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By Richard Pagliaro | @Tennis_Now | Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Saudi Arabia is all in on a bid that could transform tennis—and give the Saudis a controlling stake in the sport.

The Saudi-backed Public Investment Fund has submitted a $2 billion take-it-or-leave it offer to merge the ATP and WTA into one unified tour, The Telegraph's Simon Briggs reports.

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The Saudis have given ATP and WTA leaders 90 days to accept the offer, which would transform the pro circuit into one combined tour with equal prize money across the board. The four Grand Slams are not part of the Saudi offer, according to The Telegraph report.

The clock is now ticking on a decision that could dramatically alter the tennis landscape.

Potential conflict among the game's governing bodies arises with a key component of the offer. The Saudis want a Masters 1000 tournament staged in Saudi Arabia in January as a lead-up to the Australian Open.

However Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley is reportedly opposed to a Saudi Masters 1000 in January as it would fracture the Australian summer season tournaments building up to the Melbourne major.

Under the proposed Saudi bid, ATP Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi, who has been negotiating with the Saudis, would be the Commissioner of the combined tour, which would be rebranded The PIF Tour.

If the Saudi proposal is accepted, the new unified tour would start and end the season in Saudi Arabia with a combined Masters 1000 event launching the season in January and the WTA Finals ending the season in Saudi Arabia.

The fact the Grand Slams have not been involved in negotiations points to a further divide between the Tours and the four Grand Slams. That rift was highlighted when the Tours stripped Wimbledon of ranking points in 2022 in response to the grass-court Grand Slam banning Russian and Belarusian players from SW19 back in 2022 in protest of Russia's unprovoked invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

A former ATP player, Gaudenzi has long publicly asserted a combined ATP-WTA Tour is the best path forward for tennis in that the sport could provide fans with the best, combined player fields as well as tap into revenue from digital rights to a combined tour.

Champions ranging from Billie Jean King to Roger Federer to John McEnroe have called for the two Tours to merge in the past.

A major stumbling block has been the fact the ATP generates more revenue than the WTA and that economic inequity prevented a merger in the past.

The Saudi $2 billion offer would come with equal prize money giving further incentives to both Tours.

This offers comes after leaders of the game's governing bodies had reportedly been discussing a Premium Tour, compromised primarily of the four Grand Slams and combined Masters 1000 tournaments with some other select events, included.

Asked about the state of the tours, at the Rolex Paris Masters last November, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic said tennis continues to fail to maximize its appeal to fans.  

"I have said this many times before, that I think that tennis is not using its full potential,” Djokovic said. “We are one of the most globally watched and popular sports in the world, but I think that we have been quite conservative and conventional in certain aspects, and that unfortunately hasn't really been a great appeal to the younger audience." 

The Grand Slam king said tennis must strike a balance between maintaining its tradition and embracing innovation.

“I'm big supportive of our history and tradition and everything, I think we should always nurture that, but I think we need to try to adjust to the modern times and try to understand what the younger audience wants and really make the tennis more appealing to that group," Djokovic said.

Hall of Famer John McEnroe, who opposes Saudi investment in the sport because of its human rights violations, says given the hundreds millions of dollars at stake, and the fact the Saudis already created the LIV golf league in 2021, makes the Kingdom's increased investment in tennis virtually inevitable.

"It wouldn’t shock me, let’s put it this way, because it’s the old money talks," McEnroe told the media in an ESPN Zoom call in January. "Oh no, I wouldn’t do that. Wait how much was I offered? On second thought maybe I’ll do that.

"Personally, I disagree with it completely in golf and tennis. I mean the ladies are going to play the WTA Finals there? Are you kidding me? Because they treat women so well?

"So that part, to me, is laughable."

McEnroe said he'd be surprised if the Saudi's don't buy Masters 1000 events.

"But at the same time what is also laughable is that people can criticize tennis players or golfers for doing something that virtually every business and the government do which is deal with Saudi Arabia," McEnroe said. "So this idea that tennis players have to set the moral standard or golfers for that matter when they’re all making the money. It’s a total joke as far as I’m concerned.

"But we’ll see what happens. I’d be surprised if the Saudis don’t buy those tournaments, actually. Not that they will. I’ll be surprised if they don’t have them."

Photo credit: Saudi Tennis Federation