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Saudi Arabia, Creator of LIV Golf, Casts Its Eye on Women’s Tennis

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With the golf world already divided over Saudi Arabia’s emergence as a strong force in the sport, one other major sport is contending with whether to do business with the dominion.

This time it’s women’s tennis, which pulled out of China last yr over concerns for the welfare of a player who accused a Chinese vice premier of sexual assault and later disappeared from sight.

Saudi Arabia has approached the Women’s Tennis Association about hosting an event, possibly the Tour Finals, however the WTA has not entertained the prospect of a tournament there in any formal fashion.

Steve Simon, chief executive of the WTA, declined to be interviewed for this text, but a spokeswoman, Amy Binder, confirmed Saudi Arabia’s interest, saying in a press release, “As a world organization, we’re appreciative of inquiries received from anywhere on the earth and we glance seriously at what each opportunity may bring.”

In recent weeks, skilled golf has been upended by the beginning of the LIV Golf Invitational series, which is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and is paying $4 million prizes to tournament winners, together with participation fees reportedly as high as $200 million. Players like Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson who’ve left the PGA Tour and joined LIV Golf have been accused by other players of helping the dominion to “sportswash” its human rights abuses, amongst them the 2018 government-sponsored killing of the Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

Saudi Arabia’s interest in tennis was first reported by The Telegraph in Britain.

The dominion in recent times has invested heavily in sports and cultural events as a part of a broader effort to project a latest image world wide. The ladies’s tennis tour can be more likely to face questions if it staged events in Saudi Arabia, where women’s rights have been curtailed and ladies gained the precise to drive only in 2018. (Saudi Arabia has staged skilled women’s golf events, hosting official Ladies European Tour stops each of the last three years.)

When the veteran Chinese player Peng Shuai disappeared last yr, Simon demanded a full investigation of her allegations. Peng eventually reappeared, but when Chinese authorities didn’t allow Peng to satisfy independently with Simon and the WTA, Simon suspended the entire tour’s business in China, including its 10-year deal to carry the Tour Finals in Shenzen.

It was a big financial blow to the WTA. China had paid a record $14 million in prize money in 2019, the primary yr of the agreement. That was double the quantity of prize money from 2018, when the WTA Finals finished its five-year run in Singapore. The WTA relocated the finals last yr to Guadalajara, Mexico, which offered only $5 million in prize money and a drastically reduced payment for the precise to host the event.

WTA leaders have yet to announce the WTA Finals host city for 2022, and it stays a challenge, with the longer-term Shenzhen deal still in place, to search out candidates interested by bidding for the Finals for only one yr.

Saudi Arabia, with its appetite for international sport and large financial resources, matches the profile of a possible bidder.

“They’re interested by women’s sports, and so they are interested by big events, so of course,” said the Austrian businessman and tennis tournament promoter Peter-Michael Reichel.

The WTA has held events in Arab countries, including Qatar and Dubai, for years. But Saudi Arabia has yet to secure an official tour event in men’s or women’s tennis despite making increasingly serious offers.

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic were set to play an exhibition there in December 2018 but were put under pressure to cancel it after the assassination of Khashoggi on the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October of that yr. The exhibition match was eventually called off with Nadal citing an ankle injury.

A yr later, an eight-man tennis exhibition was played in Riyadh in December 2019 ahead of the beginning of the regular men’s tennis season. The Diriyah Tennis Cup featured the leading ATP players Daniil Medvedev of Russia, Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland and John Isner of the US and was played in a short lived 15,000-seat stadium. Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki al-Faisal, chairman of the Saudi General Sports Authority, called hosting the event “one other watershed moment for the dominion” and hit the ceremonial first serve.

Reichel helped organize the 2019 exhibition through his company RBG. He said the exhibition needed to be canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to pandemic but that the plan was to revive the event later this yr and include a women’s exhibition tournament.

“I’m very optimistic we are able to develop the tennis business there,” Reichel said in a telephone interview from London on Thursday.

Reichel said he believes it’s appropriate for sports to do business with Saudi Arabia, which he said has advanced as a society since he first went there on business in 1983.

“I used to be so positively surprised,” he said. “I used to be there again and again. The international image is talking in regards to the murder of Khashoggi and the driving licenses for ladies. That is what people know, and there may be way more to be reported, I feel.”

Reichel’s company owns and operates the WTA tournament in Linz, Austria, and the ATP tournament in Hamburg, Germany. He’s a member of the WTA board of directors and has been considered one of those lobbying for Saudi Arabia to have an official tour event. But for now, those efforts have fallen short. The ATP recently rebuffed a proposal that Reichel was involved in to relocate an existing event to Saudi Arabia.

A Quick Guide to the LIV Golf Series

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A latest series. The brand new Saudi-financed, controversy-trailed LIV Golf series held its first event in June. But what’s it? Who’s playing it? What’s all of the hubbub, and how will you watch it? Here’s what to know:

What’s LIV Golf? The series is an upstart skilled golf circuit bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Its organizers hope to position it as a player-power-focused alternative to the PGA Tour, which has been the best level of professional golf for nearly a century.

Who’s playing it? The 48 players within the initial LIV Golf event weren’t exactly a who’s who of golf, and plenty of of the largest names in the game, corresponding to Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, have stayed away. But there have been big names and former major champions, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Sergio García.

What’s attracting the players? The LIV Golf events are the richest tournaments in golf history. The primary tournament’s total purse was $25 million, and the winner’s share was $4 million. The last-place finisher at each event was guaranteed $120,000. That’s on top of the looks fees and nine-figure signing-on payouts some players have accepted.

How can I watch the brand new tour? Despite its high-profile golfers and its big-money backing, LIV Golf has not yet secured a broadcast rights agreement in the US and can be shown on lesser-watched streaming services in much of the world. In the US, this week’s tournament can be available via live streams on LIVGolf.com, YouTube and Facebook.

“Hopefully we are able to achieve it next yr,” Reichel said.

One former WTA board member, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk for the board, said, “I feel the WTA are being polite in recognizing the Saudi interest but from there to just accept and go that direction, I don’t see it happening for a whole lot of reasons.”

Reichel acknowledged that some board members are resisting the concept of holding a women’s event in the dominion due to political sensitivities.

“They think with not going to China, we cannot go to Saudi,” he said. “I are not looking for to see this comparison, because China is a really specific thing with sexual assault for considered one of our players, and Saudi is a market which is opening up for ladies and attempting to support women, which is a very good sign. But I’m in the midst of these discussions with our tour, and I’m unsure we are able to achieve it in ’23, but in ’24 we’ll see.”

Reichel declined to comment when asked if the Saudis were attempting to bid for this yr’s WTA Tour Finals.

The query is what the Saudis might decide to do in tennis if their efforts to secure an official tour event proceed to be rebuffed. Could they consider a LIV Golf equivalent, making a rival tour by poaching superstar players?

Ari Fleischer, the communications consultant and former spokesman for President George W. Bush, who has worked closely with the Saudis to determine the golf tour, said earlier this week he was unaware of any effort to create a latest tennis tour.

Reichel also said he had seen no indication that a latest tour is within the works. He said he expected Saudi Arabia to work with the tennis tours to stage events.

“But when the tours aren’t willing to work together then I don’t know,” he said. Referring to the Saudis, he added, “Obviously they’ve the cash to make every thing occur.”

Cindy Shmerler contributed reporting.

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