Saudi-hosted event threatens Australian summer tennis calendar
High-level discussions between ATP Tour officials and Saudi Arabia are hinting at a potential addition to the tennis calendar, raising ethical concerns and the possibility of disrupting Australia’s traditional summer of tennis.
These discussions involve the creation of a new Masters 1000 event in Saudi Arabia, which could impact the limited window for Australian fans to witness top-level tennis.
Two ATP 250 and two WTA 500 Adelaide International tournaments are currently staged in January in the lead-up to the Australian Open, along with the WTA 250 Hobart International and the exhibition Kooyong Classic.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, already involved heavily in major sports, including football and golf, has secured the ATP’s Next Gen Finals for the next five years, adding to their growing influence in the sports scene. However, this expansion into Saudi Arabia has sparked ethical concerns, with notable figures like Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe expressing disapproval due to the country’s human rights issues.
From the perspective of Australian tennis, Peter Johnston, the Kooyong Classic tournament director, believes that the Saudi interest should not be a cause for concern.
“Only four countries have a grand slam, and it’s kind of unusual for a country of our size to have so many events,” Johnston told The Age.
“If you try too hard to have events in every city; you’re going against the grain of the tour, where there is so much demand globally – and it’s hard to make all those events financially stable.
“You’re better off embracing the broader world, passing the [financial] risk offshore, capitalise on what you’ve got, and use that as a lead-in promotion, which used to be in Doha … you will still get 100 of 100 players [in both genders] for the Australian Open.”
Champion moves only ♟
— Adelaide International (@AdelaideTennis) November 3, 2023
Tennis Australia’s CEO and Australian Open boss, Craig Tiley, has been open to Saudi Arabia’s interest in tennis as an opportunity for players to make a living.
“There are lots of changes always going on, so you’ve got to watch what’s going on, and we’ve been staying close to it, but ultimately, that’s a decision for the men’s and the women’s tour,” Tiley said in June.
“One thing that’s really important to note is that the four grand slams run independently … it’s most important that we take care of what we need to take care of, and that’s our five weeks of tennis in January.”
While a significant number of ATP and WTA tournaments are scheduled across Australian cities ahead of the 2024 Australian Open, the addition of the Saudi Masters event could lure top men’s players, including Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz, and local stars like Alex de Minaur and Nick Kyrgios, to prepare for the Australian Open in Saudi Arabia. This development could potentially affect the United Cup teams event in late-December/early-January in Brisbane, Perth and Sydney, the replacement the ATP Cup, if the Saudi event moves forward.
Despite moral concerns, prominent tennis players like Djokovic, Alcaraz, Aryna Sabalenka and Ons Jabeur have committed to an exhibition event in Saudi Arabia, raising questions about the sport’s association with the country’s human rights issues.
Nick Kyrgios, a vocal advocate for Saudi Arabia’s involvement in tennis, believes that it would lead to fairer compensation for players. He has previously expressed his support for the ATP’s negotiations with Saudi Arabia, emphasising the prospect of improved earnings for tennis stars.
“Finally. They see the value. We are going to get paid what we deserve to get paid. Sign me up,” Kyrgios tweeted in June about the ATP’s negotiations with Saudi Arabia.
The potential Saudi Masters event could end just days before the 2025 Australian Open, making it unlikely for top men’s players to compete in the week leading up to the grand slam. The considerable travel time from Riyadh to Melbourne, coupled with the proximity to the Australian Open, could lead to weakened player fields for pre-slam tournaments like the Adelaide International.
Johnston envisions the Saudi Masters starting in late-December after Christmas to reduce its impact on the Australian summer tennis calendar. His experience as a tournament director worldwide, including in China, highlights the importance of calendar flexibility.