Rafael Nadal was named the ambassador of the Saudi Tennis Federation on Monday. It's Saudi Arabia's latest attempt to expand its footprint in the world of global sports, which many have described as “sports crowding out” – an attempt by the oil-rich kingdom to improve its image tarnished by a poor human rights record.
Sports are also a major part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 reform program, which aims to transform Saudi Arabia into a hub for tourism and business while weaning the world's biggest oil exporter away from fossil fuels.
Saudi Arabia has lured soccer stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar to play in the Saudi Pro League, stage heavyweight matches and fund the start-up LIV golf tour to play on the PGA Tour.
As Nadal becomes the latest sports star to link up with the controversial Gulf nation, we take a look at what he brings to the table and what his role will be.
Why did the Saudi Tennis Federation choose Nadal?
Nadal is undoubtedly one of the biggest names in world sports, let alone tennis. With 22 Grand Slam titles in men's singles, he is second on the all-time list, behind only Novak Djokovic and the great Roger Federer, who won 20 Slams.
However, the 37-year-old Spaniard is currently sidelined with a hip injury, but remains one of the world's top earners and among the most influential sports figures.
He was seen as Federer's nemesis on the tennis court, and their thrilling duels made Nadal extremely popular as well.
What did Nadal say after being appointed as Saudi Arabia's tennis ambassador?
The legendary tennis player feels the real potential for tennis in Saudi Arabia and wants to play a role in the development of the sport.
“Everywhere you look in Saudi Arabia, you can see growth and progress, and I'm excited to be a part of it,” he said in a press release. “I continue to play tennis because I love it. But apart from playing I want to help the sport grow far and wide around the world and there is real potential in Saudi Arabia.”
What will Nadal's role be?
Nadal recently attended a junior tennis clinic in Riyadh and his new role will include “dedicated time in the kingdom every year” to developing the sport as well as developing the new Rafa Nadal Academy, the Saudi federation said on Monday.
Nadal's state of play
Nadal was due to play in the ongoing Australian Open, having been sidelined with a hip injury at the 2023 edition.
But after his opening two-match win at the Brisbane warm-up event, he tore a muscle and was forced to miss the first Grand Slam of the year.
Nadal previously said there was a “high percentage” that 2024 would be his retirement from the tour.
Saudi tennis investment
Nadal's announcement comes after a busy 2023 tennis year in Saudi Arabia, which hosted its first ATP Tour event — the Next Gen ATP Finals in Jeddah — and closed the year with exhibition matches pitting Novak Djokovic against Carlos Alcaraz and Aryna Sabalenka against Ons Jabeur. .
In fact, Saudi Arabia has signed a five-year deal to host the Next Gen ATP Finals.
With agency inputs
“Internet evangelist. Twitter fanatic. Hardcore entrepreneur. Incurable analyst. Extreme food junkie. Unapologetic tv maven. Reader.”