Tennis is on the brink of civil war – and Saudi Arabia takeover will define its future

Tennis is on the brink of civil war – and Saudi Arabia takeover will define its future

The world’s most atomised sport, tennis has been an administrative bin-fire for as long as anyone can remember. At some point, a big player was always going to come along with a bag of cash, offering to sort it all out.

The Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund is not quite the first body to do so. CVC – the private equity business that used to own Formula One – made a $600 million offer in 2021, and wound up paying $150 million for a small slice of commercial rights. But PIF’s $2 billion bid is considerably more persuasive – and more controversial.

For the tennis establishment, there are two central problems. One is the stigma surrounding Saudi Arabia itself – a country with a dubious human rights record, numerous laws constraining the freedom of women, and a penal code that condemns homosexuals to death.

The other, which might seem contrastingly trivial, is the identity of the deal’s broker. Andrea Gaudenzi, who has run the ATP since the start of 2020, has never been a clubbable sort of chap. He is not well liked among the four majors, and has an especially tense relationship with Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley.

For one thing, Gaudenzi has consistently challenged the slams by trying to make the ATP Masters 1000 as much like them as possible. For another, he antagonised Tiley last year by trying to shoehorn a Saudi Masters 1000 into week one of the calendar – a key part of the Australian swing.

Then, during Saturday’s tournament meetings in Indian Wells, Gaudenzi blindsided the slams by waiting until they had left the room before he unveiled his Saudi blueprint. This is hardly the way to win them over.

Since the hoo-hah over the All England Club’s Russia ban, everyone in tennis has blathered on about a more coordinated model. In theory, no one wants the sort of row which ended with Wimbledon being stripped of rankings points in 2022. Yet these have proved to be empty words.

In practice, flashpoints continue to break out. The problem is that gigantic egos keep butting up against each other, and thus continuing the tradition of factionalism and fragmentation that has dogged the sport for decades.

Take the proposed “Premium Tour” idea: a streamlined calendar, first suggested by Tiley last summer, which would cut the leading players’ commitments down to the four slams, ten Masters events, one team event and a combined end-of-year finals.

One insider told Telegraph Sport that, if Gaudenzi had been offered the job of running the Premium Tour, he might well have bought into the project immediately, and thus carried the whole ATP Tour with him. But the Premium Tour is Tiley’s baby, so this was never going to happen.

As a result, the first half of the Indian Wells meetings involved a lot of humming and ahhing, with several tournaments playing for time and suggesting that they might return to the Premium Tour concept during the French Open in May. (At this stage, Gaudenzi was still waiting to pull his Saudi rabbit out of the hat.)

The position of the WTA is interesting here. Either solution – the Premium Tour or the Gaudenzi gambit – looks like a win for the women, offering them equal prize money across the tour at last. But which will they sign up for? Even if the WTA are the least powerful body in this conversation, they could still hold a casting vote, like a small party in a coalition government.

Another possibility is that the slams start to play dirty. This didn’t happen in Indian Wells. Tennis’s sense of gentility won out when Premium Tour frontman Lew Sherr invited Gaudenzi and WTA chairman Steve Simon to Saturday’s meetings (against Tiley’s wishes, because part of Tennis Australia’s original idea was to cut the pesky tours down to size).

But what happens if the slams start sweet-talking the best 30 players, encouraging them to break away and play a different calendar to the ATP one? That could prompt a LIV-style tug of love, and money.

Because of the uncertainty around the whole game, a crucial document remains unsigned: the usual three-year agreement between the tours and the slams over rankings points. As a result, Wimbledon don’t have to accept the top 100-odd names on the ATP and WTA charts as their player field. They could make their own rules.

Taking this point to extremes, if the All England Club said “You have to play in Timbuktu to earn a place at Wimbledon,” there’s plenty who would sign straight up.

Where is this chaotic sport going? It feels impossible to say. Too many balls are in the air. But it does seem unlikely, now the Saudis have made their bid, that things will simply slide back towards the status quo. Something is happening. There could even be an elegant solution out there, somewhere. But it would be very unlike tennis to find it. History and precedent both warn us to brace for further turbulence.