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The Grand Slams, ATP and WTA all want to control tennis. Do they have the power?

Written by on April 28, 2024

A grand struggle for power lies at the heart of every tennis match. Right now, it’s also at the heart of the sport itself.

Here at the Madrid Open, the moment that had all the insiders buzzing happened earlier this week, not on a dusty red court, but in the players’ lounge.

There, in plain sight — not cloistered in an office or luxury suite — the de facto leaders of the two competing visions for the future of tennis sat just a few feet from each other, making their cases to whomever they could get to listen: players and agents; tournament directors and owners.

On one side is the proposal from the Grand Slams for a streamlined elite tennis tour. On the other is the push from the existing ATP and WTA tours to maintain something like the status quo, only more of it, with one more big tournament and some more money, thanks to a significant investment from Saudi Arabia.

As the leaders of the biggest tournaments go back and forth with their counterparts about who controls tennis moving forward, there is an odd truth that neither side wants to talk about: what ultimately happens, and who ultimately ends up holding the power, isn’t really up to them.

In reality, the two camps are staging a kind of beauty contest, whose judges are also in two camps.

One: a handful of executives and organizations who control the biggest tournaments outside the four Grand Slams of Wimbledon and the U.S., French and Australian Opens. Two: a couple of dozen players whose participation drives the sport.

That’s why Craig Tiley, the chief executive of Tennis Australia and one of the prime movers for the Grand Slams’ effort to create an elite premium tour, arrived early in Madrid to meet with players and the managers, lawyers and agents who represent them, knowing full well how badly many of them want reform, especially when it comes to the length of their schedule.

It let him impress on them that what the leader of the ATP tour, Andrea Gaudenzi, has been pushing moves them further away from what they want — although, much of what Tiley was discussing wasn’t about the premium tour, but how an additional tournament would mess up their off-seasons and wreck his Australian season of tennis.

They are the two men sitting 30 feet apart that got people’s attention.

For his part, Gaudenzi, an Italian former tennis pro, held his board meetings, ploughing ahead with the process of adding that additional tournament — and likely the Saudi money — to the tour coffers.

Polite and decorous as it might look on the surface, tennis is a brutal sport, and so, too, is the business of running it.


Craig Tiley is pushing for the premium tour (Andy Cheung/Getty Images)

Two days later, despite Tiley’s efforts, word was spreading via an Italian tennis website that the ATP had reached a deal with Saudi Arabia to hold another mandatory top-level event that will start the season in the coming years. That would threaten the viability of Australian Open tuneups in Australia and New Zealand and the United Cup, a mixed event, also in Australia, that the ATP organizes with Tiley’s Tennis Australia and the WTA. It offers $10million (£8m) in prize money, making it one of the biggest pay weeks for female players.


Andrea Gaudenzi wants his 10th tournament (Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

By late afternoon, the ATP had put out a message on X, formerly Twitter, that it had not made any decision on the tournament. Final bids for the event were due Wednesday. “We would like to clarify that these reports are inaccurate,” the ATP stated. “No decisions have been made and any updates will be communicated at the appropriate time.”

Welcome to the corridors of tennis power: a fractured hall of mirrors where nothing is quite as it seems.

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As in most sports, there are three forces which drive tennis: money, fame, and inertia, and they are pretty evenly divided among the players and the eight entities that run the sport.

The Grand Slams and the nine largest other tournaments which aren’t Grand Slams, known as the “Masters 1000s”, basically control the money, accounting for something like 80 per cent or more of the revenues in tennis by some estimates. It’s hard to calculate, since plenty of tournaments do not make their finances public, not even with players.

Players control most of the fame. They are the stars of the show, the boldface names who pull fans into the sport, their images plastered onto billboards in major cities all across the world throughout the year.

“Try having a tournament without players,” Stefano Vukov, coach to women’s world No 4 Elena Rybakina, said Friday afternoon. “You can’t do it. I promise you.”


Elena Rybakina is one of the many elite players at the Madrid Open (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

At this Madrid Open, the players have been trying to go about their business while confused about what the future holds.

Once they get locked into an important event, they try to actively ignore everything that isn’t their next match. Some also need to be cautious because of the incestuous nature of the sport: their agents often work for companies that own tournaments. Some players who delve into the politics of tennis soon pull back if they sense it is distracting them from trying to win.

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Iga Swiatek, the women’s world No 1, ticks all three of those boxes, since she is represented by the sports and entertainment conglomerate IMG, which owns the tournament currently ongoing in the Spanish capital and also the Miami Open, played recently in the U.S. Still, she could not hide her ongoing frustration at how the sport operates, with only a limited formal role for player input. 

“I’ve been really involved, last year, especially with all this, politics and sports a little bit, and I feel now I need to kind of focus on myself,” Swiatek said after winning her opening match Thursday night. “But I want to speak out when I feel like it’s important and it’s going to do something.”

“I just really, really hope that it’s going to change and we will have a say, or at least we’re going to be informed much, much earlier of changes.”

Ons Jabeur, the two-time Wimbledon finalist, sounded a similar note about the ongoing battle.

“For me as a player, it’s like a movie,” Jabeur said, following her opening triumph. “I’m watching them fighting it out there. But I feel like whatever is going to happen, the players need to be involved.”


Swiatek is one of many players seeking clarity on the future (Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The WTA, the men’s game’s ATP — and to a lesser extent the International Tennis Federation — have inertia on their side.

They license and sanction more than 100 other tournaments around the Grand Slams and also help sell some of the media and sponsorship for the tour. They set up a schedule that largely guarantees a professional tennis match is taking place somewhere nearly every day for roughly 11 months. They collect the revenue: media payments, sponsorships and other licensing agreements. Players end up with roughly a quarter of it, with the rest going to overheads and administration.

All that makes the tours seem like the sport’s alpha dogs, which is just what they want.

It might seem like that means they have the power, but the tours don’t control the players. The players are independent contractors, free to play tennis wherever they want if they can find someone to pay them — the way some of the world’s top golfers found a willing partner in Saudi Arabia.

That is especially true at the moment, because the Grand Slams have yet to renew the agreement that obligates them to organize their draws based on the ATP and WTA rankings, which the tours oversee. For now, it’s a detail because Grand Slams are still acting as though the deal is still in place. But there is an implicit threat in their refusal to sign a new agreement; a message that they could use some other rankings systems that ignore the tours, which would allow players into their tournaments whether the tours like it or not.

Still, a great tennis player does not have many alternatives for making millions of dollars from playing the sport without the platform and the competitions the tours offer.

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It also might seem like the tours have total control over the tournaments to which they have sold licenses, granting them the ability to operate as official events. But the only important tournaments they actually own are the season-ending tour finals.

They also have the least amount of control over the most important and lucrative tournaments on their tours, those Masters 1000 events that function as the sport’s gilded breakaway republic: Indian Wells, Miami and Cincinnati in the U.S., Monte Carlo in the south of France, Madrid, Rome in Italy, Montreal and Toronto in Canada, China’s Shanghai and Paris.


Jannik Sinner during this year’s Indian Wells, probably the most prestigious 1000 tournament (George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Many of these are storied events, such as Indian Wells, known as the “Fifth Slam”, and the Italian Open. Those tournaments got together and decided to sell their media rights as a separate package, through a separate company called ATP Media. The actual ATP? It has about a 10 per cent stake in that company. In most realms, the people who control the most money hold the most power, and here and overall, tennis is no different.

This is why the battle to control the sport has become a beauty contest between rival proposals from the Grand Slams and the existing tours about how to fix tennis.

Those Masters 1000 events already have some financial separation from the existing tours, though lawyers would have their work cut out trying to undo existing contracts. And pro tennis can’t exist without the best players, who can choose where to take their power and who to bless with it.


Those are each contestant’s top attributes.

What exactly do the judges in this contest want?

Beyond the dreams of winning the biggest titles, most players who have the levels required to play an event such as the Madrid Open want two basic things from their tennis careers. They want an opportunity to make a good living and they want to be able to play in the events they grew up watching on television.

Those are mostly the Grand Slams, maybe their home country’s Masters 1000 if there is one, or the tournament that takes place closest to their hometown. Frances Tiafoe, who grew up in the U.S. state of Maryland, has said he only cares about two tournaments, the U.S. Open and the Citi Open in nearby Washington, D.C.; Swiatek doesn’t miss the WTA event in Poland’s capital Warsaw, her hometown.

In this light, the Masters 1000 tournaments want to be seen as premium events — if not on par with the Grand Slams, then as close as possible to them.


Coco Gauff runs a ball down at the Miami Open (Brennan Asplen/Getty Images)

For the Grand Slams, the key to being able to create a premium tour may come down to convincing a critical mass of the Masters 1000s events to at least threaten to break with the existing tours.

Instead of being closely associated with a score of random tournaments everywhere from Antwerp in Belgium to Houston in Texas, they could be part of an elite group of events that includes Wimbledon, the most historic and important tournament in the sport. Implicit in that is the idea that tennis’ geographic reach is an albatross rather than a calling card, which many figures in all four groups — and many more fans — would dispute.

The Grand Slams will also have to convince the players, especially the stars who hold the most sway over everyone else, they are better off playing on a premium tour which the Slams say will pay them more money for doing less work.

The concept, according to the proposal from the Grand Slams, will double prize money for the top 300 men and nearly quadruple prize money for the top 300 women, who will from inception receive the same prize money as the men on the premium tour, instead of waiting until 2027 for that to happen under the ATP and WTA.

Those players won’t have to spend the year chasing rankings points and feeling like they are losing ground every time they want to take a week or two off between more important events to rest or train. And they will get a six-to-eight-week off-season as well.

Lower-ranked players have been promised more money too, and if their tour is set up properly, with regional circuits and promotion and relegation, they will have to spend less on travel and get more clarity on how they can make the step up.

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Where would that leave the existing ATP and WTA? Those organizations would likely have a role in helping to govern that premium tour and making sure money from it filters down to the smaller tournaments, on that so-called “Contender Tour”, for the players vying to make the big show and top players seeking extra matches and appearance fees.


Corentin Moutet, who came through qualifying in Madrid, during his chaotic first-round match with Jerry Shang (Gustavo Valiente/Xinhua via Getty Images)

For the tours, winning the beauty contest means convincing the Masters 1000s they don’t need the Grand Slams, that they already exist as a premium tour, and that being the highest quality events on the men’s and women’s tours is better than being the poor relations of the Grand Slams, especially given the litigation they would likely face if they tried to break away.

They have also dangled a windfall of roughly a billion dollars in front of the Masters 1000s and the players, which will arrive in full when they add an additional top-level event as soon as 2026, though it’s not clear they can deliver on that figure. Advocates for players say it’s more like $500m at the moment, and once it filters through the system, there won’t be much left over for them.

It’s a contest that should go on for a while, with moves and countermoves, back and forth, surges and lead changes.

Not unlike a tennis match.

(Top photos: Adrian Denis/AFP; Tim Clayton/Corbis; Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

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