TTX Sports >Tennis Life >Tennis: ATP, WTA& Grand Slams and in Premium Tour talks but what role will Saudi Arabia play?

Tennis: ATP, WTA& Grand Slams and in Premium Tour talks but what role will Saudi Arabia play?

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What lies in store for tennis' revamped future?

Arthur Fils of France, runner up and Hamad Medjedovic of Serbia, winner, pose for a photo with their trophies after the final during day five of the Next Gen ATP Finals at King Abdullah Sports City on December 02, 2023 in Jeddah, Saudi ArabiaImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,

Saudi Arabia already hosts the Next Gen ATP Finals

  • Published
    22 April 2024

There are some things on which tennis’ seven governing bodies agree.

The season is too long, deserves a more compelling year-long narrative - and ideally just one overriding power should be calling the shots.

But the future could come in many shapes and sizes.

There is the proposal for a Premium Tour, which could issue just 64 tour cards each year and culminate with promotion and relegation play-offs.

And there is a strong likelihood of greater Saudi Arabia involvement.

The WTA Finals are heading to Saudi capital Riyadh for each of the next three years, and by the end of a flurry of meetings in Madrid this week, the kingdom could be awarded a Masters 1,000 event on the ATP Tour.

A third string to Saudi Arabia's bow?

There are nine Masters 1,000 events on the ATP Tour, but the creation of a 10th - earmarked originally for either the first week of the year, or on grass before Wimbledon - has accelerated markedly in recent months.

Along with the WTA Finals, Saudi Arabia has already been awarded the Next Gen ATP Finals, the season-ending event for the best under-21 players in the world, while making very clear its ambition to stage a Masters 1,000.

Last month, the ATP issued a bidding invitation to Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Australia.

The bid deadline is this Wednesday, just hours before the ATP Board begins two days of meetings at which they could either identify a winner or opt for a second round of bidding.

Once the successful candidate is clear, for an event that would not start before 2027, it may well take at least 18 months to select a date in the calendar.

This is very likely to be in either January or February. Staging it in Saudi Arabia in the first week of the year would be considered a hostile gesture by Tennis Australia. It would no longer be able to stage the United Cup team competition and would lose its star male cast in the two weeks leading up to the Australian Open.

Staging it in February, in Saudi Arabia, would cause no issues with Tennis Australia but could imperil the existence of the traditional European indoor and South American clay events taking place at that time.

Another complication is that if the Saudis are successful, they would want to create a combined event with the women. There are currently no further licences available for WTA 1,000 events, and unless one was sold, existing owners - including those in Doha and Dubai - would have the ability to veto any expansion plans.

Troubled waters calming down

The proposal of a Premium Tour has been described by those hostile to it as an “extreme and very aggressive alternative” to greater Saudi investment.

It was the idea of Tennis Australia and its chief executive Craig Tiley, who was worried about the threat a Saudi Masters in the first week of January would pose to the Australian tennis summer.

After some discreet initial meetings between the Grand Slams, including one in London in the week before this year’s Australian Open, all vested interests were invited to a summit at Indian Wells in March.

That meeting is best remembered for the intervention by the ATP chairman Andrea Gaudenzi, who revealed an alternative $1.3 billion (£1.05bn) offer from Saudi Arabia, as first reported by the Telegraph., external

What that offer was actually worth to the sport is hard to quantify. Primarily a bid for a combined 1,000 event, it is understood to have factored in several years of prize money and may also have incorporated elements of the deal for the WTA Finals.

That particular offer is no longer on the table, because of the start of the ATP bidding process and the confirmation Riyadh would host the WTA Finals. But the way it was introduced to the meeting went down very badly with the Grand Slams.

Since then, though, discussions have become more collaborative and cordial. Gaudenzi, the WTA chair and chief executive Steve Simon, and the chairs of the four Grand Slams have recently begun meeting more regularly, and the ATP and the WTA will jointly stage tournament meetings in Madrid this week - for the first time anyone can remember.

Tour cards and end of season play-offs

A crest for the Wimbledon tennis championshipsImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,

The four Grand Slams, including Wimbledon, would likely form part of any Premium Tour

Various models of the Premium Tour (sometimes also referred to as the Premier Tour) have been floated. But, broadly speaking, the prototype called for a streamlined season featuring the four Grand Slams, and just 10 or 11 other events, plus end-of-season tour finals and the Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup.

All events would take place outdoors, feature 96 men and 96 women and run over at least 10 days. With echoes of golf, annual tour cards would be issued to just 64 players.

A second tier, given the working title of the Contender Tour, would operate events that currently possess ATP and WTA 500 status. There would be promotion and relegation each season, plus end-of-year play-offs, and eight weeks off at the end of the year. The future of doubles has not yet been formulated, and crucially no finance raised to match the suggestion the top players will earn more for playing less.

There is currently very little meat on the bone, but the plan has evolved in one significant way in recent weeks. The proposal that Premium Tour players would be prevented from competing anywhere else has disintegrated as it became clear to the Grand Slams that 14 or 15 events a season would not be enough - especially for those who may expect to lose in the early rounds.

If these plans are ever adopted, Premium Tour players are likely to be able to play perhaps four events a year on the Contender Tour.

Will Premium Tour ever come to life?

Creating a Contender Tour that is financially sustainable and desirable to spectators around the world will still be a monumental challenge. And with current ATP and WTA 250 events likely to be downgraded to Challenger Tour events, there will be many tournament owners with a product they can no longer sell.

“The Premium Tour will not happen for sure - I am convinced,” said the owner of one tournament that is likely to be significantly affected by the proposals.

“The players will not agree - because the players, they need to play. A guy ranked 50 or 60 is going to lose every first or second round, so he will not be able to keep his ranking. Their aim is to have the most number of jobs during the year. The Premium Tour will be for the top 20 players, that’s all.

“Tennis is made of proximity and diversity. So diversity is that you can play everywhere; proximity is that even in a small city, you can meet the players. It’s the strength of tennis."

If a new unified tour does emerge, it will require compromise and is likely to take many years, as the WTA’s Simon told the BBC at the beginning of the month.

“We don’t have a clean sheet of paper," he said. "You are going to end up spending all your time in court versus getting something done.

“There of course can be principles you want to strive to, but it’s going to take time to do that. You can’t just blow up 1,000, 500 and 250 events as they have invested a lot, are important and all play their roles in the ecosystem.”

His ATP counterpart Gaudenzi highlighted the goal of “a new unified governance for the sport” in the One Vision strategy launched in 2022.

And the tours are certainly becoming more aligned: as well as joint meetings, the ATP and WTA will this week continue very positive discussions about the foundation of a joint commercial entity to manage assets such as broadcast rights, data and sponsorship.

WTA Ventures was created in March 2022 to run the WTA’s commercial interests and its partnership with the private equity firm CVC Capital Partners.

‘Tennis Ventures’ would be the next step, and would bring ATP and WTA commercial assets together under one roof.

Tennis is moving towards a new future, but no-one yet knows the final destination.

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