Football, golf and now tennis: Saudi Arabia is offering billions for power in professional tennis

Football, golf and now tennis
Saudi Arabia is offering billions for power in professional tennis

By Victoria Robertz

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He doesn’t mess with the desert state, he goes for it when he wants something: This time Saudi Arabia is concerned with control over the ATP and WTA tournaments. The kingdom is primarily trying to distract attention from violations of human rights. A number of athletes are already supporting the project.

For years, Saudi Arabia has been trying to distract from its dramatic human rights violations by investing billions in international professional sports. It was only announced at the beginning of the month that the Gulf state had hundreds of millions of euros in start-up capital for a new business model in cycling want to provide. Now comes the next aggressive offer from the Saudis, this time to tennis.

As the British newspaper “The Telegraph” reported, the kingdom wants to spend a total of two billion US dollars on tennis through its public investment fund PIF and to combine the tournaments of the ATP and WTA tours, i.e. for men and women. Saudi Arabia would also like to host its own Masters tournament in the first week of the season, where the United Cup in Australia is currently taking place.

This offer is valid for the next 90 days and will then expire, ATP boss Andrea Gaudenzi told the organizers of the Masters tournaments. If ATP and WTA accept the offer, Saudi Arabia would not only gain enormous influence in tennis. It would also be the next big step towards becoming the center of world sport and the world as a whole.

Investments are part of a “sophisticated concept”

Because if Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has his way, the Gulf state will one day be a major international power. Last year, Germany also spoke out in favor of closer economic relations with the country – but at the same time emphasized that these cannot be viewed in isolation from the rule of law and human rights. The human rights situation in the absolute monarchy remains extremely critical. The crown prince himself is said to have given the order to murder dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the death penalty is still available. Free discourse is impossible, media is controlled by the state and critics are sanctioned.

The “Vision 2030” reform program is an attempt by the government to bring societal and social change and, above all, to reduce the country’s economic dependence on oil. The PIF fund is a central instrument because it is almost inexhaustible. According to his own statements, he manages almost a trillion dollars and, according to Bloomberg, recently invested more than any other active independent investor in the world. For the Saudis, no price seems too high for power and influence.

They have been one of the players in the international football business for around a year, even if the initial hype seems to be slowly over. With the PIF, the state holds the majority of shares in several clubs and was able to use a lot of money to lure big names from the European leagues, such as Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar. The latter should receive an annual salary of 160 million euros. It is also certain that the 2034 World Cup will be held in Saudi Arabia.

Christoph Breuer, sports economist from the German Sports University Cologne, explained to “Capital” after the football stars were signed last year that there was a “sophisticated concept” behind Saudi Arabia’s sports investments. “The aim is to market Saudi politics and generate global attention,” said Breuer. “One of the central goals.” It is also about increasing media attractiveness.

Top stars are already behind Saudi Arabia

The desert state has also invested huge amounts of money in boxing, golf and motorsports. According to calculations by the British magazine “MotorSport”, Formula 1 will receive almost 50 million euros in entry fees for the Grand Prix in Jeddah, more than any other host. Four years ago, Formula 1 concluded an advertising partnership with the world’s largest oil company Saudi Aramco, reportedly worth around 440 million euros for ten years.

The ATP and its players don’t seem averse to such offers either. The 22-time Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal from Spain has been an ambassador for the Saudi Arabian Tennis Association since this year. So far, he has fended off criticism by arguing, among other things, that the country is in a transformation process towards an improvement in the human rights situation. “I want to help make this country a greater sporting nation, so that men and women can play tennis in absolute equality and you share this vision with me,” Nadal said on Spanish radio station Cope. “I don’t think they’re hiring me to maintain their image.”

Six other top stars, including the current world number one, Novak Djokovic, and the Australian Open winner Jannik Sinner want to hold a show tournament in the desert state in October – and are apparently also happy to benefit from the Saudis’ ambitions in tennis.

The ATP itself announced a “multi-year strategic partnership” at the end of February. The PIF is already an official partner of the ATP rankings as well as the tournaments in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Beijing, the ATP finals at the end of the season in Turin and the Next Gen ATP finals in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Although there are already millions in prize money at the tournaments and many professionals earn well from lucrative advertising contracts, the two billion dollars offered by the Saudis would probably flood even tennis with money.

Acceptance of the offer is pending

However, it is far from clear that the offer will be accepted. According to sports information service SID, the WTA announced that there was still no consensus within the sport on a preferred outcome. The Grand Slam organizers’ offers and suggestions for shaping the future would be examined.

Criticism of the collaboration with Saudi Arabia came from Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley in January. “I have never seen the PIF interest negatively. I have always seen it positively,” Tiley is quoted as saying by the SID. “But as a sport, we shouldn’t do something that negatively impacts a long-term partner in sport.” A Masters tournament in the first week of the season, as Saudi Arabia is planning, could displace the United Cup in Australia from this position in the tournament calendar. “The discussion we want to have is: Where is the opportunity where we can all coexist,” Tiley said.

A look at the Saudis’ commitment to date shows that coexistence is probably not enough for them.

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