A League of Its Own

Sania Mirza
Sania Mirza of India in Dubai in 2009. Jumana El Heloueh/Reuters

Professional tennis has not offered its public much new since the balls turned from white to yellow and an eccentric American called Jimmy Van Alen forced the introduction of the tie-break in the 1970s. But that is set to change in December, when the dream of recent Wimbledon doubles champion, Mahesh Bhupathi, becomes reality and the International Players Tennis League (IPTL) launches in four cities across Asia: Mumbai, Bangkok, Singapore and Dubai. Each city will field its own team of tennis stars and the list of names is impressive.

Mumbai’s team boasts the Spanish world tennis No 1, Rafael Nadal, as well as Pete Sampras (USA) and the young Indian star Sania Mirza. Britain’s Andy Murray has signed up for the Bangkok team along with the French player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Dubai has the Serbian champion Novak Djokovic as well as Swiss Martina Hingis, with her five Grand Slam singles titles. Playing for Singapore will be American champions Andre Agassi and Serena Williams, along with Australian Lleyton Hewitt. Matches will be best-of-five sets and, as well as men’s and women’s singles, there will be men’s and mixed doubles and a “men’s legends” tournament.

Breaking from the somewhat stuffy and formal traditions of the existing tournaments, IPTL will be more akin to the spirit of Twenty20 cricket: a short sharp contest celebrating big names, and with lively crowd participation encouraged. A new generation of fans beckons.

The connection to cricket’s Indian Premier League, which has set the standard for high-rolling sporting tournaments in Asia since its inception in 2008, became more apparent this month, when Sachin Tendulkar, the recently-retired ‘God’ of Indian cricket, announced that he had become part-owner of the Mumbai franchise. Serena Williams, Boris Becker and Carlos Moyá have also invested in the IPTL in the last few weeks.

Bhupathi drew inspiration for his concept from two sources: the IPL and World TeamTennis, the brainchild of Billie Jean King and her former husband, Larry King, back in the 1970s. Björn Borg, Ilie Năstase and Chris Evert signed up to that radical format, which deliberately flew in the face of tennis etiquette by encouraging crowds to yell in the middle of rallies and had cheerleaders leaping around at changeovers. It worked for a while and, after a hiatus, was brought back to life by the ever determined Billie Jean. WTT is now played between eight cities in the US over three weeks in the summer.

It is clear Bhupathi is adopting the WTT format and King smiles an old soldier’s smile when this is brought up: “We met with Mahesh and talked about a possible partnership but we couldn’t work anything out,” she says. “It’s clear they are using our format and I take that as a form of flattery. I wish them the best but I know how hard it is to start something new.”

The question on everyone’s lips as the tennis caravan moved into Europe for the clay court season this week was: “Will it work?”

Mark Ein has his doubts. The US entrepreneur’s WTT team, the Washington Kastles, has drawn excellent crowds to its riverside stadium, but he is surprised that an estimated sum of $25m is being laid out for an Asian tournament. It’s an area of the world that has yet to embrace tennis in large numbers.

“I might invest because I really believe in the team format,” says Ein. “But $25m is an awful lot of money for a kick-off venture. They seem to have taken the plunge with huge stars, paying them huge money without any concrete evidence it will work.”

Butch Buchholz, a former CEO of the Association of Tennis Professionals, is also cautious. Buchholz built the world’s fifth largest tournament out of a rubbish dump on Key Biscayne in Miami, an event today known as the Sony Open.

“Attempts to create entities outside the mainstream of the game, historically, have not lasted,” Buchholz says. “World TeamTennis collapsed after a few years of success before Billie Jean revived it. Even Lamar Hunt’s World Championship Tennis, which was fully backed financially and superbly presented, went under after being buffeted by the game’s politics in the 1980s. The stars have really got to show up and perform to prevent people thinking this league is not just a series of year-end exhibitions.”

One Asian-based sports consultant with a long history of involvement in the region did not want to go on the record with his scepticism: “Twenty20 cricket only worked because each team had local players who drew the crowds,” he says. “Tendulkar had to show up for Mumbai to succeed. If Rafa Nadal plays and plays properly, then maybe. But, frankly, I think the whole thing is flawed.”

The players who have signed up disagree. Murray has called the idea “fantastic” while former Wimbledon finalist, Tomáš Berdych, who has been drafted on the Singapore team, says: “It’s something different, something exciting. All year we just play tournament after tournament, apart from Davis Cup, but this offers a chance to be part of a team. I can’t wait to share a locker room with someone like Andre Agassi.”

Among the list of greats, Roger Federer is a significant absentee but not a critical one. “I just want to see it get off the ground,” says the Swiss champion, who owns a home in Dubai. “I hope it’s going to be successful. Who knows what’s possible because there is definite potential in the Asian market.”

Who knows, indeed. There are still details to be fixed and funds to be found – there is a question mark over Bangkok, as a location, because of recent political unrest, so Murray might find himself playing in Manila or Hong Kong, two possible alternatives. But the object, as Bhupathi says, is to find a new audience for the game. If his gamble comes off, tennis will have won.