Saudi Arabia’s PIF announces multi-million dollar ATP deal

Carlos Alcaraz returns the ball
PIF will become 'naming partners' for the ATP rankings - AP/Antonio Calanni

The ATP Tour has announced a multi-million dollar deal with the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, which marks the latest incursion of Middle-Eastern oil money into tennis.

According to the terms of the deal, the PIF will become “naming partners” for the ATP rankings, while also taking courtside branding rights at five regular tour events: Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Beijing and the ATP Finals.

The value of this deal is thought to be in the low seven-figure region, so it is not in itself any sign of a Saudi takeover of professional tennis. Instead, it represents further evidence that the PIF is looking to work within the existing structures of the sport, rather than mounting a direct challenge in the manner of LIV Golf.

Yet the announcement carries a sting in the tail. In the future, says the press release, “PIF will actively contribute to the ATP’s OneVision Strategic Plan.” In other words, the Saudis will henceforth be treated as a stakeholder within tennis’s internecine politics.

Post-Federer and Serena era

The most urgent aspiration of the OneVision plan is for the ATP to achieve a commercial partnership with the WTA Tour, as reported by Telegraph Sport in September.

Meanwhile, the WTA has been looking into staging its own Finals event in Saudi Arabia at the end of this season. Yet the announcement has been repeatedly held up, probably because of the outspoken opposition expressed by two legendary stars of the 1980s: Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.

Now it looks as if the WTA will hang fire on its Finals decision for a little longer. It is expected to wait at least 10 more days until the upcoming meeting in Indian Wells, at which the four grand slams – led by Tennis Australia’s chief executive Craig Tiley – will outline their plans for a so-called “Premium Tour”.

This meeting will do much to decide tennis’s future in the post-Federer, post-Serena era. Telegraph Sport understands that executives representing 17 tournaments have been invited to the meeting. Apart from the four slams and the nine ATP Masters 1000s, the line-up is completed by Doha, Dubai, Beijing and Wuhan.

The Premium Tour concept – which would meld the slams into a new calendar featuring a dozen or so mixed-gender events – represents an existential threat to the tours. In one version of this scenario, the slams would deal directly with the tournaments and cut out the middlemen (ie the ATP and WTA).

To return to the PIF announcement, this is the same deal that Telegraph Sport first reported on seven weeks ago, revealing that Queen’s had been invited to join the elite group of tournaments listed above.

However, the Lawn Tennis Association declined to accept the offer – a move which may have been influenced by the All England Club’s desire to avoid controversy during the British grass-court season. Amnesty International, in particular, has been highly critical of the Saudi state’s use of what they call “sports-washing”.

The Saudis remain keen to host a Masters 1000 event on the ATP Tour, but have thus far been unable to identify a workable date in tennis’s already overstuffed calendar. ATP boss Andrea Gaudenzi was originally in favour of holding the new tournament in the first week of the season, but this would have represented a direct challenge to Tennis Australia’s United Cup.

Indeed, the ill-feeling generated by this suggestion is thought to have led to Tennis Australia boss Tiley proposing the Premium Tour model in the first place.

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