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Revolution in men’s tennis

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Revolution in men’s tennis

A new exhibition tournament in the middle of the season calls into question the current order in men’s tennis. Saudi Arabia’s offensive could be a turning point for the scene and also affect the Swiss Indoors in Basel.

The ATP Tour is a success, but where does it lead? Novak Djokovic is part of an exhibition in Saudi Arabia that could change men’s tennis.

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The report was almost lost in the daily flood of news. Various news portals reported last week that on the way to becoming the desired center of world sport, Saudi Arabia is pushing ahead with its efforts in tennis and will be hosting a top-class exhibition tournament for the first time in October.

The name of this exhibition says it all and makes it clear that the initiative has the potential to sustainably change the sport of tennis. The organizers call it the “6 Kings Slam,” and the names of the six tennis monarchs who are scheduled to play in the desert state in the fall have the potential to shake up the scene in the long term. Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Carlos Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner, Daniil Medvedev and Holger Rune are registered. Together they have won 50 major titles.

The WTA is still giving the Saudi the cold shoulder

The men’s exhibition tournament takes place as part of the Saudi cultural and entertainment festival “Riyadh Season”. Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and the young Bernese Dominic Stricker have already competed in exhibition fights in Saudi Arabia and have been harshly criticized for supporting a state that is futile about human rights. Rafael Nadal will even be an ambassador for the Saudi Arabian Tennis Association in the future, which he says has “great potential” according to the press release.

Jedda in the Saudi kingdom was already the venue for the Next Gen Finals, the masters for the best young players, at the beginning of December. The WTA was also considering allocating its final tournament of the season’s eight best to the region. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, two of the greatest in the history of their sport, opposed this with the statement: “We did not build women’s tennis so that it could be exploited by Saudi Arabia.” Instead, the Masters took place in Cancún, Mexico, far away from the public eye. Saudi Arabia is likely to be back on the agenda at the WTA sooner rather than later.

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In the future, he will act as an ambassador for the Saudi Arabian Tennis Association: Rafael Nadal.

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As part of a tourism offensive, the desert state on the Persian Gulf is pumping huge sums into sports such as football, Formula 1, boxing and golf. At the end of 2022, the country presented Argentine football icon Lionel Messi as its new tourism ambassador. Among other things, the Saudis are applying to host the 2034 World Cup.

Saudi Arabia is also part of the plans of the four major tournaments that want to fundamentally restructure the tennis tour. When the NZZ first reported on the project last December, Roger Brennwald, the tournament director of the Basel Swiss Indoors, said that if something like this actually came about, it would be a “tsunami for international tennis”.

There is still no fundamental reorganization of the ATP tour. But the exhibition in Riyadh is scheduled to take place in the week from October 14th to 20th, immediately before the Basel Swiss Indoors and thus in the middle of the regular tennis season. This is a breach of a taboo and is not allowed according to the ATP regulations, which are supported by the players.

When asked, the ATP did not officially comment. Instead, she sent an excerpt from her rule book. Under point 14, “special events”, it says that top 30 players are not allowed to take part in any events if an ATP 500 or ATP 1000 tournament or the ATP finals are taking place at the same time. A player who violates these rules will lose his right to receive payments from the bonus pool, which is distributed at the end of the season.

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However, given the opening fees of over one million francs plus prize money promised in Riyadh, this should be manageable for the participating players. The winner of the “6 Kings Slam” will receive a check worth over $6 million. That is almost three times as much as South Tyrolean Jannik Sinner received at the end of January for his first Grand Slam triumph in Melbourne (US$2.04 million).

The Austrian Herwig Straka owns his own marketing agency, is director of the ATP 500 tournament in Vienna and has been a member of the nine-member Board of Directors, the strategic leadership of the ATP, for several years. He says: “Of course we are not happy about the Saudi initiative. They directly affect Basel and also our tournament in Vienna. But legally there is little we can do about it. The players are not employees of the ATP Tour, but independent entrepreneurs who can do whatever they want.”

Like Brennwald, Straka doesn’t want to talk about a tsunami. He calls it an outside threat. But such threats have always existed. “I understand that the Arab region also wants a big tennis event. That’s legitimate. We have to try to sit down at the table with the Saudis and get them on board with us. The ATP does not have exclusive rights to tennis.”

Straka may have remembered experiences in golf. In 2022, with the support of the Public Investment Fund, a sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, LIV Golf, a competitive circuit of the American PGA Tour, was created, which attracted players with massively higher prize money. After just two years, LIV, PGA and the European DP World Tour collapsed. PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan spoke of a “historic day for the game.”

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A similar development is likely to occur in tennis; New formats and initiatives are constantly pushing their way into what is already a fairly saturated market. The latest addition is Roger Federer’s Laver Cup, which celebrated its premiere in Prague in 2017 with the approval of the ATP. No great future was predicted for the event without its figurehead. Nevertheless, they still exist. Federer is currently promoting the next event in Berlin in September.

Established in tennis since 1990: the ATP tour.

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The ATP tour has existed in its current form since 1990. But there will probably be an adjustment in the tournament calendar in the near future. It is played too often and on too few important occasions. Especially the tournaments in the lowest 250 category, like there are two in Switzerland in Geneva and Gstaad, have a hard time attracting top players and asserting themselves in the market. Straka says: “We have to think about possibly removing one or two 250cc events from the calendar so that we don’t overload the whole thing.”

But according to the Austrian, the strength of tennis also lies in its presence all year round and in many places on earth. One must try to promote the important venues. “There are also efforts to create a premium product analogous to Formula 1. But I don’t think that would work. We must not forget our base. Somewhere the young, not yet well-ranked players have to be able to gain experience and improve.” They definitely can’t do that at the “6 Kings Slam”.

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