Tennis’ Grand Slams are attempting to partner with a collection of the sport’s other best-known tournaments in what could become the most revolutionary transformation of the game since the 1990s.
Their goal, according to five people who have been both involved with and briefed on those discussions, is to form a partnership with at least the 10 largest tournaments and their own events — Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the French Open and the Australian Open — to create a premium tour that resembles a tennis version of Formula 1.
The move comes as the sport’s most powerful entities, executives and top players have come to accept that tennis in its current form does not work nearly as well as it should. Among their criticisms: it is confusing for fans to follow; hundreds of millions of dollars that could be earned are left on the table; its nearly endless schedule overtaxes top players, whose careers are cut short by injury and mental fatigue.
Those factors, officials worry, have left tennis prone to the kind of aggressive disruption that has plagued golf the past two seasons, as the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf venture cleaved top players from the established PGA Tour and led to an expensive legal battle that forced a merger whose details are still being worked on. Warding off a similar turn of events has become a top priority for the seven governing bodies that oversee tennis and bringing together the most valuable and best-known properties in the sport to create an elite collection of events and a simplified season is widely seen as the best defense.
“We all know that premium drives the business,” Steve Simon, the chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour, said in an interview Tuesday.
For a week in Turin, Italy, earlier this month, top officials in tennis eagerly awaited the proposal from the biggest and most powerful entities in the sport following roughly six months of debate and discussion. The organizations that operate the four Grand Slam tournaments have come together with a rare unity.
Several of the officials interviewed for this story asked not to be identified to avoid jeopardizing their professional relationships.
Ultimately, officials with the other governing bodies who were in Turin, the site of the men’s ATP Tour (Association of Tennis Professionals) finals, left without getting the long-awaited proposal. Executives with the Grand Slams, who declined to comment publicly for this article or did not respond to messages seeking comment, have told officials with the men’s and women’s tours they needed more time to finalize their proposal. The goal is to have a plan ready to present when the sport gathers in Australia in January for the Australian Open.
In a sign of how serious the slams are about forcing change, they have yet to sign the next three-year agreement with the tours that codifies the system of awarding rankings points. That move signals their view that a significant transformation is in the offing, so signing a multi-year agreement based on the current schedule is pointless, even if that means beginning the 2024 season without an agreement.
Executives involved with the discussions have described them as fluid and largely positive. All said there was a significant possibility that they could fall apart, or the premium tour could be expanded to include more than just the Grand Slams, the top-level events, and a few others deemed worthy. In recent years, tennis executives have worked with top consulting and investment firms that came up with similar proposals to the one now under consideration, only to fail to move tennis beyond its status quo.
A more focused, premium tour that the Grand Slams had partial control over could also protect them against significant changes in the schedule leading up to their events. In recent months, this has become a top concern for Craig Tiley, the chief executive of Tennis Australia, as the men’s and women’s tours considered adding a top-level event in Saudi Arabia during the first week of the season, beginning in January 2025.
A top-level January event in Saudi Arabia would likely doom the series of tournaments across Australia and New Zealand that, along with the Australian Open, constitute the first swing of the year. It could also spell the end of the United Cup, a mixed-team event that Tennis Australia launched last year.
The plan for a premium tour that the slams are formulating aligns, at least theoretically, with one of the top goals of Andrea Gaudenzi, the chief executive of the ATP Tour.
Gaudenzi has long wanted to close the gaps in prestige, import and financial might between the Grand Slams and the biggest events on the men’s and women’s tours. These are often referred to by the men’s tour as the “Masters” events and women’s tour as “the 1,000s” — for the number of rankings points the women receive.
Those tournaments include mixed events in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome, Toronto/Montreal, and near Cincinnati. Already more than half of the top events have been extended to 12 days from one week, compared with two weeks for the Grand Slams.
“We want to grow our premium product and that’s a fact that we’ve been very vocal about,” Gaudenzi said during a meeting with a small group of journalists in Turin two weeks ago. “For the sport, closing the gap between the Masters and the slams is good for everybody. Now, there is a very big gap.”
While Gaudenzi and the slams may share a vision of what is best for tennis, it’s not clear what role he, his WTA Tour counterpart Simon, or the tours themselves would have moving forward. They may be left to oversee a collection of the small and mid-sized tournaments, known as the 500s and 250s. Under one scenario, developing players could largely make up the fields of those events, while players ranked in the top 100, who could earn a “tour card” good for the season and a specified guaranteed salary, focus on the top-level tour but are still able to participate in smaller events if they choose to.
A major question, Simon said, is, “How do you create a calendar that is easier to follow?”
Players who have begun to learn details of the plan the slams are trying to formulate have so far generally been supportive of the concept, especially those involved with the Professional Tennis Players Association, the player organization Novak Djokovic helped launch three years ago.
Tennis players play the longest season in professional sports. Among their largest priorities are earning more money while having to compete less, so they can rest and maintain their health. A premium tour could accomplish both of those goals and produce a more simplified version of the sport than the sprawling one that now exists.
If the top 100 players had to focus mainly on the slams and roughly a dozen top-level tournaments, that would account for about 32 weeks of competition and leave ample time for them to play a few smaller events, where they could receive lucrative appearance fees, while also maintaining enough time for rest and a proper off-season.
Sports executives say revenues would likely rise if the slams and the top tournaments could sell their television and sponsorship rights more collectively, rather than driving down the market by competing against one another, though the structure of the partnership has not been finalized. It may not include all of the commercial rights for all the tournaments, the officials said.
The changes would likely take at least a year or two to begin and longer than that to go into full effect as executives work to unwind or renegotiate long-term media and sponsorship deals and to figure out how to divide revenues between the top-level tours and the other tournaments.
(Top photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images)