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Nadal, the icing on Saudi Arabia’s geostrategical sporting cake

The recruitment of the Spaniard as ambassador reflects the country’s ambitious expansion plan, which aims to use tennis to boost the image-cleansing process it has embarked on with the spectacles of football, golf and Formula 1

Nadal posa junto a un grupo de niños en la Mahd Academy de Riad, el pasado 10 de diciembre.
Nadal poses with a group of children at the Mahd Academy in Riyadh on December 10.Jorge Ferrari (2.8 Pro/Jorge Ferrari)
Alejandro Ciriza

The 2022-2023 Amnesty International report on Saudi Arabia associates the country with concepts such as “torture”, “mistreatment”, “abuse”, “rape”, “discrimination against women”, “collective executions”, “forced evictions”, “persecutions”, “arbitrary and unfair trials”, “inhumane conditions”, “inadequate action against the climate crisis” and “the death penalty”, among many others that directly violate fundamental human rights. However, these concepts do not seem to constitute an obstacle for the world of sports, business and more business. The country has plunged headlong into the King Salman bin Abdulaziz’s expansion plan, which in the Strategic Vision 2030 program - promoted in 2016 by his son and deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, internationally accused of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – included competition and its stakeholders as an essential economic axis, centered around football, tennis, golf and Formula 1. This is a recipe for guaranteed success. An excellent promotional and rebranding strategy expressed in the form of a collection of stickers.

Lionel Messi, Karim Benzema, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo. Recently the Spaniard Jon Rahm, enticed by the offer of €500 million. The Aston Martin racing team, with the Aramco oil company on the breastplate of Fernando Alonso’s racing suit. Football, boxing, Formula 1, Dakar, the Asian Winter Games. And now, these will be joined by Rafael Nadal, who was officially recruited on Tuesday as the new ambassador of Saudi tennis. “Wherever you look over there, you can see growth and progress,” said in a statement the 22-time major champion, who has become the ultimate showcase and, at the same time, certainly the perfect gateway to the highly attractive tennis racquet market. Few sports have such a global and international profile as tennis, which is played seven days a week, practically all year round. It is a niche with powerful sponsors and million-dollar contracts, hosted almost everywhere. Saudi Arabia wanted it, and now it has its hands on it.

The recruitment of the Majorcan represents a victory. There was a hint of this amazing feat during the announcement by the president of the Saudi Tennis Federation (STF), Arij Almutabagani: “Rafa transcends tennis.” That is exactly what Nadal does. He is idolized in every tennis scene in the world and widely regarded as an exemplary competitor, meaning that his recruitment is the icing on the cake and provides the perfect image. The previous insinuations simply responded to the will to pave the way. The main tennis bodies (ATP, WTA and ITF, the international federation) were initially reluctant because of what people might say, but Nadal’s arrival opens the gap needed for the alliance between tennis and Saudi Arabia to be complete. If he accepts, the rest will follow.

Rafael Nadal
Nadal signs autographs in Riyadh.Jorge Ferrari (2.8 Pro/Jorge Ferrari)

Rumors have been circulating for some time. In 2018 there was a first attempt, with the unsuccessful scheduling of an exhibition between Nadal and Novak Djokovic, two of the three greatest players in history. Then, in 2021, just when it seemed that Saudi Arabia would host the Davis Cup finals, the move was eventually aborted. And in 2022, the Diriyah Tennis Cup was launched. This tournament attracted stars of the sport on the basis of big money offers. This included high fixed prices and one million dollars for the winner. The American Taylor Fritz posed happily with the check.

“I’m busy right now”, said Australian Nick Kyrgios on his refusal to play in the Davis Cup finals. “Because I’m going to play in Saudi Arabia for six figures. They’re going to pay us what we deserve,” he added. The same path was followed by a bunch of elite players, and on December 27, the momentum continued to build with the match between Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz, the new star on the tennis scene. “Saudi Arabia has the power to have a lot of tournaments. I have never played an official tournament over there, and let’s see how it is going to be in the future. But I have no doubts that I will play over there in the future,” said the 20-year-old in June at Queen’s, London, as recent events and information have yielded significant clues.

Carlos Alcaraz kisses the trophy on December 27 in Riyadh in front of 40,000 spectators.
Carlos Alcaraz kisses the trophy on December 27 in Riyadh in front of 40,000 spectators.AHMED YOSRI (REUTERS)

Initially, an agreement to stage the Next Gen ATP Finals (the Masters Cup for up-and-coming players) until 2027, and some behind-the-scenes movements that suggest the Arab ambition to take ownership of one of the nine ATP Tour Masters 1000 – the tournaments that are the next most important to the Grand Slams – or to enter the calendar with a 10th competition. But that is not the end of it. The ATP (men’s) and WTA (women’s) associations are shuddering at the possibility of Saudi Arabia proposing a kind of parallel circuit that would allow the top players to benefit from higher payments. The lower-profile events are losing support, because the leading figures are increasingly opting to fill their pockets from exhibition matches.

“The ladies are going to play the WTA Finals there?”

This is the burgeoning power of the Middle East, which has been hosting official events in Doha and Dubai for more than two decades, and an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi since 2009. Now, everything indicates that it will also be staging the ATP Finals, which has no fixed venue since the end of the contract with Singapore in 2018. This is something that is laughable, in John McEnroe’s opinion, “The ladies are going to play the WTA Finals there? Are you kidding me?” his view is shared by two other symbols, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. He goes on to say: “At the same time, which is also laughable, is the people that can criticize tennis players or golfers for doing something that virtually every business and the government do, which is deal with Saudi Arabia.”

Meanwhile, the legendary women’s duo Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova wrote a letter to Sports Illustrated urging WTA officials to reconsider the option of relocating to Saudi Arabia because, they argue, “entirely incompatible with the spirit and purpose of women’s tennis and the WTA itself.” They appeal for “fairness” and “equality to empower women,” and point out that it “criminalizes the LGTBI community.”

Among the top female players, there was a tepid response from the number one, the Polish Iga Swiatek, and the detachment of the number two, the Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka.

Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus
Sabalenka, during the match against Fruhvirtova in Riyadh.JAMES ROSS (EFE)

“It’s not black or white. It’s hard for me to say whether it’s good or not [that the WTP Finals are moved there], because it’s not easy for women in these areas. There are also rumors of sportswashing,” says Swiatek; “Obviously these countries also want to change and improve politically and sociologically. I have nothing to do with Rafa and his decisions, I didn’t know about it, it should be up to the federations and the governing bodies who decide if we lay there or not.” Meanwhile, Sabalenka supports the move. The same day that Alcaraz and Djokovic met on the court in Riyadh, the Belarusian and the Tunisian Ons Jabeur completed the line-up. “[Playing in Saudi Arabia] was an amazing experience. I expected something different. People really like tennis here. I’m happy to go there,” she said.

For Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki, who recently returned to the sport after a three-year maternity break, it is inevitable. “I haven’t read much up on Rafa, but obviously Saudi Arabia is coming into sports in a very strong way. I think it’s inevitable that that’s going to happen, and I think when that does happen, I think we have a chance to make a change and do something good there. I obviously realize, you know, the human rights and everything else, but I think when it’s inevitable that they have so much money to put into sports, I think when you’re put in that situation, you can maybe make a change and do something positive”, said the Dane, while criticism is mounting against Nadal, who has made €124 million from his sporting merits alone.

For the time being, the Spanish tennis star has not said anything beyond the announcement and has posted on his social media channels a couple of photos with Roger Federer, on a visit to his academy in Manacor (Majorca). As specified by the ATP at the time, the Swiss resided in Dubai until the end of his career in 2022. According to the Amnesty International report, in Dubai there was also “censorship”, “torture”, “mistreatment”, “discrimination”, “crime in sexual relations between adults of the same sex”, “skyrocketing carbon dioxide indexes” and more.

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