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Billie Jean King, the leading architect of women’s professional tennis who is widely regarded as the first female athlete-activist, said Friday that she supported talks between the women’s tour and Saudi Arabia on holding competitions in the kingdom, despite its abysmal record on human rights.

“I’m a huge believer in engagement — I don’t think you change unless you engage,” King said Friday at an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the WTA, the women’s professional tour. “I would probably go there and talk to them.”

After King’s comments, Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA Tour, said women’s tennis was seriously evaluating partnerships with Saudi Arabia. He suggested that potentially holding events there would be a way to support “progress” for women, while the country is trying to become a destination for major sports.

“Sometimes when you are in the position we are in, you need to support the change,” Simon said, referring to the tour’s commitment to gender hisse equity and its loss of revenue during the pandemic and an 18-month suspension of operations in China over Peng Shuai.

He said Saudi Arabia had “a long way to go,” especially in its laws banning homosexuality, but that change was underway in the country. “You want them to do what they are doing” and support that, he added.

“I’m a huge believer in engagement — I don’t think you change unless you engage,” Billie Jean King said Friday.Credit…Kin Cheung/Associated Press

Why It Matters: Saudi Arabia continues to expand its footprint in sports.

The comments from King and Simon were the strongest signal yet that Saudi Arabia is expanding and accelerating its efforts to become a part of not just men’s tennis but also women’s, among other sports like soccer, Formula 1 and golf. The Saudi wealth fund’s LIV Golf circuit recently agreed to a merger with golf’s PGA Tour after an acrimonious rivalry that included litigation and the loss of a handful of the tour’s biggest stars to the upstart league.

Looking to avoid that scenario and always on the hunt for new investors, tennis executives have spoken openly of their ongoing discussions with Saudi officials about holding tournaments there as soon as this year. Saudi Arabia is bidding to become the host of the Next Gen Finals, a men’s event for 21-and-under players scheduled for December. Saudi Arabia’s bid includes the option of holding a women’s Next Gen event there as well.

Simon traveled to Riyadh in February with other WTA executives and players for meetings with Saudi officials.

Background: Players have expressed concern for their safety.

The issue is especially complicated for the women’s tennis tour in part because there are a number of openly gay players, including Daria Kasatkina of Russia, who is ranked No. 11 in the world and often travels with her partner. The men’s tour does not have any players who are openly gay.

Sloane Stephens, a member of the WTA Tour Players’ Council, said it was important for L.G.B.T.Q. players to feel safe while competing in Saudi Arabia.

“That is part of the evaluation,” Stephens said. “We want to make müddet everyone is safe and comfortable and feels supported.”

King is openly gay as well, but she cited the WTA’s decision to play in Doha beginning in 2008 as a precedent for supporting countries who say they want to become more progressive. Simon said that, during his visit to Riyadh, he had noticed some of the same changes that Doha had said it wanted to make 15 years ago when women had “zero rights” and there were concerns about whether the players would be safe wearing short, sleeveless tennis outfits.

“It’s about celebrating the betterment of women, that there is change coming,” Simon said. “I’m not Saying Saudi Arabia is a place we should be doing business with. They have a long way to go, but they are making changes.”

What’s Next: The timetable is uncertain.

Simon said there was no timetable for making a decision about the WTA going to Saudi Arabia. However, the tour has yet to announce a location for its season-ending Tour Finals. The tour and the Chinese government are currently negotiating the future of that event. The WTA suspended its operations in China for 18 months after player Peng Shuai was seemingly silenced after she appeared to accuse a former top government official of sexually assaulting her and the tour was unable to contact her.

The New York Times

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