Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Saudi Arabia’s largest sovereign wealth fund — the Public Investment Fund (PIF) — makes major disruptions to an elite sport. 

After injecting an enormous sum of capital into its domestic soccer league  — the Saudi Pro League — and forming a men’s golf tour — LIV Golf — to compete with the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Tour, the oil-rich country of Saudi Arabia is once again expanding its sportswashing tentacles as the PIF seeks to take over professional tennis.

Sportswashing is the practice of a country using sports to improve its international reputation and distract from its political, social, or human rights issues. Saudi Arabia engages in sportswashing by investing heavily in high-profile sports events, clubs, and infrastructure. 

The vulnerable state of professional tennis

Professional tennis’ persisting structural problem has long positioned the sport at the forefront for consequential disruption. The sport is governed by several legal entities, each pursuing its own goals and interests. Players who compete at the highest level on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) circuits are subjected to a gruelling 11-month season — one of the longest in all professional sports. 

Furthermore, professional tennis players receive a lower percentage of revenues than athletes participating in team sports, as most of the profits are used to cover the costs of the leagues’ ruling council. Moreover, players ranked outside the top 100 usually find it challenging to pay their expenses

Overall, the ATP and WTA’s fragmented structure — which fails to represent the needs of overexerted and underpaid athletes — makes the associations vulnerable to the financial power of the Gulf State, as the country has long seen sports as a means of rebuilding its image and preparing for a future without oil.

Saudi Arabia’s ambition

Saudi Arabia is gearing up to organise the 6 Kings Slam this October, a multi-million dollar tennis exhibition featuring the sport’s most prominent men’s players with a reported prize fund of $6 million USD for the winner. In comparison, the 2023 Wimbledon champion prize money stood at $2.95 million USD. Last year, Jeddah, a city in Saudi Arabia, was named the host city of the Next Gen ATP Finals from 2023 to 2027, and the tournament offers a record total prize pool of $2 million USD for all its competitors.

Additionally, last September Saudi Arabia announced it would triple the prize money for the winner of the WTA Finals if it were granted the right to host the season-ending championship. 

On April 4, the WTA’s outgoing chief executive, Steve Simon, released a statement revealing that after negotiating for over a year with top Saudi officials, the women’s professional tennis tour secured a deal to hold its season-ending WTA Finals in the Saudi Arabian city of Riyadh for the next three years. Furthermore, Rafael Nadal, a 22-time Grand Slam champion, signed an agreement in January with the Saudi Tennis Federation to become the country’s official ambassador for the sport.

These endeavours align with Saudi Arabia’s efforts to attain the hosting rights of a top-level tournament, as the PIF has been actively pushing to purchase the Miami Open or Madrid Open. Just recently, the sovereign investment fund became the official naming partner of the ATP Rankings

Speculations on the future of the sport

Although not confirmed, I see it as inevitable that the PIF will form a rival tennis league. Based on the issues confronting the tennis landscape at present, it seems to me that any tennis player would join a circuit offering a higher paying and less demanding alternative without hesitation. 

To prevent their athletes from packing their bags and departing for the Arabian desert, I believe the ATP and WTA must take action and create a premium tour. This hypothetical tour would include the four Grand Slams, nine ATP Masters 1000s, and a combined ATP and WTA Finals event at the end of the season. 

The top 100 ranked players in the world would qualify each year for the premium tour, while players outside the top 100 would compete on a developmental tour — effectively vying to join the premium tour by playing in small- and medium-sized tournaments and collecting ranking points in the process. 

Similar to how the PGA does not govern the four major championships in golf and LIV players are not blocked from competing, the ATP and the WTA do not currently govern the four major tennis events –– the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open. 

Players competing on a hypothetical Saudi-backed circuit could still participate in each Grand Slam tournament — unless a premium tour is formed and merges the biggest tour events under one governing body. That way, players may be less willing to join a rival tour if it meant being barred from contending in the most prestigious tournaments against the best of the best. Also, the new tour should allow players to negotiate the revenue share and schedule with the managing board, entitling the athletes to collectively bargain for what they’ve been longing for: shorter seasons and wage increases.

Despite PIF’s willingness to offer more money, acquiring the top players in the world would diminish the opportunity for us to watch the best athletes play against one another on a weekly basis. Many players would flock to the Arabian Peninsula, while others continue to compete on the ATP and WTA Tour, creating a competitive divide that could weaken the overall viewership of tennis over time. 

In my view, a Saudi takeover would compromise the integrity of the sport. Similar to what happened in professional golf and soccer, the country’s tennis takeover would draw backlash from many who do not wish to see another sport affected by sportswashing. I believe a premium tour maintains the tradition of competitive tennis, with players continuing to participate in high-profile tournaments that have shaped the sport and created iconic memories for fans to cherish. 

The gorgeous tennis courts of the Monte-Carlo Masters. COURTESY OF Domaina CC WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The iconic backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea at the Monte-Carlo Masters, the sunken courts at the Italian Open, or the sundrenched Coachella Valley at the BNP Paribas Open may all lose their essence if the best players are not there competing but instead serving up aces between skyscrapers in the dunes of West Asia.

The ATP and WTA are facing a threat from the PIF. If urgent action is not taken, I believe they may suffer a similar fate as the PGA. The circuits’ current structures must change, and unless the demands of the frustrated players are met soon, Saudi Arabia may once again gain power over another top-flight sporting industry.