After a lot of work behind the scenes and a fair bit of politicking, no doubt, the Indian Premier Tennis League (IPTL) will begin to take proper shape this weekend when the player draft takes place in Dubai. The names of the top players involved will be revealed and, it’s hoped, the logistics of who plays when and where, and how much they will receive, will also become clear.
But while any new innovation in the sport has to be applauded, will the IPTL actually be good for tennis. And does it even matter if it’s not?
India’s Mahesh Bhupathi is the brains behind the project and there can be no doubt that he has worked enormously hard trying to get it off the ground. When the names of the cities were announced in Australia in January, it still seemed a little haphazard in its construction, too many ifs and maybes for most people’s liking. Players who initially said they were keen were then publicly reticent to talk specifics. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to see if it actually happens before getting behind it, in public at least.
Rafael Nadal, whose agent, Benito Perez-Barbadillo, is running the PR for the IPTL, will be on board, happy to mop up the cash after an auction in which he, as one of the biggest draws in the sport, if not the biggest, will be priced high. Novak Djokovic, almost certainly. But Roger Federer will not, realising, perhaps, that galavanting around Asia for a few weeks in December might not be the best preparation for the Australian Open. He’ll keep a watching brief. Maria Sharapova is another notable by her reticence. Neither she nor Federer needs the cash, let’s be honest.
When asked about the project last summer, Andy Murray said he would be interested but only if he was able to play for one week, in one city, avoiding the travel and fatigue that comes with it. It seems that the event will have a special category for players like Murray, who want to be a part of it but not for the duration.
The obvious question, though, is should players really be playing in December when they have moaned for years (the top players, at least) about the short off-season and how easy it is to get injured, in search of cash? Would they not be better off staying at home, resting and then training, in an effort to be 100 percent come January?
The top players have always complained the season is too long and then, when it was cut by three weeks a couple of years ago, went ahead and planned exhibitions anyway. It’s human nature and impossible to stop them, even though they, because they reach the finals most weekends, are risking the most in terms of injuries. The IPTL is the same thing. Players will play.
For the players (now) down the rankings like Lleyton Hewitt, who confirmed his commitment last month, it’s obviously going to be good money. Hewitt and others outside the top 10, play an average of two-to-three matches a week in a regular event, compared to the four-to-five for Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, who have dominated the men’s game in recent times. It’s not a hardship for him to play a few short sets here and there in December, and as he pointed out, the travel for an Australian, is not so tough. The senior players who are invited – the likes of John McEnroe – are bound to love it. It’s easy money for them, without the concern of being ultra-fit in time for the first grand slam of the year.
It remains to be seen how the TV rights go. While the IPL is massive in cricket, that’s because cricket is India’s most popular sport. Everyone loves it and the financial rewards follow. It’s hard to see tennis having the same pull as cricket. In fact, it’s impossible to see.
The bottom line, as ever, is cash. If owners of the teams put up enough cash, and if television pays enough to show it, in India and worldwide, people will play. Fans will come, too, if the product is good enough. The Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, and Li Na, will be popular, as will the top Indian doubles players. Whether it is a sell out in every match is doubtful.
The hope is that the biggest players in the game, the ones who sell it worldwide and are role models to millions of kids, at least consider the long-term good rather than the short-term gain.