WIMBLEDON – Egyptian tennis pro Mayar Sherif does not pretend to be an expert on the subject of Saudi Arabia’s record on women’s rights, other than to say: “I know it’s not the best.”
What Sherif, who made her Wimbledon debut this week, did say is she thinks it’s possible positive steps can be made in that area if tennis follows the path of golf and other sports by doing business with — and competing in — the kingdom that boasts a $650 billion sovereign wealth fund.
“Women’s rights in the Arabic world need to improve. ... If you start changing this from the outside by bringing in tournaments, and start to create a different kind of atmosphere, that’s going to help,” Sherif said in an interview with The Associated Press at the All England Club. “If you put women with skirts — and so on and so forth — on court, maybe one young girl from Saudi Arabia sees the matches there and says, ‘I want to play tennis. I want to be like those girls.’ And that’s a way to change a mindset.”
Sherif is not alone in hoping for that sort of transformative effect in a place where rights groups say women continue to face discrimination in most aspects of family life and homosexuality is a major taboo, as it is in most of the rest of the Middle East. Whether engagement will work, as International Tennis Hall of Famer and rights advocate Billie Jean King argues (“I don’t think you really change unless you engage,” she said last week), or this whole phenomenon is an example of “sportswashing,” whereby Saudi Arabia and other countries — think of Russia or China hosting the Olympics, or Qatar hosting the men's soccer World Cup — use fields of play to change their public image, what seems quite clear is that tennis is, indeed, going to be next.
The ATP is working to conclude a multi-year deal to put its Next Gen Finals — the end-of-season event held each November for the tour’s leading young players — in Saudi Arabia. WTA Chairman Steve Simon’s visit to the kingdom with some tour players in February, and his acknowledgement last week that his organization will “continue to have conversations” with the Saudis, make it sound as if the women’s tour is preparing to head there, too.
It probably is not a coincidence that, days before Simon’s comments, his tour announced plans to increase payouts at tournaments so that women will make the same as men at more events in the coming years.
The common denominator in all of this?
“Money talks in our world right now,” said 2022 French Open semifinalist Daria Kasatkina, who came out as gay last year.
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. Gender segregation in public places has also been eased, with men and women attending movie screenings, concerts and even raves — something unthinkable just a few years ago.
Still, same-sex relations are punishable by death or flogging, though prosecutions are rare. Authorities ban all forms of LGBTQ+ advocacy, even confiscating rainbow-colored toys and clothing.
Thanks at least in part to social media, women in Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Arab world, are aware of the gap between their lives and those of women in less restrictive societies. But Saudi women who seek to carve out some freedom for themselves have been punished.
Even as the government has enacted top-down reforms, it has severely cracked down on any form of political dissent, arresting women’s rights activists and other critics and sentencing them to long prison terms and travel bans, sometimes on the basis of a few tweets.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has worked to get himself out of international isolation since the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. He also clearly wants to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy and reduce its reliance on oil. What is not clear is how much any particular sports deal might influence the kingdom’s approaches to women’s and LGBTQ+ rights.
“It would be wrong to not entertain the conversation. You can look at it from negative and positive ways — and I just don’t think things are black and white,” said Victoria Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion and a former No. 1-ranked woman in tennis. “We do need financial help to make those (prize money) changes quicker, hopefully. But also look at it from a standpoint of: How can we be helpful? Where can we go to create change?”
No one truly believes that was a part of the equation when the PGA Tour, European Tour and the PIF-backed LIV Golf announced a collaboration last month. Or when Formula One placed a race in Saudi Arabia in 2021. Or when the kingdom bought English soccer club Newcastle United that year.
There will be plenty of interested eyes and ears in tennis paying attention next week when the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations holds a hearing about the proposed collaboration between the PGA Tour, European Tour and the PIF-funded LIV Golf.
Tennis and golf share some key similarities, most notably: The athletes are independent contractors. There aren’t annual salaries in tennis the way there are in team sports such as the NFL, NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball.
“Was just a question of time when (the Saudis) were (going) to start some kind of negotiations or conversations in tennis to try to enter tennis,” said Novak Djokovic, who won his men’s-record 23rd Grand Slam title at the French Open last month and now is aiming for No. 24 at Wimbledon.
“We, as an individual sport on a global level, are probably closest to golf,” Djokovic said. “From that example, we can probably learn a lot — some positives, some negatives — and try to structure a deal, if it’s going in that direction, in a proper way that is going to protect the integrity and tradition and history of this sport, but still be able to grow it in such way that it will be appropriate.”
Howard Fendrich has been the AP’s tennis writer since 2002. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HowardFendrich