Saudi Arabia in professional tennis: Kasatkina speaks of “security guarantees” for WTA finals

Saudi Arabia in professional tennis: Kasatkina speaks of “security guarantees” for WTA finals

As of: May 6, 2024 6:48 a.m

Tennis star Daria Kasatkina has reiterated that there will be safety guarantees for her as a homosexual player at the WTA finals in Saudi Arabia. This reveals the tennis tour’s difficult way of dealing with the new, major donor.

The big highlights in Europe, the French Open and Wimbledon, are still to come in the tennis season. In an interview with the BBC, Russia’s top player Daria Kasatkina was supposed to give an outlook on the end of the year in November, the WTA finals in Riyadh.

Safety guarantees for Kasatkina at WTA finals

Kasatkina is one of the few self-confessed lesbian professional players, so she was asked what she thought about a possible start in Saudi Arabia – a country where homosexuality is a criminal offense and is strictly prosecuted. “I was given guarantees that I had nothing to fear there,” Kasatkina replied to the BBC.

When asked by Sportschau, the WTA did not want to comment on who guaranteed the guarantees mentioned by Kasatkina. And also not about what specific measures will be behind it.

Difficult situation for the LGBTQ+ community in Saudi Arabia

According to reports from human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, members of the LGBTQ+ community have to live in extreme self-censorship in order to survive everyday life in the country. In contrast, Arij Almutabagani, President of the Saudi Tennis Association, assured the BBC that homosexual tennis professionals in Saudi Arabia do not have to behave any differently than at the tournaments in Abu Dhabi or Dubai.

Kasatkina is one of the best players on the WTA tour and is currently number eleven in the world rankings. But the tennis year is still long, and it is uncertain whether she will even be one of the eight best players in the rankings who will play for the title at the WTA finals in November. Kasatkina’s possible start in Riyadh, where her sexual orientation could also be discussed, is already an issue.

Kasatkina with critical statements – also about Saudi Arabia

Last year, during the Wimbledon tournament, Kasatkina was critical of the awarding of the WTA finals to Saudi Arabia. There are “many problems” when it comes to Saudi Arabia, said Kasatkina. The 26-year-old is considered one of the players on the tour who does not hold back when it comes to political assessments. As one of the few active players in Russian sports, she has expressed criticism about the war of aggression in Ukraine. She is staying away from Russia, as she said in videos on social media.

In the latest BBC interview, Kasatkina also said: “We see that the Saudis also want to advance sport in the country. If young people and women now have the opportunity to watch tennis live on site and also be able to play themselves , then that’s great.” This is more reminiscent of statements made by officials and other “big players” in the sports business who use it to defend a partnership with problematic donors and regimes. Saudi Arabia, with its sovereign wealth fund PIF, is pushing for billions of dollars in investments in football, golf and Formula 1, and now also in tennis.

Against this background, the fact that a top player like Kasatkina, who had previously appeared self-confident, is now rather cautious about Saudi Arabia, seems at least suspicious: as if a potential critic could have been brought into line early on. Before the WTA possibly raises the issue in November, when the grand final is coming up in Riyadh. And WTA boss Steve Simon then has to answer unpleasant questions about how his Saudi hosts are doing with issues such as equality, diversity – and the human rights situation in general.

WTA boss Simon and dealing with difficult partners

The WTA has recently pushed forward economic cooperation with the Saudis. The WTA finals have been assigned to Riyadh for the next three years, and the prize money has grown to more than $15 million. WTA boss Simon raved about “exciting new opportunities” and said the deal with Saudi Arabia was “a positive step for the long-term growth of women’s tennis as a global and inclusive sport.”

It remains to be seen to what extent the claim of the tennis organizers to promote women’s sport is compatible with the reality in Saudi Arabia. Simon was quoted as saying that members of the LGBTQ+ community were also involved in the decision to award the WTA finals to Saudi Arabia, with on-site inspections.

The WTA chairman has a certain reputation for dealing with burdened partners: After the disappearance of tennis player Peng Shuai, Simon sought confrontation with China’s powerful sponsors like no other sports official before, and even removed all tournaments in China from the WTA. Calendar canceled.

The WTA circus is now back in China, although nothing has changed in the basic political situation and the problematic human rights situation. The highlight of the season, the WTA finals, was actually supposed to be moved to China for the longer term after the first guest appearance in Shenzhen in 2019. With Saudi Arabia, the WTA has now apparently found a new partner with whom it can live well.

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