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| Updated on: Mar 29, 2014
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Later this year, an IPL-style tennis league that has snagged top-notch players hopes to win over its detractors

It’s often amusing to note how most upcoming leagues involving franchise teams earn the ‘IPL-style’ tag. Despite all the glorious controversies courted by that cricket tournament, the label is attached to these sporting events nonchalantly. It seems rather counterintuitive. If anything, these leagues must be advised to step away from the murky shadows that trail the IPL.

The more obvious objection to placing the IPL badge on the lapel is that such comparisons often seek a simplification that doesn’t exist. The Indian Badminton League or Hockey India League doesn’t match the revenues or popularity that IPL generates.

The latest tournament to be bitten by the IPL bug is the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL). Once again, it is anything but. Although a novel and contracted form of tennis will be witnessed during the tournament, its major components flatter to deceive. Four Asian cities — Mumbai, Bangkok, Singapore and Dubai — will be represented by some of the best former and current tennis players, starting November 28 to December 13 later this year.

Every match will see a best of five sets, where each set will be played by players across categories — men’s and women’s singles, men’s and mixed doubles, and men’s legends. The recently held player draft witnessed Mumbai’s acquisition of Rafael Nadal, Pete Sampras and Sania Mirza. Nadal will reportedly earn a million dollars per night.

In a departure from the spending caps enforced in other leagues, the franchises here had to spend a minimum of $4 million on each player. In all, $24 million have been splurged, as teams were required to draft at least six players each. None of them could sign more than 10. Although little is known about the sponsors as yet, reportedly, the majority investment in the Mumbai team was made by Hyderabad-based Prasad V Potluri. His company PVP Ventures also owns Hyderabad Hotshots in the Indian Badminton League.

Yet, for all the money and the presence of stars like Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Serena Williams, the tennis world hashardly been enraptured by the developments over the past few weeks. It doesn’t help that participating players have already expressed reservations over the tournament.

“The schedule is a little shorter these days, it gives the guys an opportunity to play a few exhibitions, make a few extra bucks. We all know they need it, so if someone’s dumb enough to pay them, they’d be dumb not to take it,” said Sampras recently, while also confirming that he intends to play only three matches. One couldn’t help but note the strong apprehension in the 14-time Grand Slam winner’s statement.

Andre Agassi, drafted by Singapore, has also displayed little interest in playing the whole tournament. He has even announced that he wouldn’t give his Thanksgiving dinner with the family a miss for IPTL. Money can’t replace love, after all, it seems! Moreover, Maria Sharapova and Li Na decided to skip the tournament as their agent Max Eisenbud was unconvinced of IPTL’s merits.

So, it’s tough to fall in love just yet with the IPTL. Originally meant to have six teams, it has ended up with four. Mahesh Bhupathi, the man who conceptualised the league and continues to be at the helm, hasn’t revealed any significant information on the financial viability of the project either.

These doubts have tinged the IPTL canvas with unseemly colours. Perhaps, one should have expected this low-key reception. For tennis doesn’t really need such a league. Cricket, badminton and hockey battled falling stadium attendances for years before they started organising such tournaments to draw in new spectators. Tennis, however, is yet to face such hurdles. Filling seats hasn’t been a problem for the sport.

Nor can one argue with good reason that the top players need to participate in the IPTL. The Federers and Nadals earn enough to fill their pockets, bags and cupboards. There’s little incentive for them to play in an exhibition tournament in Mumbai or Bangkok. An IPTL trophy is unlikely to feature prominently in their cabinet.

Yet, Nadal will be seen in action with his wibbly-wobbly knees at the inaugural season. For years, the Spaniard has been at the forefront of the campaign to shorten the playing calendar. He believed fewer tournaments would help lengthen careers. Hence, it is difficult to explain his presence in the IPTL. Surely, the 27-year-old should have skipped it. Yet, he’s there. So, money does talk. Or perhaps, Nadal has realised that he has only so much time left before his knees give up.

Unfortunately, for the IPTL, not everyone is afflicted with career-threatening fitness problems. Besides, all professional players would prefer to establish their legacy at the Grand Slams or other marquee competitions. A breezy night in Mumbai is not the desired setting for stars to deliver their best. Not yet, at least.

( Priyansh is a Senior Reporter with The Hindu )

Published on April 17, 2014

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