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Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova urge women's tennis to stay out of Saudi Arabia

Hall of Famers Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova are calling on the women's tennis tour to stay out of Saudi Arabia, saying that holding the WTA Finals there “would represent not progress, but significant regression.”

“There should be a healthy debate over whether ‘progress’ and ‘engagement’ is really possible,” the two star players, who were on-court rivals decades ago, wrote in an op-ed piece printed in The Washington Post on Thursday, “or whether staging a Saudi crown-jewel tournament would involve players in an act of sportswashing merely for the sake of a cash influx.”

Tennis has been consumed lately by the debate over whether the sport should follow golf and others in making deals with the wealthy kingdom, where rights groups say women continue to face discrimination in most aspects of family life and homosexuality is a major taboo, as it is in much of the rest of the Middle East.

“Taking a tournament there would represent a significant step backward, to the detriment not just of women’s sport, but women,” said Evert and Navratilova, who each won 18 Grand Slam singles titles. “We hope this changes someday, hopefully within the next five years. If so, we would endorse engagement there.”

Saudi Arabia began hosting the men’s tour’s Next Gen ATP Finals for top 21-and-under players in Jedda last year in a deal that runs through 2027. Just this month, 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal announced that he would serve as an ambassador for the Saudi Tennis Federation, a role that involves plans for a Rafael Nadal Academy there.

The WTA has been in talks to place its season-ending WTA Finals in Saudi Arabia.

“We note the views of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert as two legends of women’s tennis who have played a valued role in the development of our sport and the WTA. As we have said before, we are currently working through a process to select a host venue for the WTA Finals. There has been no final decision at this time and we will continue to engage with players through the ongoing process," the WTA said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press by a tour spokesperson. "Our approach will be led by what is right for the long-term growth and development of women’s tennis along with the delivery of a world-class event for players and fans.”

Another Hall of Fame player, Billie Jean King, has said she supports the idea of trying to encourage change by heading to Saudi Arabia now.

“I’m a huge believer in engagement," King, a founder of the WTA and an equal rights champion, said last year. "I don’t think you really change unless you engage. ... How are we going to change things if we don’t engage?”

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has worked to get himself out of international isolation since the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. He also clearly wants to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy and reduce its reliance on oil.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has 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. Men and women are still required to dress modestly, but the rules have been loosened and the once-feared religious police have been sidelined. Gender segregation in public places has also been eased, with men and women attending movie screenings, concerts and even raves — something unthinkable just a few years ago.

Still, same-sex relations are punishable by death or flogging, though prosecutions are rare. Authorities ban all forms of LGBTQ+ advocacy, even confiscating rainbow-colored toys and clothing.

“I know the situation there isn’t great. Definitely don’t support the situation there,” U.S. Open champion Coco Gauff said this week at the Australian Open, “but I hope that if we do decide to go there, I hope that we’re able to make change there and improve the quality there and engage in the local communities and make a difference.”

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AP Sports Writer John Pye in Melbourne, Australia, contributed to this report.

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