Navratilova, Evert against possible WTA Finals Saudi move

tennis25 August 2023 18:56| © AFP
Martina Navratilova © Gallo Images

Tennis greats Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert have spoken out against the prospect of the WTA Tour staging its end-of-season finals in Saudi Arabia.

WTA chief Steve Simon said in June the organisation was "evaluating" the possibility of taking a tournament to Saudi Arabia, while describing the subject as "difficult and challenging."

Recent reports have said Saudi Arabia is in pole position to land the tour's prestigious WTA Finals tournament, which sees the top eight women players in the world battle it out in a season-ending championship.

However US legends Navratilova and Evert have both voiced objection to a possible move.

"I can tell you 100 per cent if I were still playing, I would not be going (to Saudi Arabia) for the Championships," Navratilova told US tennis journalist Jon Wertheim.

Evert meanwhile said she would not support the finals heading to Saudi Arabia, which has lavished hundreds of millions of dollars on sporting events in recent years as part of a strategy critics describe as "sportswashing."

"I would prefer not to go to Saudi Arabia to play the WTA finals," she said during a ESPN media event ahead of the US Open.

"Not that I'm going to go play, but for me, I would prefer the WTA not go to Saudi Arabia.

"Obviously they have the human rights issues and everything, just the way they treat women. I would be against it. But I don't have a vote."

Leading women's players however have been more supportive.

Speaking at a press conference ahead of the US Open on Friday, Tunisia's Ons Jabeur reiterated her stance that she would support a tournament in Saudi Arabia.

"As an Arab player, I'm very excited to be there. I am someone pushing for a change, pushing to give more and more opportunities especially for women," Jabeur said.

- 'A great step' -

While a move to Saudi Arabia would be controversial given criticism of the Gulf state's record on women's rights, Jabeur insisted that sport could help power change.

"I know in Saudi they're changing things and they're evolving," she said.

"I've been there last year to give a speech and interview. It was very nice meeting a lot of amazing women there. For me, I was trying to push to have something, tennis, there in Saudi.

"I think it's a great step. I think it's something that could help the Arab world to have more tennis players, to get more involved in sports."

American world No 3 Jessica Pegula said she would not oppose a move to Saudi Arabia if the tournament could have a demonstrable impact on women's rights.

"I think that if you look at a pros and cons list, we'd obviously have to see there be a lot of pros overweighing the cons to feel comfortable going there," Pegula said.

"Whether that's seeing them as a group maybe have to donate money to women's sports or women's rights in Saudi Arabia, to see some sort of change or action going towards helping those causes in their country.

"I think that would be something really important that, if we did end up going there, we would want to see."

Pegula however acknowledged that the decision may ultimately come down to money.

"It's unfortunate that a lot of women's sports, like we don't have the luxury to say no to some things," she said.

"Again, I think if the money was right and the arrangement was something that we could get behind where we could go and create change, then I would be okay playing there."

World No 1 Iga Swiatek declined to be drawn on the issue, however, merely voicing frustration that players were still waiting for a decision from the WTA.

"I don't have a lot of thoughts because we hear many stuff on tour," Swiatek said. "I'm still waiting for the final decision.

"For sure it's pretty unfortunate and annoying we don't have any decision yet."

On Thursday, the ATP, which runs the men's tour, said the season-ending Next Gen Finals will be hosted by the Saudi city of Jeddah until 2027.

This year's tournament will take place from November 28 to December 2, with a record $2 million prize money.

Jeddah's successful bid makes history as the first official professional tennis event to take place in Saudi Arabia.