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Saudi Arabia's tennis takeover: sports wash or progress in the country? | World news

Saudi Arabia's tennis takeover: sports wash or progress in the country?  |  World news
Saudi Arabia's tennis takeover: sports wash or progress in the country?  |  World news


During the French Open final weekend, one tennis fan will be paying more attention than most to Roland Garros.

Arij Mutabagani is the chairman of the Saudi Arabia Tennis Federation, a tennis mom, a fan, a player and the women charged with bringing tennis from scratch to a country of 35 million people.

When Saudi Arabia was awarded the WTA Finals, the crown jewel of the women's game, there were questions from many within the game.

Awarding such an important women's event to a country with no track record in women's sports – was that progress, a cash grab (this will be the largest prize money this event has ever had) or sportswashing?

For Arij it is a precious opportunity to showcase her sport and grow the game.

Arij Mutabagani, president of the Saudi Tennis Federation, has emphasized that the country hosting the tournament is a good thing
Arij Mutabagani, president of the Saudi Tennis Federation, has stressed that her country hosting the tournament is a good thing, even as the country faces accusations of sportswashing

“Bringing the finals to Saudi Arabia will accelerate the growth of tennis, especially women's tennis,” she said.

“It has been on the rise in recent years, so hosting such a major event will be a testament to what Saudi Arabia has done with other sporting events.

“Bringing together all the stakeholders, not just the players, you have the fans, the coaches and referees, so it will shed light on the sport in general and hopefully inspire the younger generation to aim higher and higher.

“To have the stars right in front of them. For a tennis fan it's a dream come true.”

The country is trying to accelerate the number of young people playing tennis
The country is trying to accelerate the number of young people playing tennis

Ten years ago, there was no sport for girls in government schools in the country
Ten years ago, there was no sport for girls in government schools in the country

Ten years ago there was no sport for girls in state schools, now 40,000 girls have been introduced to it in schools, with the plan to have at least 200,000 boys and girls playing by the time the finals take place in November.

Arij says there will be no restrictions on girls playing and they will have access to all courts and academy.

There are also no restrictions on the dress code, she said, adding: “There are no restrictions, whatever they feel comfortable with. Take certain cultures and traditions into account, but everyone can wear whatever they want.

“They can be long or short, as long as it is tennis clothing.”

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But there was dismay among tennis legends Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert when Saudi Arabia were awarded the end-of-season final.

They wrote a joint letter to the Washington Post arguing that for years they had not campaigned for equality in the women's game, but this was then transferred to countries where women had no equality.

And openly gay player Daria Kasatkina also expressed concern about competition in a country where being gay is illegal, although she has since changed her mind.

The president of the Saudi Tennis Federation said that while everyone is entitled to their opinion, she hopes the two tennis greats will support what they are trying to do in the country.

“Growing up, they were actually my idols. Having them on board will honestly inspire a lot of tennis players in Saudi Arabia,” she said.

“Of course there are some differences, but that applies to every country, good and bad. I think when they happen, we want to learn from them.

“They've been through what we're going through now, but we're doing it at super-fast speed.

“If they join this journey to help us move forward, that would be great. We want everyone to come and see for themselves.”

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The message from Saudi Arabia is that everyone is welcome.

They also have followers. The highest-ranking female tennis player with an Arab background, the Tunisian Ons Jabeur, sees it as an opportunity for the region.

She said: “It's great that we are going to Saudi Arabia. We share, you know, our tennis experience with, with the young kids that they want to be champions of.

“And I know some people might not agree, but I mean, I feel like it's okay to have different opinions and it's great to judge when you're around.”

Tunisian player Ons Jabeur
Tunisian player Ons Jabeur has welcomed Saudi Arabia to host the final

Saudi would love its own champion.

For now, it's about picking up rackets, building the foundation and encouraging the young elite players by organizing junior ITF tournaments to raise the standard.

They started the tennis program a year and a half ago with one ITF-ranked player, now they have 20 – but to one day have a player on the women's or men's professional tour would be “the icing on the cake.”

That may take a few more years, but with everything in sports moving so fast in Saudi Arabia, who knows?




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