Tennis icons Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova against holding events in Saudi Arabia

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States said Hall of Famers Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova relied on “outdated stereotypes and western-centric views of our culture” in urging the women’s tennis tour to avoid holding its season-ending tournament in the kingdom.

“These champions have turned their back on the very same women they have inspired and it is beyond disappointing,” Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud wrote Tuesday in response to an op-ed piece by Evert and Navratilova printed in The Washington Post last week.

“Sports are meant to be a great equalizer that offers opportunity to everyone based on ability, dedication and hard work,” the Saudi diplomat said. “Sports should not be used as a weapon to advance personal bias or agendas … or punish a society that is eager to embrace tennis and help celebrate and grow the sport.”

Tennis has been consumed lately by the debate over whether the sport should follow golf and others in making deals with Saudi Arabia, 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.

Saudi Arabia Evert and Navratilova Tennis

Saudi Arabia Evert and Navratilova Tennis

© 2010 AP

In their opinion piece, Evert and Navratilova asked the WTA Tour whether “staging a Saudi crown-jewel tournament would involve players in an act of sportswashing merely for the sake of a cash influx.”

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.

Still, same-sex relations are punishable by death or flogging, though prosecutions are rare.

“While there’s still work to be done, the recent progress for women, the engagement of women in the workforce, and the social and cultural opportunities being created for women are truly profound, and should not be overlooked,” said Princess Reema, who has been the ambassador to the U.S. since 2019 and is a member of the International Olympic Committee’s Gender, Equality and Inclusion Commission.

“We recognize and welcome that there should be a healthy debate about progress for women,” the diplomat said. “My country is not yet a perfect place for women. No place is.”