My piece for The New Yorker online on the International Premier Tennis League and what it means for the future of the sport.
It’s late on a New Delhi evening, and the Singapore Slammers are in a tough spot. They’re already at the bottom of their league, and now they’re down 4-0 against the Indian Aces. In a desperate bid to salvage their standing, they make a substitution. The Aces counter by calling a Happiness Power Point, which counts for double. The Aces win the point. The crowd erupts, the cheerleaders take their positions, and the stadium reverberates with loud bhangra.
Readers would be forgiven for thinking I was at a cricket or soccer—or maybe boxing—contest. In fact, I was at the third leg of the inaugural edition of the International Premier Tennis League (I.P.T.L.), a team-based competition spread over two and a half weeks across four Asian cities (Manila, Singapore, Delhi, Dubai). Among the players I saw in Delhi: Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Pete Sampras, Tomas Berdych, and Ana Ivanovic. Andy Murray, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Andre Agassi, and many, many more current and former stars also participated in the league.
The I.P.T.L. is the brainchild of Mahesh Bhupathi, a former Indian doubles player (he won twelve Grand Slam titles in his career) turned businessman. It is designed, in Bhupathi’s words, to bring “NBA style entertainment” to tennis fans. It’s glitzy and more than a little gaudy, with a heady mix of celebrity and big money. Bollywood stars rub shoulders with some of the best tennis players in the world (and, arguably, in history). The sums of money involved are astronomical. Word has it that the top stars are being paid more than a million dollars a day. The total amount of prize money involved is said to be close to thirty million dollars.
Like many tennis fans, I approached the league with a certain trepidation. Flying into Delhi on a smoggy weekend afternoon, I was, of course, excited to see the matches (in particular, the mouth-watering prospect of a Federer-Djokovic showdown on the final night). But I was at best ambivalent about some of the “innovations” the I.P.T.L. has introduced to make the game faster and more TV-friendly. These include five-minute shootouts instead of tiebreakers; the aforementioned Happiness Power Points that allow a team to play for double points once a set; and the elimination of lets on service (serves that clip the net are kept in play). Then there’s the noise: an unruly, irreverent crowd; an obnoxious beep that goes off when players take more than twenty seconds to begin a play; thumping music between points.
The players also seemed a little ambivalent about some of these changes. Agassi said he was “shockingly uncomfortable” with the format, and Federer characterized some of the rules as “strange” and “unnecessary” (both seemed pleased, over all, with the league). Perhaps most significant is the skepticism emanating from the reigning tennis establishment—the officials and the authorities who effectively control the game. One prominent tournament director said earlier this year that the league had “no sporting interest and no credibility.” Chris Kermode, the president of the Association of Tennis Professionals, which controls much of the men’s tour, dismissed the league a couple of months ago as little more than “a series of glorified exhibitions.”
What appears to be in play is a struggle for influence over the future of tennis—and, of course, over the huge sums of money involved. For all its success in recent years, tennis is in fact a sport in transition; no one quite knows where it’s heading. There is, first, the impending retirement (or at least aging) of the men’s biggest stars, that marvellous trifecta of Federer-Nadal-Djokovic that has dominated for more than a decade. Players have been complaining increasingly vociferously about the way that prize money is distributed (the men’s tour narrowly averted a boycott of the Grand Slams last year). They also rail against the rigorous schedules that they are expected to play, which, they say, take a heavy toll on their bodies (cynics were quick to point to the alacrity with which they sacrificed their off-season to play in the lucrative I.P.T.L.).
The I.P.T.L. can be seen partly as a response to this moment of uncertainty; it is but the most high-profile in a series of experiments tinkering with the sport. It’s no coincidence either that many of these experiments are emerging in Asia, a region awash in sports fans and money yet that is scandalously underserved by the current tennis circuit (none of the four Grand Slams, and only one of the nine élite Masters 1000 series tournaments on the men’s tour, is played in Asia). Part of Bhupathi’s stated purpose in creating the I.P.T.L. has been to spur the development of tennis in new geographies. The jury’s still out on whether he’ll succeed, but it’s entirely plausible that the center of gravity in tennis—as in virtually every other aspect of the world—is shifting toward Asia. For better or for worse, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the I.P.T.L.’s changes seep into the tennis mainstream in coming years.
Watching the I.P.T.L. last weekend in Delhi, I found myself returning again and again to that prospect, trying to figure out how I would feel about it. Tennis is a traditional sport (its most prestigious tournament, Wimbledon, still has an all-whites dress code), and many serious players and fans—I count myself among them—remain somewhat purist in their appreciation of the game. We’ve already had to endure recent changes like the proliferation of no-ad scoring and video-replay challenges. I can’t say I feel particularly excited about Power Points or shootouts. I’ll take the hush of a traditional tennis audience any day over the unruly and occasionally uncouth crowds in Delhi (“Double fault! Double fault!” the man behind me shouted virtually every time Djokovic stepped up to serve against Federer).
But I can’t deny that the league possesses a certain easy charm that, gradually if not entirely, grew on me over the weekend. There was, for one thing, the sheer novelty of watching all those stars assembled in the same place. I couldn’t take my eyes off Federer and Sampras, who were huddled together on a bench—what were they talking about?—and my eyes kept following Sampras as he sauntered over to Boris Becker, who stood a few metres in front of Goran Ivanisevic (Becker wasn’t playing; he was part of the audience). Gaël Monfils danced with the Indian star Sania Mirza. Ivanovic laughed a lot, wrapped her arms around the French player Fabrice Santoro, and at one point broke into a fake bow to mark her awe at a particularly impressive Federer overhead. (Federer edged Djokovic in the final match of the Delhi leg—an effort that helped his team, the Indian Aces, to win the over-all event in Dubai a few days later.)
This was sheer entertainment, of course, just cheap celebrity watching. It certainly lacked the intensity of a Wimbledon final (or even, truth be told, of the club matches I play a couple of times a week). But I think that’s part of the point. Tennis is an amazing sport, but even its biggest fans would be hard-pressed to say that it is a fun sport. Agassi called tennis “the loneliest sport” in his autobiography; he compared it to “solitary confinement.” Few things in life are as nerve-wracking as going for a second serve at, say, 30-40, 4-5. There’s nothing quite as miserable as netting an easy volley on match point, or as watching yourself—helplessly, as if from the outside—fritter away a lead.
The I.P.T.L. replaces all this anguish with a flurry of high-fives, dancing, hugging, and smiling. The loneliness is eased by team camaraderie. There’s no doubt that, in diminishing the sport’s intensity, the I.P.T.L. is also diminishing its beauty; paradoxically, it may be making the sport more enjoyable, and more accessible to new generations and geographies.
I suppose that tennis must inevitably succumb, like everything else, to the commercialization and simplification of our times. This makes me a little sad. But I have to acknowledge that it might be good for the game. Federer described the I.P.T.L. as “crazy but good fun.” I left Delhi feeling that there may be a certain method in the madness.