Is Tennis Losing Its Soul?

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Bill Simons and Vinay Venkatesh

Some are elated, saying Saudi Arabia’s huge infusion of money into tennis is an overdue, well-deserved pay raise. Others bristle: it’s sportswashing on steroids – what’s happened to our standards? 

Okay. But this old world has a bevy of bad actors. Are China and Russia all that grand? But Saudi Arabia, some claim, is a nation like no other. 

The Saudi woman who spearheaded the campaign to allow women to drive is now in jail. The stadium where the Next Gen tourney is played is named for a king who imprisoned four of his wives for 15 years for wanting to get out of town. Saudis chopped up a Washington Post writer, gave billions to our politicians and try to export medieval laws. Please, let’s not even talk about freedom of the press, mass executions, nasty labor abuses, or hefty African land grabs.

But hold on, some insist they’re making progress – and how can you turn down such riches? Golfer John Rahm pocketed $500 million. The strident Saudi critic, Rory McIlroy, reportedly was offered $850 million to throw in the towel and  join their golf tour.  It’s said the kingdom has spent $6.3 billion in what’s been called “a very studied and calculated” campaign to improve its image. 

As for tennis, Saudi Arabia has no real fan base and their highest-ranked player ever was No. 1303. But how can you fault the WTA for taking in $15 million for three years for their year-end championships – right?

Well, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova said going to Saudi Arabia would be a significant step backward, because of their lack of basic human rights. “We fully appreciate the importance of respecting diverse cultures and religions…It’s because of this, not despite it, that we oppose the awarding of the tour’s crown jewel tournament to Riyadh. The WTA’s values sit in stark contrast to those of the Kingdom.”  

Then again, women’s tennis was kickstarted by a cigarette company, Virginia Slims, and tennis has partnered with plenty of questionable deep-pocket groups. In 1999, ISL investors signed a $1.2 billion contract with the ATP, but it went south quickly. Promising to save the Davis Cup, the soccer-happy Kosmos Group landed a $3 billion deal in 2018 that imploded after five dismal years. The patient barely survived its surgery.

And then there was the China misadventure. What a bounty it was supposed to be for the WTA to stage 11 tourneys a year with sweet prize money at gleaming new stadiums. Only a few voices whispered, “Be careful – you’re cozying up to a totalitarian regime.” Then a sexual abuse incident turned a marketing dream into a nightmare.

But, these days, money shouts. And, “Isn’t there a way to get  this right?” ethics are about as commonplace as human linesmen. So get used to it – that train has left the station. 

Long ago, betting became embedded in tennis. Never mind it seems that almost weekly someone’s suspended for corrupt behavior.

No. 4 Alexander Zverev, who’s been accused in two cases of domestic abuse, plays on, is embraced and was voted onto the ATP Council – business as usual. 

Now Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing has become a runaway juggernaut. The kingdom has hosted deep pocket tennis exhibitions as well as the ATP’s Next Gen tourneys. Recently at Indian Wells and Miami we couldn’t avoid courtside Saudi signage featuring a logo with crossed swords. Plus, there were luxury suites, vendor booths that spoke of inclusion and a slick TV ad campaign that promoted Saudi Arabia as a cutting-edge, enlightened force for change.    

Not only do the Saudis now sponsor the ATP rankings, Ons Jabeur and many others were paid well to appear there and they called in a Brinks truck to sign up beloved Rafa Nadal, reportedly for $750 million. Sweet! Or, as some muttered, “Sour!” Headlines read: “Will Spain forgive Rafa for breaking its heart?”  

More than this, there’s a $2 billion proposal on the table to create a game-changing Saudi-backed tour that would unite the ATP and WTA, have equal prize money, be headed by the ATP’s Andrea Gaudenzi and have a Masters tourney in the Kingdom. 

While the widely respected Billie Jean King called for “engagement,” American critics claimed, “Saudi life is rosy if you’re in the royal family or have a pipeline to petrodollars. But, c’mon, this is one deeply corrupt, ‘dissidents need not apply’ country that brought down our towers, corrupts our politicians with billions, has a draconian ‘don’t you dare retweet that!’ legal system, and, speaking of rankings, is about as low as you can go on those human rights lists. How can you get in bed with that?” 

But most say, “Just chill – to each his own. Plus, athletes are meant to play games, not change the world. Just dribble and shoot.” The days when Arthur Ashe defied apartheid or Naomi Osaka staged a pop-up boycott in New York to promote racial justice are in the rear-view mirror. 

Spaniard Pablo Erskine suggested, “When it comes to large sums of money, dignity and honor disappear.” 

As an unsparing poet told us:

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded.

Everybody knows the war is over.

Everybody knows the good guys lost.

Everybody knows the fight was fixed.

That’s how it goes.

Everybody knows.”

Yet, still, tennis thrives. There’s nothing like a sweaty afternoon hit under the sky and losing yourself in the game. We just hope the sport isn’t losing its soul in an ethical desert.

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