Let’s paint a picture for a moment. It’s two, maybe three years from now. The Saudi Golf League has taken off, gotten its sponsorships and TV deals and superstar commitments. It’s expanded its tournaments, the majors are now allowing defectors to return and — all in all, it’s a success.
Do the Saudis turn to tennis next?
It seems an obvious target if they want to continue expanding their influence over the sports world — another highly individual, tour-based sport with an international following. Tennis demands arguably even more of its athletes than golf does — with an 11-month season, everyone outside the top of the top has to continuously play in tournaments to keep their points up in order to stay ranked and qualify for the big ones.
That’s a lonely and very busy life, and one that’s incredibly hard on the body. There are few opportunities to sit out or take a break because of the way the ATP Tour is set up. The circuit is never-ending — which is why, after so many golfers cited the Saudi league’s easier schedule as one of the major draws, I could see the Public Investment Fund turning to tennis.
One wonders why the Saudis picked golf over tennis in the first place, to be honest. The Masters drew in 9.45 million viewers in 2021 on CBS, whereas Wimbledon drew in 30.5 million streaming that same year on BBC. However, golf draws in a much higher percentage of American viewers than the major tennis tournaments do. Perhaps that’s the goal — to get U.S. support (or at least, to get the U.S. to willingly overlook their 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 of both drivers and fans of the sport. The golf step was much bigger and bolder — and what if it fails? Do they try again with tennis? Or just give up entirely? It all comes down to what the point of this whole effort is. It’s not “growing the game.” I think we all know that at this point. It’s to see just how much sports can overcome.
If this does come to fruition, don’t put the blame on me! (If you must, blame my editor, who suggested this possibility.)