Last month, the ATP announced that this year’s Next Gen Finals will be played in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
The event, which features the best performers on the ATP Tour throughout the season aged 21 and under, will be played in the Gulf State until 2027.
The announcement confirms a likely future direction of professional tennis which is a cause for great concern amongst many tennis fans.
This year’s Next Gen Finals will be the first professional, competitive tennis tournament played in Saudi Arabia, with the country having already invested significantly in other international sports including football and golf over recent years.
Of course, competitive tennis tournaments have been played in the neighbouring countries of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates for decades on both the ATP and WTA tours, as well as exhibition events in Saudi Arabia itself more recently.
However, the specific decision to award the hosting rights to Jeddah, for a competitive event earmarked by the ATP Tour as a showcase of the future, indicates the willingness of tennis administrators to delve deeper into morally dubious territory.
‘Sportswashing’ is not a new concept.
The concept of utilising sport as a means of presenting a particular country or regime in a more favourable light has existed for as long as sport itself.
In modern contexts, the hosting of the 2022 men’s football World Cup in Qatar, or the active participation of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund in purchasing English Premier League club Newcastle United or creating the LIV Golf tour, are prime examples of this practice.
For Jeddah to become the host of the Next Gen Finals cannot be viewed as an isolated incident, but the participation in a broader trend within sport towards the unconditional prioritisation of profit.
Tennis specifically will bear witness to several events which demonstrate this effect over the rest of the season.
The mysterious disappearance of Peng Shuai in 2021 following her accusation of sexual assault against a high-ranking government official was a matter regarding which tennis administrators initially took a strong stance.
WTA CEO Steve Simon regularly voiced his concern for the player’s welfare, as all events in China were postponed indefinitely (albeit coinciding with the Covid pandemic).
However, next month both tours will return to China as part of its Asian swing, despite a concerning lack of quality evidence guaranteeing the player’s safety.
Both tours, especially the WTA, will reap the financial reward from one of the most lucrative periods on the tennis calendar.
To give another example, the destination of the 2023 WTA Finals has not yet been announced, with rumours swirling that Saudi Arabia is also being considered as a host country for that event, despite insistence from WTA officials that no decision has been reached.
Whilst the failure to confirm the location of the season-ending event is in part a reflection of poor governance, and of course the event could yet be held in a wide range of potential countries, this possibility is perhaps the most concerning so far.
The WTA has a long history of advocating for social justice causes, most obviously the advancement of women in sport and society, with a more recent focus on tangential matters such as LGBTQIA+ equality.
Decisions to host competitive tennis events in countries with appalling human rights records, especially regarding women and queer people, flies in the face of any activism in which tennis purports to engage.
An openly gay player like Daria Kasatkina, who featured in last year’s event and remains a realistic possibility of qualifying this year, would be faced with an irreconcilable conflict.
Of course, many of these concerns remain hypothetical for now, however, tennis has done little to engender confidence in its audience that such outcomes are unlikely, at least at some point in the future.
Several sound rebuttals can be made in response to each of these concerns.
For example, many will raise that sportswashing is effectively inevitable whenever a country hosts a major international sporting event, considering the fanfare and media attention which is invariably present.
Hardly any government in the world could fairly claim that they have not taken problematic or unpopular actions for which major sporting events serve as a timely distraction.
Equally, financial interests have always been a dominant factor in the decision-making of sports administrators.
So why should these kinds of decisions be viewed any differently?
Ultimately, the answer lays in the degree to which these things are tolerated.
To the extent that sportswashing is inevitable and that certain decisions must prioritise financial interests for the viability of the sport, of course there is scope for acceptance.
However, in the case of Peng Shuai, surely one of the most fundamental expectations that should be placed on the WTA is the taking of reasonable steps to secure the safety of its players.
Yet, as Steve Simon described to the Associated Press, after 16 months of negotiation, “we’re convinced that our requests will not be met.” The question must be asked whether such actions are sufficient.
Regarding Saudi Arabia, Amnesty International highlights the suppression of free speech and expression (usually associated with unfair trials and lengthy prison sentences), the banning of human rights organisations under the Law on Association, and a lack of protection for migrant workers who consequently face inhumane work conditions as some of the major infringements on human rights standards.
Specifically in relation to the prospect of WTA tennis in the country, the codification of sex-based discrimination such as through male guardianship laws, alongside the ongoing criminalisation of same-sex sexual activity, positions Saudi Arabia as an outlier with respect to gender, sex, and LGBTQIA+ equality across the world.
Where are we, as tennis fans, happy for the line to be drawn?
More recently, suggestions of a merger between the WTA and ATP tours have been re-enlivened as a means of consolidating control of the sport and warding off outside influences.
Perhaps such actions will prove to be necessary.
Regardless of what the future holds, tennis observers must be aware of the consequences of whichever path is chosen.