London | Is tennis teetering on the brink of civil war, again?

Recent reports suggest the game is in turmoil, again, tempted by a 2 billion dollar offer from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), while the four Grand Slams apparently are supporting the notion of a rival premium tour.

Their proposals are to have even more power, to make the ATP and the WTA disappear, to keep the Masters 1000, and to kill the 500 and the 250. But why does no one say: ‘You are crazy?’ Nothing in this project is good for anyone except them [the Grand Slams]. Stan Wawrinka

The Telegraph reported on Tuesday 12 March that the chairman of the ATP, Andrea Gaudenzi, had briefed representatives of the 9 ATP Masters 1000 tournaments on a ‘take it or leave’ offer from the PIF, with only 90 days to accept, but this deadline was then later denied by the Saudis.

The PIF offer does not include the Grand Slam tournaments, the Telegraph reported, which are leading talks over a major revamp of the tennis tours under what is being called the ‘Premium Tour’.

The £1.5bn PIF deal would see the ATP Tour merge with the WTA, with Saudi Arabia hosting a new Masters 1000 tournament in the first week of the season, which would be in direct conflict with the mixed-gender United Cup team competition that is currently hosted in Australia in the lead-up to the Australian Open.

This proposal, unsurprisingly, is strongly opposed by Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley, who oversees the United Cup team event.

The Guardian reported last week that PIF sources had ‘denied there is a deadline and stressed speculation about any offers are premature as talks continue with the various bodies’.

Saudi Arabia are looking to expand its PIF involvement in tennis beyond sponsoring the ATP rankings, announced in February by (sitting L-R) Massimo Calvelli, CEO ATP and Kevin Foster, PIF Head of Corporate Affairs, (standing L-R) Raffaella Valentino, ATP VP Sales, Daniele Sano, ATP Chief Business Officer, Mohamed AlSayyad, PIF Head of Corporate Brand, and Alanoud Althonayan, PIF Head of Sponsorships & Events.

© PIF via Getty Images

The news comes weeks after PIF signed a 5-year partnership with the ATP to take over the naming rights of the men’s rankings, a deal that also sees PIF become a partner of ATP Tour competitions taking place in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Beijing, as well as the ATP finals in Turin, and the Next Gen Finals in Jeddah.

According to The Athletic, the deal means PIF has already committed up to $100m (£78m) to the sport, regardless of the reported fresh offer.

Unlike PIF’s disruptive influence in golf, it is thought that the fund will take a different approach in tennis by working with the existing governing bodies as part of attempts to grow participation among the general population in the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia is expected to be confirmed as the new hosts of the end-of-season finals for both the WTA and ATP tours soon, a decision that has been met with plenty of opposition, especially among many of the women players.

A PIF-funded ATP Tour and WTA merger would put an end to the 4 Grand Slam’s discussions around a new Premium Tour, and would unite men’s and women’s tennis and offer equal pay to both genders under the banner of a new PIF Tour.

Stan Wawrinka has spoken out to L'Equipe criticising the Grand Slams over their Premium Tour proposal

© Buda Mendes/Getty Images

The Premium Tour model, though, is said to be a new circuit also, and would unite men’s and women’s tennis, offering equal pay to both genders, which would be a significant milestone for the women’s game.

Between 11 and 14 events would join the majors in a new circuit for top players, while a second-tier ‘Development Tour’ would be established, encompassing the current 250 and 500 events.

The added tournament would include the 9 current ATP Masters 1000 tournaments, would last for 10 days each, and become mixed-gender.

Effectively, it means that the Top 100 players would play fewer events per year, and have a significantly longer off-season.

Stan Wawrinka has warned against what he suggests is an attempted power grab by the Grand Slams, labelling the proposal as crazy in a recent interview with the French Sports newspaper L’Equipe in which he accuses the big four of serving their own interests, and warned that the move would destroy the professional tours.

“Their proposals are to have even more power, to make the ATP and the WTA disappear, to keep the Masters 1000, and to kill the 500 and the 250,” Wawrinka told L’Equipe. “But why does no one say: ‘You are crazy?’ Nothing in this project is good for anyone except them.”

The Telegraph reported that Debbie Jevans, the newly elected Chair of the All England Club, supports the proposed 16-event schedule, which would include the 4 Grand Slams, 10 Masters 1000 events, a team competition, and a unified season-ending championships.

“The Grand Slams have zero transparency on their accounts,” Wawrinka continued. “They do not work for the vision of the future of tennis, have no desire to work in the direction of the players and the youngest, to cut part of their cake.”

Wawrinka prefers the offer from Saudi Arabia, claiming that the PIF has learned from their mistakes with LIV Golf.

“Saudi Arabia entered tennis through sponsorship and the organisation of the Next Gen tournament,” he explained. “We know that tennis is their top priority in sport for the coming years.

“They support the players fully, they really want to get in there. For now, there is only positive coming from them. They have probably learned from their mistakes with the LIV in golf and they want to do things right by joining the Tour.

“It would be a good thing for tennis to take them from the ATP. This would allow the ATP to be much more solid in setting the rules of the game.”

The ATP signed a 5-year deal with the Saudis to host the Next Gen ATP Finals at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, which started in November 2023

© Adam Pretty/Getty Images

Apparently, during the recent Premium Tour discussions at Indian Wells, Gaudenzi requested that the Masters tournaments stay behind once the 4 Grand Slams representatives had left the room, and briefed them on the Saudi Arabian counter-offer.

The PIF involvement continues the trend of Saudi investment in sports, as the nation recently announced 22-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal as their official tennis ambassador, and are heavily invested in the world of golf and racing.

The audacious bid is being led by Gaudenzi, an Italian former top-20 player, following a tense relationship between the ATP and WTA with the Grand Slams since Wimbledon was stripped of its ranking points in 2022 after The Championships banned Russian and Belarusian players.

Gaudenzi is going toe-to-toe with the majors and their proposed Premium Tour model, a planned overhaul of the calendar in which Tiley is a key figure.

The ATP boss skipped the Australian Open, where Tiley briefed players over the Premium Tour proposal, claiming he had Covid-19, only to travel to Saudi Arabia for talks with the PIF.

The potential venue of the upcoming WTA Finals has attracted a lot of speculation in recent months, with Saudi Arabia repeatedly cited as the possible destination.

It is now being suggested that Saudi Arabia is set to secure the rights to host the tournament this year, and beyond, but many are opposed, including Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, who wrote a joint piece for the Washington Post in January in which they cited Saudi Arabia’s questionable human rights record and their treatment of female citizens.

”The WTA should revisit the values upon which it was established.” they wrote. “We believe that those values cannot even be expressed, much less achieved, in Saudi Arabia.

“Taking a tournament there would represent a significant step backward, to the detriment not just of women’s sport, but women. We hope this changes someday, hopefully within the next five years. If so, we would endorse engagement there.”

Evert and Navratilova, who share 36 Grand Slam singles titles between them, concluded: “The WTA must stand for human rights so long as inequality for women exists in the world.

“We offer this from our experiences: A champion is carved not just from trophies, or earnings, but from the decision to surrender comfort and luxury to make hard choices and take principled stands.”

Later that month, the Kingdom’s ambassador to the USA, Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, criticised Evert and Navratilova’s stance, saying the Americans were ‘using sports as a weapon to advance personal bias’ and ‘punish a society’ eager to embrace tennis.

The WTA says it is currently working through a process to select a host venue for the WTA Final, and, that ‘there has been no final decision at this time’.

Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert have criticised the WTA for considering taking the WTA Finals to Saudi Arabia because of the country's human rights record

© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the ATP and WTA have been in talks over a merger for some months, with the WTA currently in a weak financial state after having sold off 20% of their commercial rights to a venture capital firm.

Currently, the ATP brings in more than twice the revenue of the women’s tour.

They apparently are pushing ahead with efforts to merge their commercial and media rights, bringing in an external adviser, the consultancy McKinsey & Company, to study their options.

In a statement, the ATP and WTA said that they are ‘exploring discussions that would enable us to leverage assets across both Tours via the creation of a new joint commercial entity, delivering more value to players, tournaments, and fans, while remaining as separate Tours’.

The talks are still in the preliminary stages, they added.

It is thought the move would bring all the commercial ventures into one entity, with the aim of completing a merger in 2025, allowing the two groups to reduce duplication in their organisations, and to more effectively market themselves to broadcasters and sponsors.

It would build on the deal made last year between the WTA and private equity fund CVC, which gave CVC 20% of a new company overseeing the broadcasting and marketing operations of the WTA named WTA Ventures.

The WTA has said it is ‘engaging actively with the other governing bodies of professional tennis, and existing and potential commercial partners, to explore whether we can bring greater alignment across the sport, while reducing the fragmentation that exists at present’.

It said there was no consensus over any preferred outcome.

A merger between the ATP and WTA has been discussed for years, and has had the backing of tennis greats such as Billie Jean King and Roger Federer.



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