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Women's tennis players have mixed feelings about possibly staging the WTA Finals in Saudi Arabia

NEW YORK (AP) — As an Arab woman, Ons Jabeur would be happy to see the WTA Finals played in Saudi Arabia.

Other players aren't sure yet.

The season-ending championship for the top women's players has been on the move in recent years. A site has yet to be announced for this year, though there is speculation the event could land in Riyadh.

“We have not made any decisions yet on WTA Finals location,” a tour spokeswoman wrote to the AP on Friday. “As with all decisions regarding the future of the WTA, we are working closely with players and focused on continuing to build a strong future for women’s tennis.”

Jabeur, the first African or Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam final and last year's U.S. Open runner-up, said she went to Saudi Arabia last year and believes things are improving for women. Saudi Arabia has, in recent years, enacted wide-ranging social reforms, including granting women the right to drive and largely dismantling male guardianship laws that had allowed husbands and male relatives to control many aspects of women’s lives.

“For me, I was trying to push to have something, tennis, there in Saudi. I think it’s a great step. I think it’s something that could help the Arab world to have more tennis players, to get more involved in sports,” Jabeur said. "Yeah, if they play there, and hopefully if I qualify, it will be a great honor and opportunity for me to go and play there, especially meeting a lot of women. They told me they look up to me. That would be a great opportunity for me to meet them and speak to them."

Yet, even as the government has enacted top-down reforms, it has severely cracked down on any form of political dissent, arresting women’s rights activists and other critics and sentencing them to long prison terms and travel bans, sometimes on the basis of a few social media posts.

Those aware of the Saudi's poor human rights record are more hesitant. American Jessica Pegula said she would perhaps want to see a donation to women's sports or women's rights causes before being assured it was the right decision.

"I think that would be something really important that, if we did end up going there, we would want to see. At the same time, yeah, there’s obviously a lot of hot topics on that and issues, but at the same time if we can go there and create change, that’s also a great thing. I think it’s just going to have to be the right arrangement and we’re going to have to know if we go there, OK, well, we want to be making a change, and you need to help us do that.

"I think, unfortunately, a lot of places don’t pay women a lot of money, and it’s unfortunate that a lot of women’s sports, like, we don’t have the luxury to say no to some things. Again, I think if the money was right and the arrangement was something that we could get behind, where we could go and create change, then I would be OK playing there."

Saudi Arabia is set to host the men’s tennis tour’s Next Gen ATP Finals in Jedda through 2027 under an agreement announced Thursday. WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said in June that he and some players had visited in February for an evaluation process that is still ongoing.

The event was played last year in Fort Worth, Texas, and had originally been expected to return to China this year. Top-ranked Iga Swiatek was disappointed that an announcement hadn't been made already.

“It would be great, yeah, if the decision were made earlier," she said. "Especially when we were in Fort Worth, they kind of assured us the decision is going to be made at the beginning of the year. It is a little bit annoying, but as players there’s nothing we can do, because it’s all about business and negotiations that WTA has, so we kind of have to wait.”

KING ON THE COURT

Tennis participation boomed after the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, with the U.S. Tennis Association saying in 2021 that 4 million more Americans played the sport in 2020 than 2019.

“I’m one of those 4 million,” Billie Jean King said.

The Hall of Fame player said she had given up tennis for about two decades, bothered by nagging knee and shoulder injuries. But with suddenly of plenty of time on their hands, King's spouse, Ilana Kloss, reminded her how much she loved to hit and recommended trying it again.

King at first borrowed one of Kloss' rackets, then asked Wilson for a new one. She settled on the Clash and marveled at the technology that didn't exist when she was on top of the game.

“I know why the players are so into strings,” King said. “Every time you get a new string job, it’s like, this is heaven. I see why they change their rackets often. They’re amazing.”

King credited Kloss with being able to hit it close enough so she wouldn't have to run much and quickly realized how much she missed playing.

“It was glorious,” King said. “Brings back memories.”

LATIN TENNIS RECOGNITION

The achievements of Hispanic and Latin players will be recognized at this year's U.S. Open.

The celebration will be highlighted by Sept. 5 with an the “U.S. Open Equity Talk: Latine Influence on American Pop Culture & Sports,” a panel discussion featuring Latin leaders in sports, business and entertainment.

Rosie Casals will be recognized at the event for her role in the fight for equal prize money at the U.S. Open, the 50th anniversary of which is being celebrated this year. Casals, whose parents emigrated from El Salvador, is the co-founder of the recently formed Latin American Tennis Foundation.

Players such as Pancho Gonzalez, Pancho Segura, Gabriella Sabatini, Mary Jo Fernandez and Gigi Fernandez will also be displayed in the U.S. Open Equity Experience, which features videos and images of milestone moments at the tournament.

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AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis