal

Iga Swiatek celebrates her win at the WTA finals in Cancun in November.

Iga Swiatek celebrates her win at the WTA finals in Cancun in November. Photo: NurPhoto via Getty

Saudi Arabia will host the WTA finals from 2024 to 2026 as part of a three-year, money-spinning deal with the women’s professional tennis tour.

It will increase the prize money for this November’s season-ending championship to a record $US15.25 million ($23.11 million) – a 70 per cent increase from 2023.

The event for the top eight singles players and top eight doubles teams will be held in Riyadh for three seasons, 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 said.

“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.”

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.”

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 criticised by players.

“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, while the PIF is the title sponsor for the men’s rankings.

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.

Topics: Saudi Arabia
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