‘Getting to grips with tennis’ move to Saudi Arabia has been a roller-coaster’

Published by Jon Holmes on

Ahead of the start of the Next Gen ATP Finals in Jeddah on November 28, and as talks continue over the hosting of WTA tournaments in Saudi Arabia, Adam Addicott examines the implications for the sport of embracing expansion opportunities in a country where LGBT+ people are criminalised…

By Adam Addicott, Editor of Ubitennis.net UK

Guido Pella wears a Pride rainbow sweatband at the US Open in 2021 (Manuela Davies/USTA)

“I’ve never seen change without engagement.” These are the words from one of the world’s first openly gay athletes on the complex topic of hosting sports events in Saudi Arabia.

Billie Jean King has played an instrumental role in the development of women’s tennis throughout her life and has been a trailblazer for LGBT+ athletes.

In 1981, she was outed by the media after her former girlfriend, Marilyn Barnett, revealed her sexuality in a court filing suing her for financial support.

As a result, King lost all of her endorsement deals due to the hostility there was towards the LGBT+ community around that period. In an unfortunate coincidence, Martina Navratilova also went through a similar ordeal during the same year.

Given her own experience, King’s view on tennis’ expansion into Saudi Arabia generates mixed views. In the Middle Eastern nation, same-sex relationships are not codified under their law. However, Saudi Arabia draws their legal framework from Sharia (Islamic law) which forbids homosexuality.

“70% of the population is under 30. My understanding from everyone I listen to is that these younger people want change,” King recently told The Tennis Podcast.

“We wouldn’t have all these things we have without going where I’m actually afraid to go. Like facing fears.

“All I know is I’ve never seen a change without engagement. Things are not gonna do anything if someone doesn’t resist.”

As a sports writer, I have covered LGBT+ topics in tennis numerous times. There is something curious about the belief or hope that a sport coming to a country will change its culture. Historically, it hasn’t made any substantial impact.

In 2022, many raised concerns about hosting the FIFA World Cup in Qatar due to their anti-LGBT+ laws, as well as other human rights concerns. However, tennis events have been held in the country since 1993.

There is a regular ATP 250 tournament held there and the prestigious WTA Finals took place in Doha between 2008 and 2010. Throughout these 30 years, tennis has not improved the rights of LGBT+ people there. In fact, unlike the World Cup, there have been barely any discussions on the topic.

“The two are not comparable as the (tennis) tournaments in the Middle East are nowhere near as high profile or prestigious as the men’s football World Cup,” Pride In Tennis founder Ian Pearson-Brown told me earlier this year.

“The process is also very different to that of FIFA’s to allocate the area which hosts the World Cup. In turn, the LTA is working with the ATP to ensure any LGBTQ+ athletes are properly supported to create a healthier environment for players to play as their authentic selves. So I’d be wary of drawing comparisons,” he added.

This is not to say that King is wrong or there isn’t a desire for change in the Middle East. I remember speaking with a member of the Saudi Tennis Federation about the topic of LGBT+ visitors to the region. They assured me that everybody would be welcome and that if I wanted to bring a same-sex partner, that would be fine.

However, the catch was that I should respect the culture by not publicly showing signs we were a couple. A similar concept to that of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy that used to be implemented in the US Army.

Of course, it will be different for any LGBT+ player who will unlikely face any threat whilst playing in Saudi Arabia. They will undoubtedly be protected by the sporting organisations with the world’s media keeping a close eye – something that must frustrate those who are LGBT+ and living in Saudi Arabia.

“All the LGBT+ players are wise enough to not provoke anything or hold hands when we are not at the (tennis) club,” openly gay player Greet Minnen told me during Wimbledon this year.

“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.

“If Saudi Arabia is willing to put more tournaments on the calendar, I think it is very good.”

There are other LGBT+ players such as Nadia Podoroska who don’t share the same viewpoint as Minnen. Furthermore, Navratilova has spoken out against tennis heading to Saudi Arabia.

However it is too little, too late. At the end of this month, Saudi Arabia will host their first-ever ATP event, the Next Gen Finals.

Meanwhile, it is reported that the Saudi Tennis Federation has expressed interest in holding more events, including the WTA Finals. I understand that talks have been taking place, with more to come.

From the perspective of an LGBT+ sports writer, this issue is a tough one to digest. Is it wrong to call for all events to be not held in countries with anti-LGBT+ laws or is it more wrong to stand in the way of the possibility of sport helping improve the cultural situation? Even if the chances are slim.

For me, a tweet by Sky Sports presenter Mark McAdam summarised the Saudi predicament perfectly.

“Saudi’s continued investment in sport is here to stay. It doesn’t make it right but people have to accept it’s happening. F1, Tennis, Golf, Football, Boxing and more to come. The rights that some of the world want will take a lifetime and more to implement,” he wrote.

Perhaps the most important thing now isn’t to keep opposing tennis’ inevitable migration towards the Saudi Arabian market. Instead, the focus should be on holding Saudi Arabia accountable for their pledge to improve their human rights records, especially concerning LGBT+ people.

For this to take place, players speaking about such matters will be key. Will they choose to do so? Only time will tell.

Follow Adam Addicott on X.

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Jon Holmes

Digital Sports Editor