WATCH: Roger Federer on his decision not to play in the Saudi Arabia exhibition
The tennis world was hoping to see its two best male players, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, face off in a final in Paris this coming Sunday. The Serb and the Spaniard began the week locked in a neck-and-neck race for the season-ending No. 1 ranking with just two tournaments remaining.
Alas, that showdown won’t happen: On Wednesday, Nadal announced that he was pulling out of the Paris Masters with an abdominal strain. The withdrawal completed Djokovic’s beyond-meteoric, three-month rise back to the top ranking. It doesn’t look like he’s going to surrender that spot again anytime soon.
What made this development doubly painful for tennis fans was the fact that there actually is an upcoming match between Nadal and Djokovic that many hoped would be cancelled this week. But, alas again, that showdown—better known as the The King Salman Tennis Championship—is still on for December 22 in Jedda, Saudi Arabia. That’s the same Saudi Arabia that, since the murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s Istanbul consulate on October 2, has become an international pariah. The same Saudi Arabia that has admitted responsibility for the killing, and has changed its story about how it happened multiple times.
Many of us have waited, as the news has trickled out and the evidence has piled up, for Nadal and Djokovic to back out of their $1 million dollar match. These are two players who, aside from being among the best ever on court, have also been among the sport’s best ambassadors. They’ve each won the ATP’s Humanitarian of the Year award, and have each won the Laureus Sportsman of the Year award, given out by the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation.
Yet this week Nadal and Djokovic both said that they need to hear more.
“We are looking at how evolves the situation,” Nadal said, “and I hope things will clarify as soon as possible.”
“We have the commitment with them for over a year,” Djokovic said. “...right now we just don’t have obviously enough information, and we have to look into that a bit more and then we’ll make our decision soon.”
Judging by the information that has been reported this week—that Khashoggi was strangled to death as soon as he entered the consulate—the story isn’t likely to get any better by December. And it’s not likely to get any easier to justify, especially now that we know Roger Federer turned down a similar invitation to play in Saudi Arabia.
The story has been compared, rightfully, to the decision that John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg faced in 1980, when they were offered $1 million each—the most in tennis history at the time—to come to South Africa to play an exhibition that was billed as a Grand Slam tiebreaker. Borg had won at Wimbledon that year, and McEnroe at the US Open; this best-of-five-set match at Sun City would be the putative decider.
But there was another, older, wiser player who had something to say about it. Arthur Ashe, a longtime anti-apartheid activist, wrote a column in the Washington Post criticizing the idea, and urged McEnroe’s father, who doubled as his manager, to have his 21-year-old son drop out. The McEnroes eventually agreed. In a recent interview, John Jr. said he has never regretted the decision.
I don’t think Djokovic and Nadal would regret making the same decision. Yes, a million dollars is a million dollars. Yes, they want to honor their commitments, which were made well before Khashoggi’s murder. And Saudi Arabia isn’t the only country that could be considered controversial. Both tours travel to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and it’s not unimaginable that a player could decide to boycott the US Open at some point, to protest the actions of this country or its president.
But the Saudi match is a one-off exo that will have no bearing on Djokovic’s and Nadal’s career records. It is also, through its name—the King Salman Tennis Championship—specifically linked to the ruling regime.
Nadal and Djokovic have made this era a Golden Age for men’s tennis not just with their play, but with the way they’ve handled themselves as people. For more than a decade, they’re represented tennis as well as anyone ever has. They’ve earned the right to be called ambassadors for the game, and they’ll be remembered for staging some of the greatest contests in its history. But in a year in which they played what may have been their very best match, at Wimbledon, do they also want to be remembered for playing a match in Saudi Arabia?
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ATP Paris (Mon - Sun 10.29 - 11.4)
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WTA Zhuhai (Mon - Sun 10.29 - 11.4)
- Tennis Channel PLUS has live action of Zhuhai starting Tuesday 10/30 at 12:30 AM EST
USTA Tyler (Tue - Sun 10.30 - 11.4)
-Tennis Channel PLUS features live competition and on-demand coverage of every WTA match from USTA Tyler beginning Tuesday 10/30 11:00 AM EST