Only 90 days to decide?: Saudi billions threaten to divide the tennis world

Only 90 days to decide?
Saudi billions threaten to divide the tennis world

Opportunity or risk? Saudi Arabia has been shaking up world sports for a long time and has now chosen tennis as an investment destination. The country wants to take over ATP and WTA tournaments through its sovereign wealth fund.

Roger Federer has been calling for it for years, for Rafael Nadal it would be “great”, and according to Billie Jean King it would be a “vision for tennis”. Not only the prominent supporters would rather implement a merger of the professional tennis organizations for men (ATP) and women (WTA) today rather than tomorrow – but at what cost? Even with an immoral offer? The two billion euros with which Saudi Arabia, which has been heavily criticized by human rights organizations, apparently wants to invest on a large scale in professional tennis, has sent the scene into turmoil.

“An offer like this is first of all an opportunity,” said President Dietloff von Arnim of the German Tennis Association (DTB). But he emphasized: “Whatever comes, something new is coming – and it can’t just be winners.” The power struggle between the various tennis organizers, which has already been simmering for a long time, threatens to escalate with the mega offer.

According to a report in the British newspaper “Telegraph”, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund Public Investment Fund (PIF) is offering two billion US dollars for the Masters tournaments. These are events in the second highest category behind the four Grand Slams, which have so far been organized separately by the ATP and WTA. ATP board member Herwig Straka described the figure reported to the Austrian news agency APA as “wrong”. But he couldn’t go into it more specifically.

Actually, Saudi influence should be prevented

Apparently this offer is only valid for 90 days. One thing is clear: It would be competition for a possible Premier Tour model, which the associations had recently discussed. A merger between ATP and WTA had already been discussed last year – but according to the Telegraph, the premise was to prevent the kingdom from having its own tournament series, as in golf. The billion-dollar foundation of the LIV Tour had led to a split there.

Saudi Arabia has been investing heavily in sport for years through its sovereign wealth fund and has already entered the football, boxing and Formula 1 business, among other things. The official goals of the state plan “Vision 2030” are the diversification of the economy, less dependence on oil, opening up the country to tourists and attractive offers for the country’s own population. But the kingdom is also accused of using its involvement in sport to distract attention from its human rights violations and to improve its image.

Currently, Saudi Arabia is increasing its influence in the existing tennis structures – and doing so very successfully. Spain’s top star Nadal has been won as the country’s tennis ambassador. There has also been a multi-year strategic partnership with the ATP since February; the Saudi sovereign wealth fund appears, among other things, as the name sponsor of the world rankings and as an official partner in major tournaments such as the Masters currently taking place in Miami.

Controversial in the WTA

It is also known that Saudi Arabia wants to hold its own Masters event in early January before the Australian Open. The Next Gen Finals, the annual finals for the best professionals under the age of 21, are already taking place in Jeddah. According to reports, the WTA finals of the eight best players of the year will also be held in Riyadh in the future.

The “Six Kings Slam”, a show tournament in October, in which the industry’s top stars such as Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Carlos Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner and Daniil Medvedev are scheduled to take part, has already been officially announced. There are no world ranking points there, but there is a high fee. There is speculation that the entry fee will be 1.5 million euros and 6 million euros for the winner. But that’s not the only reason why the whole thing is a good idea, said the Russian Medvedev: “We can make tennis bigger and more interesting for people.”

Saudi Arabia appears to have a powerful ally in the controversial ATP boss Andrea Gaudenzi. The Italian is said to have recently informed about the billion-dollar offer during discussions in Indian Wells – without involving those responsible for the Grand Slams in Melbourne, Paris, Wimbledon and New York. Trouble is inevitable because the pie, which another big player now wants a piece of, is not getting any bigger.

“The fact is that in tennis we make ourselves vulnerable because of the calendar and everyone wants to secure their sinecure,” said DTB boss von Arnim. But a lot is still unclear. “The concrete plans are not yet on the table,” he said: “The ATP will hold a meeting in Madrid in April and then perhaps provide further information.”

Upon request, the WTA announced that offers from Saudi Arabia were also being examined. There is currently “a wave of interest in women’s sports from fans and partners around the world.” The large amount of money from Saudi Arabia would make the efforts for equal pay (equal pay for women) much easier, even outside of the Grand Slam tournaments. But tennis icons Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova recently warned in a joint letter to WTA boss Steve Simon: WTA finals in Saudi Arabia would be “incompatible with the spirit and mission of women’s tennis and the WTA.”

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