RIYADH: The season-ending WTA Finals will be held in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh from 2024-26, the women’s tennis body said on Thursday, ending months of speculation and marking the Gulf country’s latest foray into the sport.

Riyadh will host the season finale — which features the top eight singles players and doubles teams — from Nov 2-9 and replaces last year’s hosts Cancun, Mexico.

The WTA said its agreement with the Saudi Tennis Federation will offer record prize money of $15.25 million this year with further increases in 2025 and 2026.

“To have a women’s tournament of this magnitude and profile is a defining moment for tennis in Saudi Arabia. The WTA Finals has the power to inspire far beyond the sport, especially for our young girls and women,” Saudi Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal Al-Saud told Reuters.

Talk that the event could be shifted to Saudi Arabia had intensified after the men’s ATP Tour said last August its Next Gen Finals would be held in Jeddah from 2023 to 2027.

“The WTA selected Riyadh following a comprehensive evaluation process over several months, which has included assessment of multiple bids from different regions and engagement with players,” it said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia landing the elite tournament is the latest sign of its increasing influence on the sport, after Rafa Nadal was named ambassador of its tennis federation with plans also in the pipeline for a training academy.

The men’s ATP tour also signed a multi-year “strategic partnership” with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which is now the official naming partner of the men’s rankings.

Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in sports like football, Formula One and golf in the last few years while critics accuse the kingdom of using its PIF to “sportswash” its human rights record.

The country denies accusations of human rights abuses and says it protects its national security through its laws.

WTA chief Steve Simon said last year that Saudi Arabia presented “big issues” as a host for women’s tour events but also acknowledged the progress it had made and continued to engage with players.

“Bringing the WTA Finals to Riyadh is an exciting new opportunity for us and a positive step for the long-term growth of women’s tennis as a global and inclusive sport,” Simon said.

“We’ve been impressed by the commitment shown by the Saudi Tennis Federation to grow the sport at all levels.”

World number one Iga Swiatek and Caroline Wozniacki said at the Australian Open that engagement offered the chance to spark positive change.

There has been pushback from greats Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova saying the WTA’s values were in stark contrast to those of Saudi Arabia and holding the event there would not represent progress but “significant regression”.

But the country’s ambassador to the US Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud said the criticism represented stereotypical and western-centric views.

Activists maintain that the human rights risks in Saudi Arabia to players, fans and journalists are “very serious” and have called for due diligence from tennis bodies if any tournament is held there.

Russian Daria Kasatkina, who came out as gay in 2022, expressed reservations last year about competing in future WTA tournaments in Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is illegal.

“The WTA must now make clear how it expects Saudi Arabia to address serious human rights risks for women, LGBT fans and players, journalists and all who might attend the WTA tournament or be affected by it,” Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.

“These human rights risks must be credibly addressed as part of the tournament preparation.”

SHIFTED FROM SHENZHEN

The tournament was looking at a long future in Shenzhen, China, when the WTA held the 2019 edition of the Finals there with a prize pot of $14 million after the Asian city saw off rival bids to secure a 10-year deal.

However, China’s response to the Covid pandemic forced the event to be cancelled the following year and it was shifted to Guadalajara, Mexico in 2021.

It did not return to Shenzhen in 2022 as expected after the WTA suspended its billion-dollar business in China amid concerns over the treatment of former doubles number one Peng Shuai.

The WTA eventually resumed operations in China last year.

Fort Worth, Texas hosted the 2022 tournament, drawing sparse crowds and the WTA was expected to shift it to Saudi Arabia last year before naming Cancun as the venue less than two months from the start.

That edition was criticised by Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka, who said that she felt “disrespected” by the standard of organisation, prompting Simon to send a letter to players admitting the event was “not perfect”.

Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2024

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