Let’s paint a picture for a moment. It’s been two, maybe three years now. The Saudi Golf League has taken off, landed its sponsorship and TV deals and superstar signings. It’s expanded its tournaments, the majors are now allowing defectors to return and – all in all – it’s a success.
Will the Saudis turn to tennis next?
It seems an obvious goal if they want to further expand their impact on the sporting world – another highly individual, tour-based sport with an international following. Tennis arguably demands even more from its athletes than golf – with an 11-month season, everyone outside of the top of the pack must continually compete in tournaments to maintain their points, stay in the rankings and qualify for the greats.
It’s a lonely and very busy life, and one that’s incredibly hard on the body. There are hardly any opportunities to sit out or rest due to the structure of the ATP Tour. The circuit never ends – which is why I could see the Public Investment Fund turning to tennis after so many golfers have cited the Saudi league’s easier schedule as one of its main draws.
To be honest, one wonders why the Saudis chose golf over tennis in the first place. The Masters attracted 9.45 million viewers on CBS in 2021, while Wimbledon attracted 30.5 million streaming on BBC in the same year. However, golf attracts a much higher percentage of American spectators than the major tennis tournaments. Perhaps that is the goal – to gain US support (or at least to get the US to willingly look past its history and current state of affairs).
But let’s say they do turn to tennis next. A smaller schedule, aging stars of the Phil Mickelson type who will gladly jump ship and promote a Saudi tennis tour at the promise of hundreds of millions of dollars to ride out the tail ends of their careers (Novak Djokovic, I’m looking at you). Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer will play the Tiger or Rory position, of course, speaking out against the split tour. The International Tennis Federation would be up in arms, I’m sure, as would the ATP folks. But if the golf tour works, who’s to say another sport won’t do the same?
They began by easing into Formula One, as they added a Saudi race into the circuit, to the concern from drivers and fans of the sport. The golf step was much bigger and bolder – and what if it misses? Will you try tennis again? Or just give up completely? It all boils down to what the point of this whole effort is. It’s not about “making the game grow”. I think we all know that by now. It is seen how much sport can overcome.
If this comes to fruition, don’t blame me! (If you must, blame my editor for suggesting this possibility.)