IPTL: Serious or not?

The International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) field was studded with some icons, yet the competition never had the gravity of an ATP or WTA event. There was intense fight for each of the points, but every contest lasted only one set.

Indian doubles legend Leander Paes termed the IPTL “exhibition tennis showcasing the best.”   -  PTI

If the inaugural International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) headlined a Roger Federer-Novak Djokovic face-off, the sophomore edition flaunted a duel featuring the great Swiss and Rafael Nadal. Despite the availability of top stars and some intense action, the IPTL, for the second consecutive year, triggered the ‘serious tennis versus exhibition tennis’ debate.

The field was studded with some icons, yet the competition never had the gravity of an ATP or WTA event. There was intense fight for each of the points, but every contest lasted only one set.

The tennis loving public spent good money, with tickets being priced between Rs. 4,000 and Rs. 48,000, but the thrill of competitive tennis was served in capsules. These were some points which forced many to think how they would rate such a part-exhibition, part-serious tennis competition. Even the handsomely-paid players, who were the real attraction, had varied opinions on this when the IPTL’s third leg was held in Delhi in the first half of December.

Neither Federer nor Nadal was ready to accept that the fun tennis was non-serious stuff.

Answering a query as to whether IPTL was exhibition tennis, Federer said, “The question is what is an exhibition? There is a kids’ day exhibition in Australia — Nickelodeon style, obviously where you hit and giggle with Scooby Doo. This is not Scooby Doo, so clearly we are playing serious tennis,” said the 17-time Grand Slam winner.

“You have (nearly) 15,000 people who are serious about tennis, so it is a question of who is in the crowd. Is the crowd filled with 10-year-olds because it is the kids’ day or is it because people want to see great tennis and support the Indian Aces and the UAE Royals? Depends on how you see it. To me, it is serious tennis with the fun aspect of playing for your team,” said Federer, representing the UAE Royals, after his much-awaited set against Nadal.

The Spaniard, too, agreed with his Swiss opponent. “I don't think these are exhibition matches, these games are very competitive. The intensity of competition is good. I feel the rules are perfect in the IPTL and it is a great idea…But obviously, in the World Tour, it does not have a place.”

The 29-year-old 14-time Grand Slam champion said the IPTL gave him a good build-up for the coming season. “It is an unbelievable event. It is a preparation for the next season. The format is quick and anything can happen,” said Nadal, donning the Indian Aces colours.

Indian doubles legend Leander Paes termed the IPTL “exhibition tennis showcasing the best.”

According to Paes, the event was capable of providing the sport a boost in the country starved of top class action from elite players. “It showcases tennis and it showcases top players. IPTL is doing to tennis in India what the Indian Premier League (IPL) did to cricket,” said the 42-year-old, playing for Japan Warriors.

Used to the lonely aspect of the sport, some players liked the team spirit — like in the Davis Cup and Fed Cup — associated with the IPTL. “It is played with great spirit and fair play. It is phenomenal to see the legends play. I would like to give them a shout out for playing so well because I think it is really hard for them to do what they are doing. Personally, I love it. So, call it an exhibition or not, I do not know what it is, but it is a fun concept and that is why I am back here again,” said Federer.

Top Indians Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna and promising Australian Nick Kyrgios also liked the idea of playing with a team.

“We travel alone on the tour and solve our problems at an individual level. But the IPTL has been different. We are all enjoying the team bonding. We look out for each other during matches,” observed Sania.

Amidst all this, the Federer-Nadal clash drew the biggest crowd of this year’s IPTL leg in Delhi. Some compared the three-fourth filled Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium to the packed house of last year, when Federer and Djokovic had thrilled everyone in the presence of some popular celebrities.

Nevertheless, Mahesh Bhupathi, the IPTL owner, was happy as the ticket managers informed him about a turn-out of 13,000 for the big night. But a slump in interest, even if slight, in the second edition of the IPTL poses a couple of important questions about the league’s sustainability in the long run.

Can the IPTL, in its semi-exhibition and semi-serious avatar, keep on luring the fans year after year? Can the IPTL keep the ticket prices highly priced and still hope to popularise the sport in India?

As a player and as an entrepreneur, Bhupathi has been quite smart. He will definitely ponder over these issues when he prepares to lead the IPTL in its future journey.