Saudi Arabia wants to establish themselves as a force in the world of sport and they have the money to do so.
In 1971 the oil-rich nation created a Public Investment Fund (PIF) which is in essence a massive savings account for the country which can be used to invest in projects. According to the BBC, its current value stands at £514bn and is controlled by Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, who is accused of being involved in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. An allegation he denies.
The PIF played a significant role in the £300m takeover of Premier League Club Newcastle United which was approved after ‘assurances’ were given that the Saudi state would not have any control. More recently, an astronomical development occurred in golf when the PIF-funded LIV series merged with the PGA Tour and DP World Tour. Meanwhile, in their own country, Saudi Arabia has confirmed plans to take a 75% stake in four of their national football teams which is a significant move due to the money it has available to attract players. Unlike other nations, there are no financial fair play rules so they have no limit on their spending.
Some believe it is only a matter of time before Saudi Arabia expands its activities into tennis and there is speculation that this will happen soon. In recent weeks multiple reports from newspapers such as The Telegraph and The Daily Mail believe the country is the lead bidder to host the ATP Next Gen finals. An end-of-season event that features the eight best male players under the age of 21. Past winners include Stefanos Tsitsipas, Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner.
Allegations of sportswashing
Saudi Arabia’s desire to establish itself as a sporting heavyweight is raising alarm bells for many who accused them of sportswashing. A term used to describe an organization or country that deliberately uses sport to improve its image. Among those to voice their concerns is Amnesty International.
“They are investing colossal amounts of money in entertainment and sporting events to launder its image and portray itself as a “reformist” and “progressive” state. Major sporting events in Saudi Arabia should be seen in this context- as more potential sportswashing,” Amnesty International’s regional campaigner Reina Wehbi tells Ubitennis.
“These expensive public relations schemes help Saudi Arabia turn the focus away from its appalling human rights record and avoid scrutiny for its continuous human rights violations.’
“Sporting bodies have a responsibility to undertake due diligence to identify and mitigate the human rights impact directly linked to their events.”
Amnesty International is a non-government organization focused on Human Rights. On numerous occasions they have criticized Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on government opponents, women’s rights, migrants’ rights and their use of the death penalty. They are not the only group to do so with the Human Rights Watch previously claiming that the PIF has been linked with ‘serious Human Rights abuses’ and the United Nations have also voiced their concerns.
To date, Saudi Arabia’s venture into tennis has been limited. Over the past couple of years, they have hosted the Diriyah Tennis Cup which is an extravagant exhibition men’s tournament that had on offer $3M in prize money last year. Taylor Fritz and Daniil Medvedev were among those who played. The exhibition was organised with the help of RBG which is a company owned by Peter-Michael Reichel who is also a member of the WTA board.
The Rights of Women and LGBT+ People
Should they be named as hosts of the Next Gen Finals, there is a possibility that women could play in the Middle Eastern nation too. According to The Daily Mail, the event could be turned into a combined tournament from 2025. This itself raises a lot of questions.
“Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is a far cry from the glitz and glamour the country has been trying to project to the world,” Wehbi commented.
“Most human rights defenders, women’s rights activists, independent journalists, writers and activists in the country have been arbitrarily detained for their human rights work or expression, put through prolonged unfair trials.
“For example, Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds University PhD student and mother of two, was convicted of terrorism-related offences and sentenced to 27 years in prison after a grossly unfair trial for publishing tweets in support of women’s rights.”
On the other side of the argument, Saudi Arabia’s government says they have made strides in improving the rights of their people. In 2018 they lifted their ban on women driving and following a series of reforms in 2021 women were allowed to live independently without permission from their male guardians.
“While these reforms have had a positive impact on women, the authorities failed to abolish the male guardianship system in its entirety and instead codified it in a written law undermining these modest gains,” said Wehbi.
Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia sent a women’s team to play an International Tennis Federation (ITF) tournament for the first time in history. The team took part in the Asia/Oceania pre-qualifying event of Billie Jean King Cup Juniors, hosted in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Another issue concerns LGBT rights. The website of the Saudi Tourism Authority (STA) states that ‘“Everyone is welcome to visit Saudi Arabia and visitors are not asked to disclose such personal details” in their FAQ section when speaking specifically about LGBT visitors.
“While punishments for same-sex relations are not codified under the law in Saudi Arabia, they are strictly prohibited under Shari’a (Islamic law) which Saudi Arabia draws from for its legal framework,” Wehbi explains. “Saudi’s LGBTQ community practices self-censorship. LGBTQ individuals do not publicly identify as such. Saudi Arabia does not afford Saudi LGBTQ individuals any form of protection.”
Do players have a responsibility?
Three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray is one of the few tennis players to have specifically said he would not play in Saudi Arabia. Speaking to reporters at the Lexus Surbiton Trophy last week, the former world No.1 said ‘it will only be a matter of time before we see tennis tournaments played there.’ In 2022 Murray’s agent, Matt Gentry, said the tennis star was offered a ‘seven-figure sum’ to play in the country but he refused to do so.
As for other players on the Tour, is it fair to expect them to boycott playing events in certain countries due to human rights concerns? If they do so, they will miss out on both ranking points and prize money.
“Amnesty does not call on players or performers to boycott an event,” Wehbi states. “However, we do call on them to not let Saudi Arabia passively use their presence in the country as a PR stunt. We call on them to not remain silent and to use their leverage and celebrity status to speak out about victims of human rights violations and advocate for the respect and protection of human rights wherever they are.”
According to the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, the PIF is the seventh-largest government-controlled fund in the world.
EXCLUSIVE: Yoshihito Nishioka’s Coach On Injury Setback, US Open Showdown With Wawrinka
The road to Yoshihito Nishioka’s first round match at this year’s US Open has been a frustrating one.
In June the 27-year-old looked to be on the verge of reaching his best tennis at the French Open where he made the fourth round for the first time in his career. Nishioka’s run in Paris was not a one-off with the Japanese player also making the last 16 of the Australian Open in January. However, since the French Open, he has only been able to register one win on the Tour.
In recent months he has struggled with a stress fracture on his femur that cut short his grass-court campaign and resulted in him missing four weeks of crucial training. After losing his opening match at Wimbledon, he played four tournaments across North America with his sole triumph being against Gregoire Barrere in Cincinnati.
Guiding Nishioka on the Tour is his coach Christian Zahalka who has previously worked with the likes of Marina Erakovic, Nadia Petrova, Kimiko Date and Misaki Doi. The two began working together last year.
“Yoshi injured himself at Roland Garros that pretty much cost us the whole grass court season and we could not practice for a month,” Zahalka told Ubitennis on the first day of the US Open.
“So honestly we are playing a bit catch up to regain form the last few events. But we are getting close.”
Nishioka faces a tricky first round encounter at Flushing Meadows where he will play Stan Wawrinka, who won the tournament in 2016. Their only previous meeting saw the Swiss veteran prevail in three sets but that was six years ago in Indian Wells.
“Wawrinka is a highly motivated player at the moment,” said Zahalka. “It will be a difficult first round match with a big fight needed from Yoshi.”
Nishioka is currently ranked five places higher than his upcoming opponent at 44th in the ATP Pepperstone rankings. However, he is yet to shine at the US Open where he will be making his ninth main draw appearance this year. He has lost in the first round six times and the second round twice. The only players he has beaten at the event were Paul-Henri Mathieu in 2015 and Feliciano Lopez in 2019.
Despite the disappointing results, Zahalka is staying upbeat about Nishioka’s chances in New York.
“This is my first US Open with Japanese Rock so I cannot comment on what happened in the past here,” he said.
“But I see no reason why he cannot have success at the US Open.”
Nishioka’s clash with Wawrinka is scheduled to take place on Tuesday. He is one of four Japanese players in the men’s main draw this year.
EXCLUSIVE: Saudi Arabia’s Plans For Hosting The Next Gen Finals
Tennis is heading to the country following weeks of speculation. Although there is likely to be some criticism coming amid the intention of organisers to hold the event during the offseason in December from 2024 onwards.
Sources have confirmed to Ubitennis that the ATP Next Gen Finals will be moved to Saudi Arabia from this year onwards with the inaugural event taking place immediately after the Davis Cup Finals.
Jeddah will be the event’s host city which features the eight highest-ranked players under the age of 21. According to those familiar with the situation, the 2023 edition had initially been planned to take place in December but had to be brought forward due to the FIFA Club World Cup tournament which will be hosted at the same venue. It wasn’t confirmed until last month that the football tournament will be played in Jeddah in what was described to Ubitennis as a ‘last-minute change.’
The prospect of hosting the tournament immediately after the Davis Cup finals could be problematic at the end of a long season. However, this situation is trying to be played down as a one-off.
It will be held on at the King Abdullah Sports City where the venue has six tennis courts just outside the main stadium, as well as another indoor arena that can hold up to 12,000 people. Other events to have been hosted there include the 2021 International Handball Federation Men’s Super Globe tournament, as well as a boxing match between Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua.
What is the most striking aspect of the plans is the report that from 2024 the Next Gen finals will take place over a week during the second part of December which is in the middle of the off-season. It is unclear why the ATP have pushed for such a thing to occur and why they have agreed to this. During the bidding process for a host city, they said the following in March:-
‘This year’s tournament is expected to take place in December, with the exact dates to be determined with the successful bidder.’
One explanation for such a date might be the number of exhibition events that take place in the Middle East during this time. So instead of players participating in them, they would play this event. However, the idea of expanding an already long Tour calendar is one that will attract criticism. Plus there is yet to be any public response from players who might influence the current plans.
ATP CEO Andrea Gaudenzi recently told The Financial Times that ‘positive’ talks have taken place with officials from Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, WTA boss Steve Simon visited the country earlier this year and was said to be highly impressed. It appears that both governing bodies are interested in investment from the country as long as it doesn’t have significant implications on the Tour’s structure which has happened in other sports.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has invested heavily in sports, including the £300M takeover of football team Newcastle United. In golf, they funded the LIV Tour which split the sport before a shock merger between the Tour’s was announced a few weeks ago.
Critics have accused the Middle Eastern nation of using sport to help improve its image which has been marred by allegations of human rights violations. This is commonly known as sportswashing.
One of those concerns is related to LGBT players playing in the country. A Saudi official told Ubitennis that gay players or media members would be welcome with their partners as long as they respect local culture. Basically, public displays of homosexuality will not be encouraged and could prompt a backlash from locals.
“I think the WTA is going to make sure that we are in a safe environment,” openly gay player Greet Minnen told Ubitennis. “All the LGBT players are wise enough to not provoke anything or hold hands when we are not at the (tennis) club.’
“I think we have to respect the culture there but it’s not going to be an issue as the WTA will make sure it is a safe environment for us.”
The Next Gen finals began in 2017 and had been hosted in Milan until now. Previous winners include Jannik Sinner, Carlos Alcaraz and Brandon Nakashima.
It is understood that a contract confirming the relocation of the event to Saudi Arabia will be signed next month.
Conchita Martinez: How Acaraz Can Improve, Muguruza’s Future And Advice For Andreeva
Almost 30 years have passed since Conchita Martinez won the biggest title of her career at Wimbledon.
In 1994 she battled to a three-set win over nine-time champion Martina Navratilova to become the first-ever Spanish woman to claim the title. The triumph occurred in just her third main draw appearance at the Grand Slam. Since then only one other player from Martinez’s country has managed to emulate her in the women’s tournament. That was Garbine Muguruza in 2017 who has been mentored by the former champion in recent years.
Martinez is in action again this year at The All England Club where she is taking part in the women’s invitational doubles tournament. On Tuesday morning Ubitennis caught up with the former world No.2 during an hour-long media session that featured a series of former champions.
In her home country, the talking point of the sport concerns the rapid rise of Carlos Alcaraz who at 20 has already won one Grand Slam trophy, four Masters 1000 events, and has spent almost 30 weeks as world No.1.
“I think he is already doing an amazing job but, of course, there is still a lot of room for improvement,” Martinez tells Ubitennis.
As to what these improvements are, the 51-year-old believes Alcaraz needs to explore coming to the net more often, especially when playing on the grass. According to Wimbledon’s official statistics, in his first four matches played this year, the top seed has come to the net on 83 occasions and won the point 56 times. This equates to a winning percentage of 67.5%.
“I would like to see him, especially on the grass, go to the net a little bit more sometimes,” she said.
“He does this on other surfaces and is very brave. When he’s down a break point and then does a serve and volley to win the point, this is great for his confidence.’
“He needs to work on everything. His slice and going to the net. From the back, he is doing amazing and is very aggressive. He can hold the point when he wants to, so he needs to work on that to become an even better player.”
The current status of Mugurza
Martinez speaks about Alcaraz from the perspective of both a player and a coach. After winning 33 WTA titles before retiring, she went into the world of coaching. Her work with Muguruza was recognised in 2021 when she was named WTA Coach of the Year. She has also had stints mentoring former world No.1 Karolina Pliskova and was captain of her country’s Billie Jean King Cup team.
Martinez’s work with Muguruza has been put on ice for the foreseeable future after the tennis star opted to take an extended break from the sport. She confirmed that Muguruza will not be playing again this year on the Tour and a return date is still to be decided.
“She is taking her time and will not be playing again this year. We will see when she is going to start practising for next year,” Martinez explained.
“Every week we chat and see how she’s doing. She’s enjoying her time off right now.”
Even when Muguruza does come back to action there is no guarantee that this successful partnership will resume.
“We have to see. We stopped as she was going to take a longer time off than expected so we parted ways but you never say no to what may happen in the future,” she commented.
Muguruza’s decision to step away from tennis followed a series of disappointing results. In a social media post earlier this year, the two-time Grand Slam champion said she wanted to spend more time with her friends and family which has been ‘healthy’ for her.
Advice for Andreeva
It is not the first time a player has had to step away from the limelight due to the demands of playing tennis. Trying to deal with Tour life is far from easy, especially for younger players.
One of those rising stars is 16-year-old Mirra Adreeva who reached the fourth round of Wimbledon as a qualifier on her debut. She almost booked a place in the quarter-finals after leading Madrid Keys by a set and 4-1 but lost. If she had won, Andreeva would have been the youngest Wimbledon quarter-finalist since 1997.
So what advice would Martinez, who also reached the fourth round of a major at the age of 16, give to a rising star such as Andreeva?
“You have to have a very good group of people around you that are going to keep you humble and fit,” she said.
“I think she does that. She’s winning matches, going far in Grand Slams, and beating great players.’
“You have to see next year how she will cope with defending points. The most important thing is that she keeps practising and focusing on what she has to do to get better. It’s great what she is doing now but she has to maintain it.”
Martinez won more than 700 matches during her time on the Tour.
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