Saudis come up with clever trick to get around ATP rules for 6 Kings Slam

Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal
Novak Djokovic (left) and Rafael Nadal are lined up for the 6 Kings Slam in Riyadh - Getty Images/Anne-Christine Poujoulat

The latest Saudi Arabian venture into tennis – the 6 Kings Slam – is likely to follow a “two days on, one day off” pattern in order to save Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and the rest of the field from being punished by the official tour.

This awkward compromise typifies the arcane nature of tennis politics. Only a few weeks ago, the ATP Tour brought in rules that would strip elite players of their “Platinum Status” if they participate in unofficial events lasting “three or more consecutive days”.

But the Saudis were already well advanced with planning for the 6 Kings Slam: a Riyadh-based exhibition which is understood to offer its winner £4.8 million in prize money, with each player guaranteed to receive £1.2 million just for taking part.

So what are the organisers expected to do? The answer is simple but ingenious. They will probably split the event up so that it never runs for more than two days at a time.

Those organisers – who go by the name of the General Entertainment Authority – have already had to make a last-minute date shift because of the hip injury that Nadal suffered in the first week of the new season.

Originally, they were planning to run the 6KS this month. But urgent meetings with player agents during the Australian Open delivered a late postponement until the week starting October 14.

Again, this was a case of working around ATP regulations, because top-30 players are banned from appearing in exhibitions in the same week as Masters 1000 or ATP 500 events. The advantage of the week starting October 14 is that it only hosts two ATP 250s, the smallest category, which are afforded no such protection.

More cattle raid than frontal assault

You can see here how the Saudis, for now, are not launching a frontal assault on tennis in the manner of LIV Golf. This event feels more like a cattle raid. And sources suggest that it is not motivated by any great desire to challenge the establishment; more a straightforward interest in running big events in Riyadh.

Furthermore, the announcement of the 6KS – which also involves Wimbledon champion Carlos Alcaraz, Australian Open champion Jannik Sinner, 2021 US Open champion Daniil Medvedev and rising Danish star Holger Rune – is moving in parallel with official negotiations with the two tours.

The WTA is still expected to announce a three-year deal to stage its finals event in Saudi Arabia in the coming days, even though the outspoken opposition voiced by legends Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert has added some uncertainty to the process.

Meanwhile, negotiations are progressing with the ATP to add Public Investment Fund (PIF) branding to four events, plus TV coverage of the Masters 1000 events. The same as-yet-unsigned deal is now thought to also include naming rights for the rankings charts for both ATP and WTA Tours.

Sources say that more Saudi exhibition events will soon be popping up, probably this year, but the next one is expected to be less controversial as it will be scheduled at the end of the official season.

At the moment, Saudi Arabia’s level of interest in tennis still looks manageable for the established authorities. But the unstated threat of a LIV Golf-style takeover has definitely stirred the pot, as far as tennis’s chaotic governance is concerned.

We are seeing plenty of urgent activity from the seven stakeholders who have spent decades wrestling for influence.

‘Premier Tour’ to fend off Saudi threat

The most high-profile recent development involved plans for a possible new “Premium Tour”, combining the four slams with between 11 and 14 other big events – each of them to run across a 10-day period, offer equal prizemoney, and involve 96 singles players of either gender.

The details for the Premium Tour model are now being worked up by the four majors, with a view to presenting the resulting blueprint in Indian Wells in early March.

Meanwhile, the plans revealed by Telegraph Sport in September for a merger of the two tours – the ATP and the WTA – are moving forward in commercial terms, with the creation of a new combined “Ventures” operation drawing ever closer.

If nothing else, a combined ATP-WTA commercial body would make it far more difficult for the slams to cut the tours out of their embryonic “Premium Tour” model.

To clarify the small print about ATP player penalties, the “Platinum Status” referred to above is part of a tiered membership arrangement, and is required to access shares in the end-of-year bonus pool (a profit-sharing agreement which paid out almost £10 million last season) as well as pension contributions.

In practice, all the leading players have Platinum Status until such time as they decide to defy the tour. It is a way of trying to keep the workforce in line, which is tricky legally because the players count as sole traders rather than employees.

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