The latest Saudi tennis bid stalls – now Qatar and UAE may rival them for Masters event


MIAMI GARDENS, Florida — The men’s professional tennis tour has opened a bidding process for an additional top-level tournament, creating a competition for the hosting rights for an event that, earlier this month, appeared all but certain to land in Saudi Arabia. 

That may still happen and the women’s tour is expected to be a part of any top-level event that gets added to the already packed tennis calendar, according to people familiar with the ever-evolving battle to control tennis and the role that Saudi Arabia appears determined to play. As with others spoken to for this piece, those people remain anonymous to protect relationships.

This latest twist, they say, illustrates the deepening turmoil and uncertainty among officials at the highest level of the game, who are caught between their concern about how much control of their sport they want to cede to the Saudis, while also being terrified about the prospect of a LIV Golf-style Saudi disruption of tennis if the country does not ultimately get something close to what it wants.

In recent months, the wrestling match over the future of tennis has become a soap opera filled with moves and countermoves, bruised egos, and deals that collapse and then spring back to life just when it seems like they are about to be added to the growing ash heap of efforts to revamp a sport that nearly everyone agrees desperately needs revamping.

Earlier this month, it appeared that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), with the assistance of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) leaders, had the inside track to become perhaps the biggest financial investor in professional tennis and to potentially fund a new joint-commercial venture between the tours and other efforts to grow the tennis business. But that deal is no longer on the table, according to tennis insiders. 

Why? The reasons vary depending on who you speak to, but they largely center on Saudi Arabian disgruntlement over their offer being made public and having to compete with others, including rival nations in the Arab world, to make further inroads into the established business.

Representatives of Saudi’s PIF did not return messages seeking comment.

In a sport that is run by somewhere between seven and nine separate entities — each with overlapping and unique interests — only one thing is now clear during what has become nine months of infighting. In the words of one insider: “Everyone gets excited about ‘their plan’ and then as soon as you start game theorying each one, it becomes a mess.”

Before outlining the state of play, here is a quick-and-dirty review of how tennis got to this messy place.

It all started last summer when Andrea Gaudenzi, the chairman of the ATP, the men’s professional tour, tried to secure a deal for a new top-level tournament, known as a “Masters 1000” event, to take place in Saudi Arabia each January, beginning as soon as 2025. Such a tournament would have jeopardized the viability of the tune-up tournaments for Tennis Australia’s Australian Open, the year’s first Grand Slam. Tennis Australia also owns most of those events, which take place in Australia and New Zealand.

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(Phil Walter/Getty Images)

To counter that move, Craig Tiley, the CEO of Tennis Australia, banded together with the other Grand Slams — the U.S. Open, French Open and Wimbledon — to try to convince the 10 largest tournaments on the tennis calendar to break with Gaudenzi’s ATP and the women’s tour, the WTA, and form a premium tour for the top 100 players. The plan quickly gained momentum and the tacit support of many of those tournaments, but it has stalled in recent months because the Grand Slams have yet to find financing for the premium tour or figure out how to share their riches with each other and all the other tournaments. 

That allowed Gaudenzi to continue to negotiate a series of deals with Saudi Arabia. The country hosted the Next Gen Finals, a tournament for the best men aged 21 and under last year, and is closing on a deal to host the WTA Tour Finals, which may be announced any day now.  

He also secured a lucrative, multi-year deal with Saudi Arabia’s PIF to sponsor the ATP rankings and numerous tournaments, as well as an offer for a new Masters 1000 tournament. There was also potential investment in the new venture that could ultimately bring together some of the commercial properties of the men’s and women’s tours. 

Gaudenzi and Tiley and their competing visions squared off at a series of meetings at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells earlier this month. Gaudenzi appeared to emerge from those meetings in the lead, largely because he had money to share with his partners — and the Grand Slams did not.

Since then, however, it became clear to executives representing Saudi Arabia that tennis officials were sharing their various offers with others who might be interested in further investing in tennis, notably Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, who have long hosted tennis tournaments and been partners of both the women’s and men’s tours.

According to people directly involved with the negotiations, Saudi Arabia then pulled its offers, though the deal for the WTA Finals and the rankings and tournament sponsorships remain on track or in place.

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For its part, the ATP has decided to hold an auction for the hosting rights for the new Masters 1000 event. An ATP statement said they have consistently called for more collaboration in tennis and are committed to “a shared governance structure, with fair representation for the players and a centralized commercial strategy across tennis.”

They confirmed the bid process for the new Masters 1000 event is underway. Saudi Arabia is expected to bid, along with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and perhaps, even, Tennis Australia for the event.  

Qatar is a longtime partner of the WTA, having hosted tournaments for 15 years. The UAE is a partner with both tours, hosting men’s and women’s events, the latter of which is a 1000 tournament. 

No one wants to anger either of those countries. And yet, the possibility of further angering the Saudis is the most harrowing possibility given how the country has disrupted golf by spending billions of dollars to buy players and form a rival league and tour to the established PGA Tour. The country is already spending tens of millions of dollars to lure players for tennis exhibition events. 

At the moment, no one knows what will happen next. And for tennis, that may be the scariest thing of all.

(Top photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)





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