Daria Kasatkina, shown here in action at Indian Wells last month, is the most likely out gay player on the WTA Tour to qualify for the Finals in Riyadh. | Jonathan Hui-USA TODAY Sports

The 2024 Women’s Tennis Assn. Finals have been confirmed for Riyadh in November and will be held in the Saudi Arabian capital for the following two years as well.

Thursday’s announcement looks to have thwarted campaigning efforts by prominent tennis figures including Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert to stop the showpiece event from being held in a country with a dismal human rights record.

Same-sex sexual activity is prohibited in Saudi Arabia and reports suggest LGBTQ people living there are frequently at risk of arrest. Meanwhile, male guardianship over women is codified by law, although there have been some advances in recent years on women’s rights.

In January, Navratilova and Evert wrote a joint letter to the WTA, telling them that awarding the Finals tournament to Saudi Arabia would be a “significant step backwards.”

However, the prize money on offer to the top players taking part represents a major increase, rising by $6.25 million when compared to the previous finals in Cancun, Mexico. The pot now stands at $15.25 million.

Navratilova tweeted Thursday: “The WTA leadership and the players have made their choice. With all my heart, I hope it’s the right one — only time will tell.”

The WTA’s chairman and CEO, Simon Stone, claims the move to Riyadh is “a positive step for the long-term growth of women’s tennis as a global and inclusive sport.”

The use of the word “inclusive” is likely to raise eyebrows for LGBTQ players and fans. World No. 11 Daria Kasatkina, who featured in the 2022 Finals, is one of several out gay players on tour, as is Demi Schuurs who played doubles at the last two editions.

When asked at Wimbledon last July about the prospect of the Finals being held in Saudi Arabia, Kasatkina said it was “tough to talk about,” adding: “For me, I don’t think that everything is about the money.”

Kasatkina regularly vlogs from tournaments with her girlfriend, Natalia Zabiiako.

Despite the law in Saudi Arabia, same-sex couples would be permitted to share a hotel room together in Riyadh, according to Marina Storti, the CEO of WTA Ventures which is the Tour’s commercial division.

“We have been assured that everybody will be welcome in Saudi Arabia, regardless of sexual orientation or religion,” Storti is quoted as saying by the Daily Telegraph.

“If there are same-sex couples travelling to Riyadh and they want to share rooms in the hotel, that will be accommodated.”

Storti also told the newspaper that while the WTA did consult with Navratilova and Evert over their concerns, “we had to make the right decision for the players, the fans and the tour.”

Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert speaking at last year’s WTA Finals in Cancun.
| Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

Arij Mutabagani is the president of the Saudi Tennis Federation and the first elected female president of any Saudi Arabian sports federation, as emphasized in the WTA media release.

She insisted: “Everyone will be made to feel extremely welcome. Our country is moving forward.

“Much has been achieved already and many historic steps taken by women in all sectors in recent years, with sport driving much of the progress across our entire society.”

Nadia Podoroska and Greet Minnen are also out gay players ranked in the WTA Top 100. Podoroska said last November that she would not support the Finals being played in Saudi Arabia, telling Clay Magazine: “For me, there are limits.”

After Navratilova and Evert had an op-ed titled “We did not help build women’s tennis for it to be exploited by Saudi Arabia” published in the Washington Post, the Saudi ambassador to the United States — Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud — hit back.

“Perfection cannot be the price for admission — for a tennis tournament, or any other once closed space that our women want to enter,” she wrote in a statement carried on the website of the Saudi Embassy in the U.S.

“To those who seek to deny our women the same opportunities that others enjoy, I say that what I hear loudly and clearly is that there is no seat for me at their table. But I will welcome them at mine. Because my table isn’t limited by political views, borders, race or geography.”

There was no mention in Princess Reema’s statement of the absence of any LGBTQ rights in her country or its criminalization of same-sex relationships.

The repeated “everyone is welcome” messages are reminiscent of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, which has been hosting WTA tournaments for around 15 years.

Saudi’s neighbor also has draconian anti-LGBTQ laws, but there is less evidence of them being enforced in Qatar. 

Reprieve, an NGO, reported in January that at least 172 executions were carried out in Saudi Arabia in 2023, and that six of those put to death were women. 

“There is also no way of knowing how many hundreds or even thousands of people are on death row as the Kingdom’s capital justice system is almost entirely opaque,” the NGO said.

Now that Riyadh is locked in for the WTA Finals, extra scrutiny of Saudi’s human rights record should be expected — although that may not make much difference in a sport where money looks to have talked loudest in the end.