Former US tennis star Billie-Jean King is at it again, giving time to develop the sport of tennis in the Middle East, and her endorsement of the World Tennis Association has brought in vital partnerships with UNESCO, and financial backing from technology titan, Sony Ericsson.
"Women make up 70 percent of the poverty in this world, which is why micro-financing is important and why having the Sony Ericsson championships here is so important," King said, referring to the women’s season-end event.
This week’s tournament is the biggest tennis tournament ever held in the Middle East, and the partnership of WTA and UNESCO is using it to confer upon King the title of global mentor for gender equity.
This is intended to draws attention to the fact that the winner of a record 20 Wimbledon titles and a life-long campaigner for women’s rights is seeking to improve things in a region where change has been slow. "One of the reasons I wanted to come here was to learn," King stressed.
"I know change is difficult and change takes time and we should always respect each other – always. But maybe this event will inspire young women to think about things. We can always respect each other, no matter what religion and culture, so it takes time.
"It’s going to take generations to shift but we have to start somewhere. Seven years ago Doha was the first city to have women professional tennis players, and that was a beginning. But it just doesn’t happen quickly. Most things change one by one.
One person at a time. One interview at a time, one phone call, one person, but it takes so much time. And life is difficult, no question. One of her central points, and of Larry Scott, the chief executive of the WTA, is that when countries extend an invitation to the women’s tennis tour, the biggest professional sporting organisation for women on the planet, they are implicitly associating themselves with its values.
Inevitably this has brought oddities – advertising can only be done with a silhouette when depictions of women in short-skirted tennis gear are sited out of doors. Indoors, uncovered legs and shoulders can be displayed much as in the non-Muslim world.
But Scott does not focus on such contradictions. "Our role is not to discuss concerns we have about society," he said. "We are building in a lot of different countries around the world. We are here to build sport, and as a supporting organisation we believe we are a catalyst for change."
"Our first tournament in 2001 here made a statement. Sport is a reflection of society. This event could not have taken place ten years ago, so this is very significant. It will promote more understanding and tolerance and different ways of looking at things. Our athletes are playing a very significant role but we don’t have a political and social agenda."
For this reason it was no coincidence that this was the first year in which the WTA and Sony Ericsson have offered prize money which is equal to the men’s year-end championship (R45,65 million) King commented: "Equal prize money is not principally about the money. It’s about the message it gives."
Doha was not only the first venue to hold a major women’s tennis tournament, it was the first where an Israeli athlete competed in the Gulf – in February when Shahar Peer, a former Israeli soldier, competed in the Qatar Total women’s Open.