Peter-Michael Reichel, chairman and CEO of BSG Sports Group, discusses the potential of the Diriyah Tennis Cup to expand into an ATP and WTA tour event.
December promises to be a seminal sporting month in the history of Saudi Arabia as the ‘Diriyah Season’, which encompasses world class sport and entertainment events, concludes in the Saudi capital Riyadh. Hot on the heels of the November’s Formula E Ad Diriyah ePrix, the Kingdom hosts a world heavyweight boxing clash between Andy Ruiz Jr and Anthony Joshua, before welcoming eight of the world’s best tennis players for the Diriyah Tennis Cup from December 12-14.
The latter is the brainchild of the Saudi General Sport Authority (GSA) and BSG Sports Group, a sports events company with almost 30 years’ experience of putting on showpiece tennis tournaments in Europe including the ATP Hamburg European Open, the WTA Barcelona Ladies Open and the WTA Linz Open.
Headlined by three-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka, the Diriyah Tennis Cup will be Saudi Arabia’s first taste of elite tennis – after a much-anticipated clash between Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal in the Kingdom was called off last year.
According to BSG’s co-chairman Peter Michael Reichel, the Diriyah Tennis Cup has the potential to attract many new tennis fans in Saudi Arabia and could stimulate grassroots participation too.
“The idea came from the GSA as they think tennis is a sport that could be popular in Saudi Arabia,” Reichel tells Sport Industry Insider. “We met Abdulaziz Beashen [Diriyah Season Head of Events] and decided to arranged this project together. We hope it will be a good start this year and we are trying to also involve schools and kids –but the plan is to develop it over a few years into to a bigger event.
“It’s a great opportunity to bring tennis to Saudi Arabia and what we have seen in terms of digital engagement has been really promising. When it comes tothe sporting events they are offering in Diriyah Season, tennis has had most of the interest so far which is great. It looks like this is a really emerging tennis market and we are enthusiastic about the project.”
Although this is only the first incarnation of the Diriyah Tennis Cup, the ambitions of BSG and the GSA are clear; Saudi Arabia would like to host an official ATP ranking event in the future.
“Our discussions with the GSA were about a long-term project and we are exploring what is possible. There are several ideas we will discuss and we will see what happens. Yes, the long-term plan is to host an ATP and WTA event in Saudi Arabia and I think we can do this in 2-3 years.
“The Diriyah Tennis Cup is more than just an exhibition – we are offering $3 million of prize money and believe this shows how serious we are about this tournament. For the players it will be much more than a show match.”
Among the players joining Wawrinka in Riyadh at the marquee event are 2019 US Open runner-up Dannil Medvedev and big-serving American John Isner, as well as Lucas Pouille, Fabio Fogini and David Goffin. And despite the absence of tennis’ ‘Big Three’ of Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, Reichel believes the Diriyah Tennis Cup has enough star power to draw spectators.
“We spoke to Federer and he was too busy this year, touring South America, so it wasn’t possible from the beginning. We had good discussions with Djokovic two months ago and it was planned for him to come but now he is taking time off for vacation and not returning until later in December. Nadal it is still open, but it depends how his physical condition is. We had very good discussions with him and he wants to come – if not this year, I am sure he will play next year.
“Even without those players we have a really strong group. We tried to have eight different countries present to make it a very international field and it is an excellent proposition. We have seen what happens in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha sometimes in that tickets are sold but people don’t show up and we know how important it is to convert those ticket sales into people attending. This is an interesting challenge in this region.”
Another major challenge for the event going forward is how it could fit into the ATP and WTA Tour calendars. Players can’t move for tournaments but Reichel feels that one option could be to move the Diriyah Tennis Cup next to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships in the future in order to create a Middle East ‘swing’ as has been implemented successfully in golf.
“We know this year the date is not the best because we are in the middle of the off-season and Abu Dhabi also has the Mubadala Tennis Championships in December the week after. Usually players have pre-season training this time of year, or they go on holiday. It is not easy. Going forward we want to find what the most convenient date and also put together a bigger field.
“We hope to see more players come to Saudi Arabia. It is not easy to just add tournaments so we have to pick the right week in the calendar. We would never compete with the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, but I think we could add to it – a Middle East swing would be the best solution for everyone but it cannot always happen.”
When Nadal and Djokovic’s exhibition match in Saudi Arabia was announced last year, both players faced criticism from fans and some corners of the media for their decision to play in the Kingdom. But Reichel insists the players competing in the Diriyah Tennis Cup have no concerns about their participation.
“It is not a worry for the players,” says Reichel, who is also a WTA board member. “In all our discussions we talk about Saudi Arabia and what is happening there, the development of the country, the opening up of the country. It amazes me that many people still think they cannot fly there – I am out there every day explaining that it is now very easy to get a tourist visa.
“The fact that the GSA is discussing about women’s tennis too shows that the country is open to develop things. I have spoken discussions with Maria Sharapova about it already and she has shown an interest. I am very close to women’s tennis and I know what is possible; the moment Saudi Arabia is willing to have a women’s tennis tournament there we are ready to go. I am very sure we can have a WTA Tour event there.”
Beyond the potential of an ATP or WTA Tour event in Saudi Arabia to attract interest in the elite game, grassroots development is also high on the agenda for the GSA and BSG. And Reichel is confident that the sport can help bring people together in the Kingdom.
“Hopefully we can encourage more people in Saudi Arabia to play tennis. The first year is always difficult but we are still trying to put in place some community initiatives. Sport is a great platform for communications between different parts of society and we are working with Hill & Knowlton in Riyadh to get the message out in the best way possible. “We are trying to connect with locals. We want to involve many organisations. Tennis is a new product for this market so we have to do a lot of work to get it out to the people.”