Rafael Nadal Partnership With Saudi Tennis Federation Draws 'Inexcusable & Disappointing' Criticism

Rafael Nadal Partnership With Saudi Tennis Federation Draws 'Inexcusable & Disappointing' Criticism

In a social media (X) statement made on Tuesday, the 37-year-old Nadal expressed his excitement about contributing to the growth and progress he perceives in Saudi Arabia.

IANSUpdated: Tuesday, January 16, 2024, 01:10 PM IST
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Rafael Nadal | Photo: Twitter/José Morgado

Rafael Nadal has accepted an ambassadorial role with the Saudi Tennis Federation, becoming the latest high-profile athlete to align with the Middle East as the Gulf nation seeks to enhance its global influence through sport.

Nadal's decision comes on the heels of his withdrawal from the Australian Open due to injury. In a social media (X) statement made on Tuesday, the 37-year-old expressed his excitement about contributing to the growth and progress he perceives in Saudi Arabia. The former world No. 1 emphasised his desire to help nurture the development of young talent in the sport, intending to foster a genuine passion for tennis among the country's youth.

“Growth and progress that’s important to see and the STF is working on that. In a recent visit I saw the interest in both aspects and I want to be part of that role of growing the sport of tennis around the world. The kids are looking to the future and I saw they are passionate about sports… I want to encourage them to pick up a racket and enjoy the benefits of a healthy living,” Nadal wrote on X.

Controversy Surrounding Nadal's Association

However, Nadal's association with Saudi Arabia has ignited controversy, with critics accusing the nation of "sportswashing" – using prominent athletes to divert attention from human rights and environmental concerns. The move has prompted social media backlash, labeling Nadal's decision as "inexcusable" and "disappointing."

Saudi Tennis Federation's Plans for Nadal

The Saudi Tennis Federation outlined its plans for Nadal's involvement, indicating that he will spend dedicated time in the Kingdom annually to contribute to the growth of tennis, particularly among boys and girls.

Saudi Arabia is set to host the ATP's Next Gen Finals for the next four years, a move that could potentially impact the tennis calendar in Australia.

McEnroe's Perspective on Athletes' Moral Standards

Tennis legend John McEnroe, a vocal critic of the growing influence of Saudi funds in tennis, expressed his disapproval, particularly in light of the potential hosting of the WTA Finals in Saudi Arabia in 2024. McEnroe dismissed the notion that athletes should set moral standards, citing the widespread engagement of businesses and governments with Saudi Arabia.

"Let's put it this way: money talks," he told ESPN. "Personally, I disagree with it completely, with the golf and the tennis. The ladies are going to play the WTA Finals there? Are you kidding me? Because they treat women so well? That part to me is laughable.

"At the same time, which is also laughable, is the people that can criticise tennis players or golfers for doing something that virtually every business and the government do, which is deal with Saudi Arabia.

"This idea that tennis players have to set the moral standard, or golfers for that matter, when they're all making the money, it's a total joke as far as I'm concerned."

Saudi Arabia's Broader Strategy in Sports

The controversial move aligns with Saudi Arabia's broader strategy of using sports events, such as the Saudi tennis exhibition that featured Novak Djokovic and Nick Kyrgios in 2022, to bolster its international reputation. Additionally, the introduction of LIV Golf, backed by Saudi funds, and the pursuit of boxing, UFC, and WWE events in the country have sparked divided opinions within the sports community.

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