The future of tennis: What we know about the two proposals that may change the sport

Two major proposals are on the table in tennis, and they could drastically shape the future of the sport. EPA/WILL OLIVER

The sport of tennis might be on the verge of some major changes.

Over the past several years, players have become increasingly vocal about their concerns, ranging from equal pay to challenging travel and tournament conditions to economic hardships for lower-ranked players.

Now, it seems that the sport might be on the brink of substantial changes that could address some of those complaints -- and increase revenue for all of the sport's shareholders.

There have been two different proposals gaining traction -- one backed by the four Grand Slam tournaments and the other by the ATP and WTA tours -- and both could have significant effects on the tennis landscape for years to come.

So, what does this all mean? ESPN spoke to several sources involved in the sport -- both on and off the record -- and here's what we know so far about the proposed changes in tennis.

What are the proposals currently being discussed?

While many of the specific details remain unknown, there are two -- not entirely mutually exclusive -- proposals that have gained momentum in recent weeks among tennis' chief governing bodies. The first involves the inclusion of Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) and a 1000-level event (the highest level of tournament outside of the majors and the year-end finals) for both the ATP and WTA in the country. It would also combine commercial assets, including media rights, between the ATP and the WTA.

The second, perhaps more radical, idea has come from the four Grand Slams (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open) and their respective federations, and would create what is currently being called the "Premier Tour." The tour would essentially supplant the ATP and WTA and would hold approximately 10 tournaments, in addition to the four majors, as well as an international team event and a year-end final, all featuring the top men and women and offering equal prize money. A lower-tier tour would also be created for players outside the expected cutoff of the top 100.

What more do we know about the one involving Saudi Arabia's PIF?

Essentially, Saudi Arabia wants to host a 1000-level event -- the highest tournament tier outside of the majors and the year-end finals -- for men and women, awarding equal prize money. As the tennis calendar is mostly full of events around the globe and a seemingly ever-shortening offseason, the tournament would likely be held in January, ahead of the Australian Open and during the time frame that the United Cup, the Adelaide International and the Auckland Open traditionally take place.

Over the past few years, the PIF has become increasingly involved in global sports, including golf, soccer and Formula One, in addition to tennis. In 2023, Jeddah became the host city for the ATP's Next Gen Finals, and in February, it was announced that the PIF had signed a five-year deal for the naming rights for the ATP's rankings, as well as courtside branding at various events, including Indian Wells and Miami. Earlier this month, the WTA announced it would be holding its year-end finals for the next three seasons in Riyadh.

"Hosting the WTA Finals is absolutely huge for the future of tennis in Saudi Arabia and growing sport in general, especially amongst our young girls," Arij Mutabagani, the president of the Saudi Tennis Federation, said in a statement. "And that's entirely our focus, to inspire future generations of players and celebrate women's tennis."

The potential 1000-level tournament would bring in more involvement, and money from the PIF -- over one billion dollars - and would also see further cooperation between the ATP and WTA. While many, such as Billie Jean King and Roger Federer, have called for a formal merger between the two organizations in recent years, and some initial reports indicated that possibility was being discussed, multiple sources told ESPN they would remain separate but would pool elements like sponsorships and media rights.

The PIF did not respond to requests for comment.

Would this be similar to LIV Golf? What makes it different?

By all accounts, this would not be like LIV Golf. While LIV Golf is its own independent tour, separate from the PGA Tour and with players barred from being members of both, this proposal fits directly into the current ATP and WTA framework, and there is already formal cooperation between all parties.

At least some involved in tennis have been closely watching what has happened in golf and want to ensure the sport doesn't follow suit.

"I don't think every single person is going to agree with [partnering with the PIF]," current world No. 5 and WTA player council member Jessica Pegula told reporters at the Miami Open last month. "But at the same time, for the protection of our sport and what we saw happen with golf and all of that stuff, I think it's something that we kind of have to deal with. I don't think we can kind of just say, 'Oh, it's never going to happen.' I think after what happened with golf, we've kind of had to take on a different side of that instead of totally ignoring them."

Three-time major champion Andy Murray echoed Pegula's sentiments in an interview with Sky Sports.

"If the sport doesn't allow the Saudis to have some involvement then what will they do in response to that," Murray said. "Will it be like golf where there's like a huge fracturing within the sport? That's obviously not good. No one wants that. I wouldn't want any of the top players leaving the ATP Tour to go and play elsewhere."

What do we know about the Premier Tour idea?

Looking to build on the popularity of the major tournaments, the four Slams came together with the Premier Tour proposal. The tour would likely feature the top 100 men and women, and there would be a lower-level tour for those ranked outside of the cutoff. Both tours would include combined tournaments and equal prize money -- something that doesn't currently exist at every tournament -- and there would be some sort of promotion and relegation for players, like in the Premier League in soccer, at the end of every season. There is also promise of at least a two-month offseason for players.

Lew Sherr, the CEO of the U.S. Tennis Association, declined to speak to ESPN for this article but he told The Associated Press in a recent interview that the sport was currently "underperforming" and in need of reform "to unlock what we think is an enormous potential." He cited a recent study that interviewed more than 5,000 tennis fans around the world and found that 70% watch only the major tournaments.

"The conclusion was that the season lacks consequence, that tennis is confusing to follow, and that fans don't understand which tournaments matter, and which don't, at any given point in the season," Sherr said. "They know the four Slams. But other than that, there's not a compelling narrative. We dilute and compete with ourselves by having two, three, four, five, six tournaments going on at any one point in time. And we're competing with our own product."

At present, tennis has multiple governing bodies -- the four Slams, the two tours, as well as the International Tennis Federation (ITF) -- and all have their own interests, priorities and sponsorship and media deals. The proposal would seek to streamline the sport and create a centralized, singular organization at the helm. It would also, according to Sherr and his peers, make it accessible and easy for fans to follow throughout the year. Currently, in any given week, there can be multiple tour-level events in various countries. Last week, for example, there were three ATP tournaments and two WTA tournaments held in four different continents and across multiple time zones.

Few financial details about the Premier Tour are currently known, including where the initial funding would come from and if the various corporate and media partners already working with the individual Slams would be involved.

These sound like two separate ideas, are they mutually exclusive?

While in many ways these proposals contradict one another, and a Premier Tour seems to directly challenge the continuation of the ATP and the WTA, there is some room for these ideas to coexist.

First, and perhaps most easily, because the Premier Tour would likely host 10 tournaments, in addition to the Slams, many believe the current 1000-level events would at least be in consideration for those slots. There are six 1000-level tournaments that are combined for the ATP and WTA -- with the ATP holding three others and the WTA four additional -- and Saudi Arabia could certainly be a viable contender to host one of those Premier Tour tournaments.

Additionally, those involved in the Slams do not have the experience of running a yearlong tour, and Sally Bolton, the CEO of the All England Club, said they have no interest in doing so. "Certainly not," she told the AP. Perhaps the ATP and WTA, or a combined form of them, could be tasked with the operations and even remain in existence to some extent under this structure.

What are players saying? Do they feel strongly about either idea?

According to Ahmad Nassar, the executive director of the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), players have questions about the specifics of both. With the Premier Tour and the lack of concrete details, they want to know primarily how it will work, who will oversee the day-to-day operations and what it means for those ranked outside the threshold, as well as for doubles specialists.

John Isner, the former world No. 8 who retired in September after 17 seasons on tour, remains involved with the PTPA, and he told ESPN he was also interested in what would happen to the 500- and 250-level events on tour.

"My concern with the Premier Tour is what the other tournaments will look like," Isner said. "How will they be valued? Where will they fit in the calendar? Who can play in them? Would they be a complete afterthought or would the tour put a lot of effort into them? I'm just not sure."

But many involved in the sport are also concerned about the possible addition of a mandatory 1000-level event at the start of the season in Saudi Arabia, especially because it would be over 7,000 miles away and in a time zone seven hours behind the Australian Open, which would start soon after. Players have complained about the physical and mental toll of the relentless globetrotting nature of the tour, and this seems to only add to that.

"I understand that it's business and billions with a B are in the mix, but for me, I just want things to be fair and there to be an understanding that we are still people and we still get tired and fatigued," Taylor Townsend, currently ranked No. 57 in singles and No. 12 in doubles, told ESPN. "I hope there's an understanding that if you're adding [another 1000-level event], something needs to be taken away so players don't get overworked. Even if we're getting paid more, we might not be able to play our best and it won't be as good of a show [for fans]."

And for others, there remain crucial questions about personal safety and well-being in Saudi Arabia. Daria Kasatkina, currently ranked No. 11 in the world, is openly gay and her team has been uneasy about the possibility of her playing in the country since it was first rumored to be hosting the WTA Finals.

"I love Dasha like a little sister or a daughter or a niece, it's more than just a business relationship," said John Morris, Kasatkina's agent. "I genuinely love and care about her as a person and I would be worried or fearful of her being there with her girlfriend. I'm not asking them to roll out a rainbow carpet for her, but I want to know that she's going to be absolutely safe. If she holds her girlfriend's hand in the hotel lobby or wins a match and kisses her, I need to know she is going to be safe. We have raised these issues with the WTA and they have assured us these [topics] have been discussed and are OK."

Morris, who is the director of SeventyTwo Sports Group and represents several tennis players, said he also asked the WTA about the safety of players traveling and sharing a hotel room with their unmarried partners but was assured of their protection as well.

Former players Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova voiced their opposition to the WTA's involvement with Saudi Arabia in an open letter in The Washington Post in January, citing the nation's treatment of women and those in the LGBTQ+ community, and calling the decision to hold the WTA Finals there "significant regression." However, current players have not been as publicly opposed.

Isner referenced China, another country in which the ATP and WTA both host a number of events annually, and its history of human rights violations as part of his reasoning for not being against Saudi Arabia's involvement. "Where do you draw the line on human rights?" he asked.

Sloane Stephens, the 2017 US Open champion and a former WTA player council member, said she simply wanted what would ensure the longevity and success of women's tennis.

"I think sports in general is evolving, is changing. I think the sport is going to go to Saudi Arabia with or without [the WTA]," Stephens said. "Obviously, men are playing tons of exhibitions and they've already played there. We're kind of left behind. I think if we don't start to understand better and make the same adjustments or movements in that direction, again, the WTA tour, the women will get left behind regardless, which I think is unfair. ... I think we need to do whatever is best for our tour. Not only now but for the next generation of players."

When will any decisions be made?

Officials from the ATP and WTA will meet later this month in Madrid to further discuss the possibility of a tour event in Saudi Arabia, as well as potentially pooling assets.

The ATP and WTA said in a statement to Reuters that they are "exploring discussions that would enable us to leverage assets across both Tours via the creation of a new joint commercial entity, delivering more value to players, tournaments, and fans, while remaining as separate Tours."

The Premier Tour's outlook remains more unclear. Bolton said nothing will happen "any time before 2026" but believed the process could be accelerated with widespread support. However, no one who spoke to ESPN, on or off the record, was certain about what the next steps were for the tour or what would happen next.

So, what happens next?

First and foremost, there are many questions that need to be addressed, and conversations are expected to continue between all parties. But beyond that is simply unknown.

"I look at this time as an opportunity to have a complete reset," Morris said. "If everyone can take their egos out of it and do what's best for tennis, and view this as a blank page, we can improve the sport for players and fans, and then we will all benefit."

Still, those involved in the sport are optimistic these proposals don't lose momentum and real change eventually occurs.

"A lot of these discussions aren't particularly new, but it does feel different this time," Nassar said. "I took the job [with the PTPA] because I thought something like this was on the horizon. And the players thought something like this was on the horizon. That's why they started the PTPA. What appealed to me about the job was that this doesn't happen often in already established global sports. And so being part of hopefully a solution or change for the better is definitely exciting.

"But it will be really disappointing if in a year from now we've fumbled this opportunity. This is our window. Let's go figure something out."