Rafa Nadal believes there is a big opportunity to grow tennis in Saudi Arabia after the 22-times Grand Slam champion was named an ambassador for the Saudi Tennis Federation, but Iga Swiatek is on the fence about the women’s game potentially heading there.
Nadal’s role will see the former world number one spend time each year in the desert kingdom to help train children and grow interest in the sport, with plans also in the pipeline for a training academy, the Saudi federation said.
“Everywhere you look in Saudi Arabia, you can see growth and progress and I’m excited to be part of that,” Nadal, who pulled out of the ongoing Australian Open with a muscle injury, said in a statement.
The Spaniard, who recently visited a junior tennis clinic in Riyadh, struggled with a hip problem last year before making his comeback in Brisbane but expects 2024 to be his final season on the professional tour.
“I continue to play tennis as I love the game,” Nadal said. “But beyond playing I want to help the sport grow far and wide across the world and in Saudi there is real potential.”
The men’s ATP Tour said in August its Next Gen Finals for under-21 players would be held in Jeddah from 2023 to 2027, marking its first official tournament in the Gulf state following previous exhibition events.
Saudi Arabia also hosted high-profile exhibition matches last year with world number one Novak Djokovic playing Carlos Alcaraz and Aryna Sabalenka taking on Ons Jabeur.
There has also been frequent speculation that the women’s tour will move its season-ending WTA Finals to Saudi Arabia, though WTA Chairman Steve Simon has said the country presented “big issues” as a host for women’s tour events.
The WTA said in December it was in discussions with various groups over the 2024 Finals and beyond and no decision had been made yet.
Saudi Arabia has pumped huge amounts of money into sports including soccer, Formula One, boxing and golf, with critics accusing the country of using its Public Investment Fund to engage in “sportswashing” over its human rights record.
The kingdom denies accusations of human rights abuses and says it protects its national security through its laws.
World number one Swiatek said it was difficult to judge whether it would be a positive move for the women’s tour to head to the Gulf country, adding that things were “not easy” for women in the region.
“Obviously these countries also want to change and improve politically and sociologically,” she said after her first-round win at the Australian Open on Tuesday.
She also said federations and governing bodies should bear the brunt of any negative public reaction if tournaments are staged in Saudi Arabia.
“If there is some negative backlash, they should take responsibility,” Swiatek added. “It’s hard to straightforwardly go one way and say anything.
“I didn’t even know about Rafa’s decision. Obviously men’s sport is already there in Saudi.
“I don’t know if it’s a good decision or not.”