MATCH POINT: It’s not a question of if Saudis will get a grip on tennis but how

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League football is soon to re-awaken from its summer recess, which has been rudely interrupted by Saudi Arabia fire hosing cash at some of its biggest names.

Since Wimbledon finished we have seen the £259million offer to Paris Saint-Germain for Kylian Mbappe to play there, although he appears reluctant to go. 

Among the more willing recruits is Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson who, rainbow armband or not, sees a potential pay package of around £90m too much to resist at the age of 33.

When you consider these numbers it becomes ever more clear why tennis will soon be making an accommodation with the Kingdom. The sniff of big money is in the air, and from Monte Carlo to Florida noses are starting to frantically twitch.

Clearly Mbappe is no ordinary player and his sport is by far the world’s biggest. To put the approach to him by Al-Hilal in perspective, it is pretty much double what private equity giants CVC have paid for a 20 per cent stake of the whole WTA Tour (which does not include the Grand Slams).

Tennis's Next Gen finals, which includes the eight best under-21 players, was played in Riyadh in December and will keep being hosted in Saudi Arabia in Jeddah next year

Tennis’s Next Gen finals, which includes the eight best under-21 players, was played in Riyadh in December and will keep being hosted in Saudi Arabia in Jeddah next year

Saudi Arabian club Al-Hilal had a world-record £259m bid for Kylian Mbappe accepted by PSG last week (PIC: Al-Hilal president Fahad bin Nafel, right, with new signing Kalidou Koulibaly)

Saudi Arabian club Al-Hilal had a world-record £259m bid for Kylian Mbappe accepted by PSG last week (PIC: Al-Hilal president Fahad bin Nafel, right, with new signing Kalidou Koulibaly)

It shows just how far the Saudis could go in a game with a global reach, one in which many players feel they are under-rewarded for the profits they help generate.

The rumour mill about Saudi intentions in tennis is currently in overdrive and, given the fractured nature of the game’s governance, nobody is entirely sure what has been discussed, and with whom.

However, talking to various parties in the past week, it is clear is that representatives of the Kingdom were clearly on manoeuvres during Wimbledon, as speculation becomes closer to reality.

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Also evident is that, presently, the intention on all sides is to avoid the kind of dramatic upheaval and bad blood seen in golf, where an uneasy truce currently holds. 

Tennis’s preference is to usher the Saudis in by the front door, rather than have them crash in through the tradesmen’s entrance.

The President of the Saudi tennis federation is a woman, Areej Mutabagani, and she was at SW19. I understand that she held talks with the leadership of the International Tennis Federation, and among topics discussed was a move for them to host smaller Futures and Challenger events for men and women. This is considered the act of a good citizen in tennis, as this vital level of the game generally runs at a loss.

Naturally there is more interest in what will happen in higher profile events. As reported back at the start of May, it is still expected that the ATP’s under 21 NextGen Finals will be staged in Jeddah later this year. With only four months to go, confirmation is expected soon.

Already last December a group of 12 leading men played in the Diriyah Cup exhibition. My understanding is that this could move to after the 2024 Australian Open as part of February’s ‘desert swing’ of events, remaining as an exhibition for next year.

This has been an under-exploited segment of the season and looks sure to grow, given the shift of wealth towards that part of the world compared to Europe (tennis was actually an early mover into the Middle East, back in the early 1990s).

And with the Saudis able to blow others out of the water financially they will surely not stop at the aforementioned.

Australian tennis star Nick Kyrgios is all for Saudi Arabia's investment in professional tennis

Australian tennis star Nick Kyrgios is all for Saudi Arabia’s investment in professional tennis

Saudi Arabia's PIF was recently behind the PGA Tour's shock merger with rebel tour LIV Golf

Saudi Arabia’s PIF was recently behind the PGA Tour’s shock merger with rebel tour LIV Golf

It is believed that they have spoken to the PTPA (Professional Tennis Players’ Association). Related to that is one of the more extreme scenarios that have popped up on the grapevine. That would see around 25 of the world’s leading men forming the spine of a new tour with each of them earning minimally $1m per tournament.

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When looking at the football numbers this would not be too far-fetched, but insiders discount that possibility for now. Most believe that, initially at least, a more incremental involvement will be sought. 

The heads of the ATP (Andrea Gaudenzi), WTA (Steve Simon) and ITF (Dave Haggerty) have all met with the Saudis and are preaching a message of working together, with their new friends remaining onside.

The cash-strapped WTA, seeking to elevate prize money levels, is keen to do business and travelled there in February. The ATP Tour has far more economic clout, and is seeking to add a tenth Masters 1000 event to its calendar.

Some well-placed sources believe it is possible that this could end up as a joint event with the women in Saudi Arabia around the middle of this decade. The year-end ATP Finals event has only two more years on its deal with Turin, while its women’s equivalent needs a home.

As for the ITF, it still has deep financial issues to resolve with the traditional Davis and Billie Jean King Cups – with the finals to be held in Spain this year. A lucrative new venue could be very attractive.

According to one industry veteran: ‘It’s not a question of if they will be included, but how they will be included.’ 

Aside from the Grand Slams, large parts of the calendar are a buyers’ market, and those cashed up are preparing to move.

RUSSIA PROBLEM WILL NOT GO AWAY 

Echoes of Wimbledon overnight on Monday at Washington DC, where Elina Svitolina once again defeated Victoria Azarenka. 

No booing this time, as the lack of handshake at the end was announced beforehand, the WTA’s latest initiative to protect players from Russia and Belarus.

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You can understand Svitolina’s approach. No sooner had she made the SW19 semi-finals than a precision missile wrecked the UNESCO-designated cathedral in her home city of Odessa.

Tennis has been a focal point of athletes refusing to shake hands with opponents from the aggressor nations. 

Elina Svitolina's no-handshake with Victoria Azarenka was announced in advance in the US

Elina Svitolina’s no-handshake with Victoria Azarenka was announced in advance in the US

In fencing there was an incident last week when a Ukrainian, Olga Kharlan, was disqualified for declining such a gesture at an international event. The IOC stepped in and has guaranteed her a place at the Paris Olympics.

Easy to miss was a development at this week’s Prague Open, where a Russian player hoping to compete was refused entry at the Czech border. A crucial difference to Wimbledon last year was this being a government rather than tournament action. 

It is unlikely to be the last occurrence of its type – while the war goes on the continued participation of those from Russia and Belarus is an issue that will not go away.

ZVEREV AND SWIATEK LIGHT UP LIFE AFTER WIMBLEDON 

A rare double at the weekend of players winning what constitutes their hometown tournament. Alex Zverev won the ATP title in Hamburg, a historic championship once the scene of a Masters level tournament but now pushed into the sleepier post-Wimbledon spot.

At the Warsaw Open Iga Swiatek romped it in her own backyard, on hard courts. 

We have yet to see the best of Swiatek on the grass, but it was a reminder of just how good the 22 year-old Pole is.

Opta Ace came up with a good statistic afterwards. Swiatek has now played 100 matches as world No 1 with a winning ratio of 87-13. That is the same as the last player to reach 100 matches as world number one: Serena Williams.

World No 1 Iga Swiatek won in her own backyard to take victory at the recent Warsaw Open

World No 1 Iga Swiatek won in her own backyard to take victory at the recent Warsaw Open

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