Sunday saw the player draft for the inaugural International Premier Tennis League and the likes of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Serena Williams were all included in the first batch of 28 players. The event is due to be played with four teams, across four cities, and organisers hope it will follow the success of cricket’s Indian Premier League, which has brought in millions of dollars to players and owners/administrators alike.
Indian doubles star Mahesh Bhupathi – a man who was briefly Murray’s agent – has been working furiously behind the scenes to get it up and running and organisers are confident it will happen. But with less than seven months to go until the event, it is already beset by problems and there has to be doubt as to whether it will happen, at least in the form it was planned, this year.
According to the official press release that accompanied the announcement of the 28 players who have been drafted into the four teams so far (each team can have a maximum of 10 players each), a total of $24 million was spent/pledged. However, with details of the finance very sketchy, it’s not exactly clear as to how and when players will be paid. Much of the payment will be linked to the sale of television rights, and as yet, details of those have also yet to be confirmed.
Some top players, including Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova and Li Na, have chosen not to play this year and Max Eisenbud, the agent for Sharapova and Li, was skeptical about its chances of happening, telling CNN last week: “I think it will be great for tennis if it can be pulled off. I just don’t see how it could ever work, but I hope I am wrong.”
Initially, the event had said it would be held in six cities. That figure was reduced to five, when a further announcement was made at the Australian Open. Now, it’s just four: Bangkok, Dubai, Mumbai and Singapore. Hardly encouraging, for a start.
Things got a bit worse on Monday when Andre Agassi, one of the former stars of the game who was included in the draft, told British reporters that he may not be able to play after all, because the dates he had been given did not match the ones he had said he would be available for.
“My deal is pretty simple, I cannot leave for more than 5 days including travel,” Agassi said. “It’s achievable for me to commit for three matches, but once you start talking about six or seven days, it’s too much of a price to pay missing out on my family, missing out on many business things I’m responsible for, so I agreed to December dates, agreed to be gone no more than five days including travel and somehow now it’s over Thanksgiving so we’re in the process of working out how that communication broke down.
“I learned that yesterday to my very big surprise. I don’t have all the facts and if that’s 100 percent accurate (but) we’re connecting with the organisers of the event to make sure nobody is left in the lurch.”
Agassi and Pete Sampras were in London for part of World Tennis Day, an event designed to increase participation in the sport around the world. The IPTL also claims it is about increasing interest in the game in Asia, but the obvious suspicion – one not removed by Agassi or Sampras, is that it is, rather simply, all about cash. Neither man knew anything about their team or its owner and neither was 100 percent sure it will actually happen.
Sampras said he was looking forward to playing but admitted he knew very little. “I don’t know the details of it,” he said. “I feel like I have committed to three matches. I’m not sure when or where yet, I believe in a couple of cities, maybe the Dubai, India part. But I think they’re still working on the schedule.
“It’s quite an endeavour these guys are trying to put together, having these four cities and putting up a lot of money to get some of the big guys. It’s a big financial commitment from some of the sponsors, and I hope it happens. I’m happy to play – I don’t play many, so if it’s worth my time then I’ll travel, but it’s a long way to go, it’s not a short flight to Dubai, from LA, so we’ll what happens.”
There has been some criticism of the leading players who have committed, that having moaned for years about a crowded, over-long schedule, they then rushed to grab the cash when lucrative exhibitions (or a lucrative exhibitions) came along. Both Agassi and Sampras admitted the criticism was valid but each said things were slightly different to their time, when the season ran until early December.
“The schedule’s a little shorter these days, gives the guys an opportunity to play a few exhibitions, make a few extra bucks,” Sampras said, before adding, to much laughter, “because we all know they need it. So if someone’s dumb enough to pay them, they’d be dumb not to take it. But we’ll see what happens with it. It’s a big opportunity for the guys, a big commitment and we’ll see if it all happens.”
Ivan Lendl added to the confusion, saying that he had not spoken to Murray about his commitment and Li Na explained that it was not in her schedule because it was too last-minute. The likes of Stan Wawrinka – the Australian Open champion – David Ferrer and Agnieszka Radwanska were not even drafted and the player line-up looks a little lop-sided.
It’s important to remember this is just an exhibition event – matches will be best-of-five sets, each in a different format, including men’s and women’s singles, men’s and mixed doubles and men’s legends – and that none of the players are likely to take it too seriously. It is basically just a hit and giggle, and pocket the cheque.
However, if they do not get paid what they were guaranteed – and this is the real fear – then things could get ugly.