Tennis players envy golf's riches – and it is easy to see why
As we move towards finals weekend at the Australian Open, the locker-rooms and dining halls are gradually emptying out. But when the place was buzzing in the first week, players and agents spent a lot of time asking “What if there was a LIV Tennis?”
So far, there has been no sign of a sovereign wealth fund reaching out from the Middle East to trigger a breakaway tour. But you can see why tennis’s rank and file – who envy their wealthier golfing counterparts – might be praying for a petrodollar injection.
Tennis has never been more ripe for a takeover attempt, because its seven bickering stakeholders – the four grand slams, the two tours and the International Tennis Federation – have never been more disunited.
There are two immediate reasons for this. The first relates to the ongoing bitterness swirling around from Wimbledon’s decision to ban Russians last summer, and the two tours’ intemperate response, which involved stripping ranking points from the tournament.
The second stems from the collapse of the much-loved Davis Cup on the eve of this tournament. The ITF had effectively sold the 123-year-old competition to Gerard Pique’s Kosmos group in 2018, for the implausible sum of $3bn over 25 years, and then acted surprised when Kosmos couldn’t pay their bills. The four slams are so frustrated that they are talking about trying to run the Davis Cup themselves.
In such unstable times, it wouldn’t take much to push the tottering Jenga tower of tennis administration over the brink. Say that Saudi Arabia began running alternative tournaments during the regular season, rather than staging lucrative December exhibitions as in recent years. The tours would surely appeal to the slams to exclude any rebels, as a powerful incentive not to sign up with the Saudis. But the people at Wimbledon might be tempted to thumb their noses in reply.
As a potential disruptor, you wouldn’t need to spend anything like the $784m that LIV Golf are reported to have invested last season. At least, not on the players. Tennis professionals come a lot cheaper than the likes of Phil Mickelson. The problem would be where to play. A golf tournament can go ahead on any half-decent course, but how many tennis clubs have proper stadium courts?
This is the one odd quirk that has kept tennis free from breakaways for the past half-century. A venture capitalist or would-be-sportswasher would probably have to buy half-a-dozen events (preferably historic ones like Miami, Indian Wells, Monte Carlo and Rome) out of their lengthy contracts with the tours, and that is a serious undertaking.
Still, the task has become a little easier with the slow emergence of the Professional Tennis Players' Association. This body has yet to work out what it is for (a pressure group or a commercial enterprise?) but it could potentially function as a go-between for wannabe impresarios and the players they need.
Tennis’s leaders should keep their eyes peeled for a challenge. Unfortunately, most are busy with their own issues. Even though the ATP have come up with some solid numbers lately – such as a 21 per cent prize money increase this season – their president Andrea Gaudenzi is due for re-election this year. His pitch is based on unifying TV rights across the game, but it’s hard to see how he’s ever going to make that happen. Especially as the slams are rumoured to be setting up a joint commercial company, with a TV production wing attached.
Meanwhile, the WTA have waved through a $150m investment from private equity firm CVC, which will smooth over their cash-flow problems and boost prize money. But this looks like the thin end of a wedge that could soon see CVC running the commercial side of the tour, and thus adding an eighth stakeholder to tennis’s already overcrowded boardroom.
Yes, these are troubled days. But perhaps we should be welcoming any and all disruptors, on the grounds that tennis needs to become even more unhealthy before it admits that it has a problem and goes looking for a drastic cure.
On Wednesday, some of these issues came up in conversation with Billie Jean King, the sainted figure who founded the WTA tour 50 years ago. “I think we're the only sport that doesn't have a commissioner,” said King. “We should probably do something different.”