Tennis leaders are discussing a plan to hold a major tournament for men and women in Saudi Arabia that would serve as an additional stop on the schedule, the top official in men’s tennis said on Thursday.
Andrea Gaudenzi, the executive chairman of the men’s ATP Tour, said the major obstacles to the event are the constraints of an already packed tennis schedule and finding a window on the calendar that would not overtax players with travel to the Middle East. Gaudenzi (pictured above with Novak Djokovic, who was accepting a trophy for finishing the year as world No 1) said he and the ATP are no longer concerned with the Saudi Arabian government’s record on human rights, which includes a potential death sentence for homosexual behavior and restrictions on women’s rights. It also comes after the murder and dismemberment of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the country’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
“We have the Next Gen in Saudi Arabia, so we’ve gone through that,” Gaudenzi said, referring to the tournament for the best under-21 players that will take place next month in Jeddah.
He said tennis is a global sport that wants to “build bridges, not walls”, that different countries are in different places in terms of human rights and that tennis is focused on Saudi Arabia’s efforts at improvement. “Sport should be a force of moving in the right direction,” Gaudenzi said. “We want to be a force of unity, not of dividing and be the one who decides who gets what for a subjective decision, which is always extremely complex.”
Gaudenzi’s comments represented the latest sign that tennis may soon be headlong into the wider sports world’s lucrative partnership with the Saudi royal family and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s determination to make the repressive kingdom a leading destination for international events. In the kingdom’s latest coup last month, FIFA confirmed Saudi Arabia is the lone contender to host the 2034 World Cup after altering its bidding process and eliminating the competition.
During the past year, Saudi Arabia has become increasingly determined to land a major tennis event. It has pushed in recent months to purchase two of the most prestigious tournaments, with representatives of the country’s investment funds making pitches to take over events in Miami or Madrid, according to four people with knowledge of the discussions who remain anonymous to protect their roles. Saudi Arabia could move one of the tournaments after taking control.
Both tournaments are examples of ‘1,000-level events’, of which there are nine in total. This group of tournaments, which include the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells and the Italian Open in Rome, exist just below the four Grand Slams in significance, with the winner of each one awarded 1,000 ranking points. Saudi Arabia wants to add its own to the list and is also continuing to pursue a long-term deal to host the WTA Finals, the season-ending event on the women’s tour.
A spokesman for the WTA did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
It’s unclear whether the WTA is prepared to enter a partnership with a government that only granted women the right to drive in 2018. In September, the WTA Tour, which includes openly gay players, balked at a multi-year offer from Saudi Arabia to host its season-ending finals.
Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open singles champion and a member of the WTA’s Players’ Council, said in June that it was essential for every member of the tour to feel safe in a country that hosts an event.
Steve Simon, the WTA’s chief executive, said the organization would continue to study that issue. But Billie Jean King, a gay woman, one of the founders of the women’s tour and a trailblazer for equal rights, has essentially given her blessing to tournaments in Saudi Arabia, saying that engaging with people and countries that don’t share the same belief systems can serve as a path to change. She has cited the WTA’s decision 15 years ago to hold a tournament in Qatar. The country has become more progressive in its treatment of women since then, though homosexuality remains a serious crime.
The decision may ultimately come down to money. Both tours are facing pressure to grow amid increasing player frustration and agitation over their share of revenues.
Earlier this year, player complaints helped lead the WTA Tour to announce that women will receive the same prize money as men at all of the largest events in the sport by 2027. In Australia in January, Gaudenzi heralded the ATP’s move to raise prize money by 21 per cent, to a record $217.9million this year. This fall, Gaudenzi unveiled a revised profit-sharing formula that delivered an additional $12.2million to players for the biggest events of the 2022 season. That figure will grow for 2023 and likely in the coming years as those large events expand.
The ATP also recently announced a guaranteed compensation system, with minimum incomes for men’s players in the top 250 of the world rankings — $300,000 for the top 100, $150,000 for the next 75, and $75,000 for the next 75. Women are pushing for a similar program, as well as injury and maternity pay.
With those financial pressures mounting, the allure of adding a 10th large-scale event to the schedule as soon as 2025 could be irresistible, despite player complaints that the 11-month season is already too long and relentless. Tournaments of that size have previously sold for several hundred million dollars, delivering a jolt of income from the tours and the opportunity to gain additional money for expanded media rights and sponsorship deals.
“There is a strong willingness and push for the board to grow,” Gaudenzi said. “We want to grow our premium product and we want to continue to pay the fair share to the players, and pay more players.”
(Top photo: Shi Tang/Getty Images)