Having successfully disrupted and strong-armed its way into financial control of professional golf, Saudi Arabian investment is coming to tennis; and it’s a tortuous issue.
In recent weeks it has been widely reported that recently re-elected ATP Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi held “positive” talks with the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF).
It is believed that Guadenzi is open to the PIF both hosting events in Saudi Arabia and contributing to the broader investment of the current ATP Tour; as opposed to creating an alternative tour as was done with LIV Golf.
The PIF – chaired by Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (better known as ‘MBS’) who controls the current authoritarian Saudi Arabian regime – also has the WTA in its sights having reportedly hosted WTA CEO Steve Simon for an evaluative visit to their Kingdom.
Simon, however, faces a far more vexed issue than that of Gaudenzi, as the WTA leader rightly observed when speaking to the media pre-Wimbledon.
"It's a very difficult and challenging topic that's being measured by many groups right now," Simon said.
"In February I went to Saudi Arabia to see it for myself. We took a couple of players as well. We wanted to see what the change was. There are still tons of issues in Saudi Arabia but the advancement for women's rights and where they are coming from is transformational right now.
"They have a long way to go, but they've made huge strides."
Simon also spoke of the need for player involvement in any decision and the need to consider viable alternative investment options.
At face value, it’s hard not to think that Simon’s words suggest a deal with the PIF is looming.
It is equally hard to believe that “huge strides” are being made in a society where homosexuality is a criminal offense; torture and public executions are commonplace; and its leader, MBS, is considered by the United Nations to be directly responsible for bombing campaigns in the middle east and the dismemberment of journalists.
That said, Saudi Arabian investment is a complex matter. It’s only natural that the players want to maximise their remuneration. The (many) administrations in tennis will also fear what could happen if they do not embrace and seek to control the PIF's money.
Professional golf would appear to be a case study in what not to do on this front after the PGA rejected a collaboration with the Saudis only for the latter to divide the sport, dilute the product, threaten to bankrupt the former in legal fees, and eventually sign a deal to own the PGA.
Naturally, the playing cohort was questioned on this topic on media day at the All England Club.
Nick Kyrgios has expressed his excitement about a big payday on Twitter. Ons Jabeur revealed similar sentiments. Grigor Dimitrov and Carlos Alcaraz were buoyant about the prospect of playing tennis in the Sunshine Kingdom.
Conversely, Russian defector Daria Kasatkina, rightly pointed out that the notion of a visit to Saudi Arabia is an entirely different prospect for a woman. Something that Steve Simon himself has acknowledged.
“Honestly, it's tough to talk about,” Kasatkina told the press. "It's easier for the men because they feel pretty good there. We don't feel the same way. Money talks in our world right now. For me, I don't think that everything is about the money."
On the other hand, Billie Jean King, a woman who typically acts as a guiding light on social issues, has herself expressed some concerns over the Saudi regime however King believes “engagement” is the best path forward while speaking at a function for the Original 9 prior to Wimbledon.
"How are we going to change things if we don't engage? It's hard," pondered King. "I am a total optimist. I always think the best of people. We have to keep trying."
Martina Navratilova on the other hand, told an American outlet Sports Business Journal, that she is “totally against what they’re (Saudi Arabia) doing with sports washing that tries to normalize their government and state, and they couldn’t pay me enough to do it.”
American Jessica Pegula, who sits on the WTA Player Council, takes a more economic view.
Speaking at Wimbledon media day, Pegula said “if they [the PIF] could help to get us to equal prize money, even though there are negatives, I think there’s a lot of positives that can come out of it as well.”
Sharing her thoughts on this issue in the lead-up to Wimbledon was British sports reporter and co-host of The Tennis Podcast, Catherine Whitaker who, on her show, provided some much-needed perspective on a challenging debate.
“One thing that has struck me today with the repeated raising of the Saudi Arabian issue,” Whitaker said, “is how normalised it all feels and how un-shocking it now is when players don’t really express much opposition to it.”
“I want the first thing people say in response to questions about Saudi Arabia to be ‘there are things I am uneasy about’. Even for people who are supportive, there should still be things you are extremely uneasy about here.
“Is it that hard to say there are things I am uneasy about somewhere where homosexuality is criminalised, where women’s rights are appalling, and where journalists are murdered.
“That shouldn’t be hard and it should be shocking that people aren’t saying that.’
“That normalisation really worries me because that is the whole point of sports washing. I do think that is a direct result of LIV and the PGA Tour. Legitimisation and normalisation are exactly what [the PIF] wanted to buy and they got it.”
Whitaker’s poignant comments serve as a reminder of why this issue must be discussed. Undoubtedly, this is a troubling moral issue. Yet there are commercial realities and opportunities at play.
It is an oversimplification to say Saudi Arabia and the PIF must be treated as lepers.
Equally, games of moral comparisons serve no end (that is to, say, argue that if the ATP or WTA is willing to host tournaments in China there ought to be no hesitancy to venture to the Kingdom).
As matters stand, the WTA, which John Millman believes is suffering commercially from a lack of long-term strategy, needs further investment. It already pays nearly $50,000,000 annually to even up prize money at a select number of events each year and lost significant funds when it retreated from playing in China (only to recently return).
Similarly, both tours will know from observing the recent power struggle in golf, if not embraced, the PIF has the means to totally disrupt the sport.
That said, as Whitaker highlighted, by accepting the involvement of the PIF, you give the Saudi Arabian regime exactly what it wants; legitimacy and normalisation.