Saudi Arabia’s Tennis Revolution: Breaking Barriers or Sportswashing?

On the French Open finals weekend, all eyes will be on Roland Garros, but for Arij Mutabagani, president of the Saudi Tennis Federation, the attention is on the upcoming WTA Finals. With Saudi Arabia set to host the prestigious event, questions arise about the country’s motives – is it a step towards progress or just a cover-up for sportswashing?

When Saudi Arabia was granted the WTA Finals, concerns were raised about awarding such a significant women’s event to a nation with no history of women’s sports. Some viewed it as a positive move for the growth of tennis, while others saw it as a mere money grab. For Arij, hosting the finals is a chance to showcase tennis in a nation of 35 million and promote the sport, especially among women.

Ten years ago, sports for girls in state schools in Saudi Arabia were non-existent. However, with the introduction of tennis in schools, 40,000 girls have been exposed to the sport, with plans to increase the number to 200,000 by the time the finals begin in November. Arij emphasizes that there are no restrictions for girls playing tennis, including dress codes, allowing them to wear what they feel comfortable in as long as it’s tennis attire.

Despite the potential for growth, tennis legends Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert expressed disappointment in Saudi Arabia hosting the event. They highlighted the lack of equality for women in the country and the criminalization of homosexuality. However, Arij hopes that these concerns will not overshadow the progress being made in Saudi Arabia and invites them to witness the changes firsthand.

The message from Saudi Arabia is clear – everyone is welcome. Tunisian player Ons Jabeur sees the event as an opportunity to share tennis experiences with aspiring champions in the region, despite differing opinions. Saudi Arabia aims to cultivate its own tennis champions by nurturing young talent and hosting junior tournaments to improve the standard of play.

While the dream of having a Saudi player on the professional tour may be years away, the rapid developments in Saudi sports leave the possibility open. As the country continues to embrace tennis, only time will tell if this revolution is a genuine step towards progress or merely a disguise for sportswashing.