Potential Saudi tournament threatens Australian Open lead-in events

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The potential addition of an Australian Open lead-up event in Saudi Arabia threatens to disrupt the traditional summer of tennis and stir an ethical debate within the sport.

High-level conversations are underway between ATP Tour officials and Saudi Arabia about a new Masters event that would cut into Australian tennis fans’ brief window to watch the sport’s best up close, according to a UK report in The Times.

The oil-rich Saudis’ Public Investment Fund already won the ATP’s Next Gen Finals for the next five years, starting next month, on top of splashing cash to break into other major sports, most notably soccer and golf.

Novak Djokovic received a warm welcome from Adelaide tennis fans in a lead-in tournament to the Australian Open.Credit: Getty Images

Tennis legends Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe both aired their disapproval this year about the sport’s entry into Saudi Arabia, with Navratilova citing the country’s “human rights issues”.

But speaking purely about the impact on Australia’s summer of tennis, Kooyong Classic tournament director Peter Johnston told this masthead the Saudi interest was “nothing to be afraid of”.

“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 said. “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.”

The Saudi development follows Tennis Australia chief executive and Australian Open boss Craig Tiley welcoming in June the Middle East nation’s interest in the sport as an opportunity for more 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 at the time.

“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.”

This masthead contacted Tennis Australia for Tiley’s reaction to Saudi Arabia’s latest interest in the sport.

Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart and Canberra will host ATP and/or WTA tournaments this summer ahead of the 2024 Australian Open at Melbourne Park, while Johnston’s Kooyong Classic is also scheduled the week before the grand slam.

Alex de Minaur in action during the 2023 Kooyong Classic.Credit: Getty Images

However, the world’s best men’s players, from Novak Djokovic to Carlos Alcaraz and Australia’s Alex de Minaur and Nick Kyrgios, would instead prepare for the Melbourne slam in Saudi Arabia if this idea goes ahead.

The fledgling United Cup, which is set to be held for the second time in Sydney and Perth in December and January after replacing the ATP Cup, would almost certainly be scrapped if the Saudi Arabia event went ahead.

Any moral concerns did not stop Djokovic, Alcaraz or women’s world No.1 Aryna Sabalenka and Tunisian star Ons Jabeur committing to a big-money exhibition in Saudi Arabia’s capital city Riyadh on December 26 and 27.

Amnesty International described last year’s Saudi tennis exhibition as “the latest jamboree of Saudi sportswashing”, in reference to the country signing up “smiling, high-profile” sports stars who “studiously avoid talking about human rights”.

But Kyrgios has repeatedly backed Saudi Arabia’s move into tennis, believing it would result in tennis stars being paid more commensurate to their worth than the status quo.

The former world No.13, who has played only once this year due to injuries, also skipped Davis Cup duty again late last year to accept what he described as a six-figure payday at an exhibition event in Saudi Arabia.

“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, followed by several money emojis.

The potential Saudi Masters could finish as few as seven or eight days before the 2025 Australian Open, with most of the top men’s players typically opting not to compete the week before grand slams.

A 16-hour-plus flight from Riyadh to Melbourne so close to the Australian Open would not help that situation, possibly leading to weakened fields for tournaments, such as the Adelaide International, before the slam.

Johnston could also envision a scenario where the Saudi Masters started in late December, after Christmas, and did not eat as significantly into the Australian summer.

He is a tournament director at various events across the world, including in China, and embraces calendar flexibility, even experimenting with a Wednesday start this year to accommodate the expanded Shanghai Masters.

The WTA’s season-ending Finals could also be Saudi-bound after a disastrous venture to Cancun, Mexico, in the past week, with horrendous weather conditions marring the event.

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