We did not help build women’s tennis for it to be exploited by Saudi Arabia

Residential and commercial buildings, viewed from the Kingdom Center, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday. (Jeremy Suyker/Bloomberg/Getty Images)
Residential and commercial buildings, viewed from the Kingdom Center, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday. (Jeremy Suyker/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Lately, we seem to be so inseparable that you might as well call us Evertilova. We have not always been so in step with each other; one of us is quiet, the other unquiet. But there is a matter on which we have always been perfectly united. Over many years we were opponents, sometimes in matches with an intensity that felt personal. Then we became friends, and then we met cancer together. Over the years, 50 of them now, no matter what occurred on the court or in our lives, we shared an understanding that we were engaged in a common cause, one that connected our hearts and amounted to our life’s work: the building of a Women’s Tennis Association tour founded on equality, to empower women in a male-dominated world.

That work is now imperiled. WTA Tour officials, without adequate consultation with the players who are the very foundation of the sport, are on the verge of agreeing to stage the WTA Finals in Saudi Arabia. This is entirely incompatible with the spirit and purpose of women’s tennis and the WTA itself.

We fully appreciate the importance of respecting diverse cultures and religions. It is because of this, and 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 proposed host. Not only is this a country where women are not seen as equal, it is a country where the current landscape includes a male guardianship law that essentially makes women the property of men. A country which criminalizes the LGBTQ community to the point of possible death sentences. A country whose long-term record on human rights and basic freedoms has been a matter of international concern for decades.

Staging the WTA final there would represent not progress, but significant regression.

Under Saudi law, a woman must have a male guardian to marry, and when she does, the guardianship passes to her husband. Wives are required to “obey” their husbands in such matters as whether to travel together, where to live, and the frequency of sexual relations. The unequal status of women remains deeply embedded in Saudi law, and women who actively protest this injustice risk indefinite imprisonment — for they need a male guardian’s permission to leave prison even after they have served their sentences.

We can’t sit back and allow something as significant as awarding a tournament to Saudi Arabia to happen without an open, honest discussion. To clarify and ensure transparency on these issues, we make the following common-sense recommendations.

First, the WTA Board, the WTA Ventures board, tournament and players’ council should conduct an open session that includes presentations to players from human rights experts. There should be a healthy debate over whether “progress” and “engagement” is really possible, or whether staging a Saudi crown-jewel tournament would involve players in an act of sportswashing merely for the sake of a cash influx.

Progress on women’s and human rights has been promised by the kingdom before, and token measures have been adopted — yet the principle of male guardianship was made even stronger when it was codified into law in 2022.

Second, the WTA should write a human rights framework and put it in place to protect players, fans, sponsors, workers, etc. Without this clearly stated framework that all tournament hosts must abide by, the WTA puts its people at risk. In Saudi Arabia, women’s rights activists have faced arrest, detention, travel bans and even torture. As recently as 2020, an activist who campaigned simply for a woman’s right to drive was sentenced to nearly six years in prison.

The WTA should revisit the values upon which it was established. We believe that those values cannot even be expressed, much less achieved, in Saudi Arabia. Taking a tournament there would represent a significant step backward, to the detriment not just of women’s sport, but women. We hope this changes someday, hopefully within the next five years. If so, we would endorse engagement there.

A final point: Tennis as we have played it is not just a sport but an ethic. It embodies a code of decency and respect among athletes and among people generally. We competed in an era of critical social causes, from women’s rights to civil rights to apartheid to LGBTQ+ rights, that demanded the ethical consideration of others. We did not and do not get every issue right — but we valued the education it gave us.

Along the way, we learned the importance of our personal acts on these issues, because like it or not, the fame and influence granted to top athletes inevitably makes us political. And we took pride in that leadership responsibility.

The WTA must stand for human rights so long as inequality for women exists in the world. We offer this from our experiences: A champion is carved not just from trophies, or earnings, but from the decision to surrender comfort and luxury to make hard choices and take principled stands.

Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova are members of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Between 1974 and 1991, each won 18 Grand Slam singles titles.

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