Nov 2, 2023; Cancun, Mexico; Martina Navratilova in a joint press conference with Chris Evert on day five of the GNP Saguaros WTA Finals Cancun. Mandatory Credit: Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Martina Navratilova was on a plane yesterday and hadn’t heard the news that the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund, known as the Public Investment Fund or PIF, had agreed to name the WTA Tour’s rankings. This followed the Tour putting its season ending championships in the Middle Eastern country in early November.

Navratilova and her long time counter turned bestie Chris Evert in January penned a heartfelt opinion piece urging the Tour not to take the Saudi lucre and stage the Finals there. Weeks later the WTA agreed to do just that.

Speaking to reporters on a call to preview Tennis Channel’s upcoming French Open coverage, Navratilova again laid out her case why the Tour should not be doing business with Saudi Arabia, calling the country “scary.” Asked if the WTA has explained to her its position, she said they had.

“And they had an Arab woman speaking on behalf of Saudi Arabia, why the women should go there,” said Navratilova, speaking from a Dallas airport. “But, I just still felt that we didn’t hear enough about the other side. And look, women are still being jailed for just speaking their mind or not, or not wearing a veil properly. So it’s, like I said, they still have a long way to go, yes, things have gotten better apparently in some ways, but they still have a long way to go and male, male surrogacy, whatever they call it, has been codified into law just a couple of years ago, which actually made it worse. So, you know, as women, we just don’t have the same rights as men. It’s that simple. We do not have the same rights in Saudi, whether you are a Saudi woman or if you are a tourist, you don’t have the same rights as males. And I just find it scary, actually. And as a gay woman, right, enough said.”

Some of that is not right.  Enforcement of head covering requirements are dissipating with the defanging of the religious police under Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and de facto ruler. Saudi even hosted a film festival replete with red carpet and women are reportedly entering into the jobs market in great numbers.

But there is no doubt that Saudi Arabia remains an authoritarian state under bin Salman where women remain second class citizens. A World Economic Forum report last year on gender gaps ranked Saudi Arabia #131 out of 146 countries. Women need permission from a male guardian to marry, and female advocates for change are often imprisoned with no due process.

In the 1970s tennis was one of the few sports to compete in apartheid South Africa. But in 2024 tennis isn’t the only one, let alone the first, to do business with the Saudis. Formula One, WWE, boxing and a bevy of famous soccer players have made their way to the desert kingdom enticed by its oil derived cash. And there is of course the PIF’s funding of the a.

Part of bin Salman’s plan is to create a sports economy to create new sources of revenue and have western levels of entertainment for his country.

In tennis, the country also seeks a 1000 level event, the highest rank of WTA/ATP tournament beneath the four Grand Slams (there has been talk for months that the Miami Open’s 1000’s sanction could get sold to PIF). Already the ATP’s late season tournament for up and coming players is played in Jeddah, and even Rafael Nadal is an ambassador for Saudi tennis.

The Saudi developments come as the two tours–and Slams–are negotiating radical changes to the structure of tennis. Tennis periodically goes through these realignment spasms but the product largely remained the same:  dozens and dozens of tournaments that lead into the four Slams. That often confuses fans about what tournaments are important.

What is different now is the emergence of private equity and sovereign wealth fund money. The WTA already sold part of its business arm to a private equity fund, and the Saudis solved the conundrum of the nomadic season ending WTA finals (it had played in three different sites over three years) with a massive prize money payout topping $15 million.

In many respects the focus on Saudi is unfair. The WTA has seven events in China and the Finals had been there  before a falling out with the Chinese over the Peng Shuai situation.

China is accused of genocide against a Muslim minority, and like Saudi is an authoritarian country.  The WTA also competes in Qatar, which discriminates against gays and hosts the U.S.-designated terrorist group Hamas, which brutally raped women during its October 7 invasion of Israel.

So, why should Saudi Arabia be singled out? One sports executive with ties to the US and Saudi, texted, “The center of gravity for sports is moving from Asia to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). There is money and interest to grow the sport of women’s tennis. Sports and culture have historically been ways by which people of different backgrounds come together. 

Doesn’t it make sense to have women’s tennis participate in the growth of sports in MENA?  Wouldn’t it result in more girls and women playing tennis in these regions?”

Navratilova at times during the reporters call appeared open to at least considering that angle.

“[T]he players have made their choice so we have to go by that,” she said. “So I just wish… hope that it’s a good partnership. And that it turns out the way they’re hoping it turns out.”

About Daniel Kaplan

Daniel Kaplan has been covering the business of sports for more than two decades. A proud founding reporter of SportsBusiness Journal, he spent the last four years at The Athletic.