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Saudi Arabia tempts tennis with its billions

March 14, 2024

Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund has set its sights on funding the top non-Grand Slam tennis tournaments — and has put an astronomically high sum on the table. Can the ATP and WTA resist the temptation?

Rafael Nadal sits on the sidelines of a tennis court and grimaces
In January, Rafael Nadal was named ambassador of the Saudi Tennis FederationImage: Tertius Pickard/AP Photo/picture alliance

It has become clear in the last few years that the old saying that "every man has his price" is just as applicable to sport as anything else. This has obviously not been lost on Saudi Arabia, which has been pumping huge sums of money into sport for years. Three examples are the LIV golf tournament series, Formula One and football — with the Gulf state expected to host the 2034 World Cup.

According to the Saudi government, the investments are merely part of its Vision 2030 development plan, with which Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is aiming to modernize his country and make it less dependent on oil revenues.

On the other hand, human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused Riyadh of "sportswashing." They argue that by funding glossy sporting events, Saudi Arabia is aiming to divert attention from blatant human rights violations in the country.

Now the Gulf state is reaching out to the tennis world — with an indecent proposal.

Offer valid for a limited time only

According to the UK daily The TelegraphSaudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) has offered $2 billion (€1.83 billion) for the rights to the ATP and WTA tournaments in the category just below the four Grand Slam tournaments, the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open in terms of prestige and prize money.

According to the newspaper, the PIF has given the men's (ATP) and women's (WTA) professional tennis associations 90 days to decide whether to accept the offer. This comes six months after the ATP and WTA negotiated a merger of their associations — reportedly in an effort to counteract the increasing influence of Saudi Arabia in international tennis.

The Gulf state's current overtures to the world of tennis are reminiscent of its efforts to establish a foothold in golf. In the golfing world, the PIF and its new LIV Golf series faced fierce resistance from the venerable PGA Tour. In the end though, the two sides announced a deal "to unite the sport of golf."

The amount of money paid to the PGA has never been revealed, but one thing is clear: the Saudis are anything but short on financial resources. According to the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute — a US company that analyzes sovereign wealth funds and other public investors worldwide — the PIF's assets recently increased by over 20% to around $940 billion. This was due to a doubling of its stake in the Saudi oil company Aramco from 4% to 8%.

Nadal as Saudi Arabia's tennis ambassador

Saudi Arabia has been trying to gain a foothold in professional tennis for some time. In January, Spanish superstar Rafael Nadal was unveiled as the country's new tennis ambassador. In October, the Six Kings Slam is set to premiere in the capital, Riyadh, a showcase tournament featuring men's singles stars Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Jannik Sinner, Daniil Medvedev, Carlos Alcaraz and Holger Rune.

It has also been reported that the WTA Finals, the final tournament of the season for the eight best women's singles players, could also be held in Saudi Arabia for the first time this year.

When Nadal was asked whether, as the country's tennis ambassador, he was not complicit in sportswashing, the Spaniard replied: "I don't think Saudi Arabia needs me to wash any images."

It's all a question of price.

Saudis accused of sportswashing over English football funds

This article was originally written in German