Last weekend, the IPTL (International Premier Tennis League) celebrated the first stop of its inaugural season.The fairly familiar format features star-studded teams from based in Manila, Dehli, Dubai, and Singapore; each of the cities will host the league for three days. The competition has sparked praise and criticism from across the board. Tonight, The Tennis Island team comes together to weigh in on the first few days of this “new” event.
David Kane: While we’re certainly used to various and sundry exhibitions to pad the immediate off-season, the IPTL has been, by far, the most organized effort the tennis world has seen. Featuring a lot of the format typically seen in Billie Jean King’s World Team Tennis, the IPTL has been seen as the Asian audience’s answer, all in the efforts of growing the game in these highly lucrative venues. What do you guys think of some the changes from regular tennis and how has that enhanced the viewing process?
René Denfeld: Well, Maria Sharapova found herself broken by the IPTL’s shot clock. How do we all feel about that?
Andrew Eccles: I think I’m going to need some help seeing the downside of the shot clock. The rule is already in place – although not enforced with any notable consistency – so I think adding in the stop clock can only make things clearer. If the rule is made stricter, where you go over and lose your first serve and you lose the point on the second offense, I think that can only be a good thing in terms of rule enforcement. It should be treated like a fault. The clock runs out; you’ve missed the serve.
RD: I really dislike adding the element of sound to that, though; to me, it would be terribly distracting. I would be an absolute liar, however, if I said it wouldn’t be amusing to see Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic try! First and foremost, though, I want the rules to be enforced correctly by the umpires – not just once in a blue moon for a player clocking an average of 29 seconds between serves. Enough with the lenience and soft warnings.
AE: I don’t know if this is just because I’m sick of seeing players look so furious with an umpire for giving them time warnings, but if a distracting noise is what it’s going to take to get this rule enforced properly, then I say SOUND THE ALARM. Maybe it will make the players more aware that it’s them going over the time and breaking the rule, it’s not some kind of personal attack from the umpire. As I said earlier, I have feelings about this.
Jeff Donaldson: I vote that the shot clock noise should adopt that painfully annoying bass-drop sound from Nicki Minaj’s Grammy-snubbed, generation-defining pop anthem “Pound the Alarm.”
But in all seriousness, I think the shot clock idea is interesting and even fun to play with during this “post-season exhibition season,” but still impractical for the regular season, when points and money are on the line. What if players participate in a rally of Monfils-Simonian length? This is where the subjective discretion of umpires is important. If applause for a point of maybe Nadal-Djokovician intensity lasts for 20 seconds, is it fair to only give them 10 more seconds before an annoying beep (or “Pound the Alarm” sample) occurs?
DK: Going with Jeff on this one; a shot clock is a perfectly cartoonish element to throw into an exhibition. At the end of the day, the atmosphere is meant to be raucous and the fans should be getting involved as much as they can; a shot clock certainly helps aid in that endeavor. Whether there’s an implication about a shot clock in every day matches, I thought the issue was already soundly put to bed – by yours truly, no less.
Victoria Chiesa: We all know how I feel about a shot clock. I have yet to see a convincing argument that implementing one will lead to the elimination of player/umpire disputes about the issue. At the end of the day, you’re still relying on umpires, except they’re now judging something different: when to start the clock. People may argue that implementing a shot clock would eliminate ambiguity, but I don’t buy it. What’s going to stop a player from arguing that an umpire should’ve given them more time after a lengthy rally and started the clock later?
DK: Speak on it.
VC: There are certainly a lot of talking points for the IPTL, and it seems as though they’ve been thrust upon us all at once. Beginning with the general structure of it, I find the cross-continental approach to be intriguing. It seems as though they’ve really committed to the idea of bringing the sport, however much we can call this format “the sport,” to cities where it doesn’t have a long history. We’ve seen the success of the debut WTA Finals in Singapore, and the joint event in Dubai, and now these cities have also been given IPTL teams. It’s nice to see that tennis has gained some traction in those cities. I do wonder, though, if some of these convoluted rules are going to hinder the development in other areas in the short term. I’ve read the ITF Rules of Tennis cover-to-cover, and I can tell you that the phrase “Happiness Power Point” does not make an appearance. Anywhere.
DK: I always thought “power points” were for presentations, but IPTL has shattered that notion in how they’ve been implicated in their matches. Win one point, and you get one free. What do you guys think of those?
AE: They shouldn’t be called “Happiness Power Points” because that did make me think one of the teams had used a PowerPoint presentation about happiness to motivate themselves, and then I felt pretty stupid when I found out the truth.
RD: It is the most gimmicky rule of them all and seems like something you’d expect from Mario Tennis. With this format having a deciding point at deuce, you can basically throw the towel in when you’re down 30-40 when receiving and just get a free break point. WHAT LUNACY IS THAT? Then again, this is an exhibition that is meant to be fun first and foremost.
AE: I don’t care for them. I don’t understand why a player should be allowed to decide which points they’d like to be more important. So many points gain heightened importance organically over the course of a match, which is one of the joys of the sport for a spectator, and really drives the competitive rhythm. I think this takes away from that.
RD: Also, that five minute shoot-out at the end is a terrible idea, right?
AE: It’s brutal, I love it. I’m all for brutally unfair rules that will be hilarious when applied to things like Alizé Cornet matches.
RD: That is a pretty valid argument for its cause, it must be said. But other than that, it just goes against everything that is good about this sport, where players are forced to give it their all until the last point. I’m used to and tired of seeing time play in football – but in tennis?
AE: It does take away from the stress of the long, drawn out matches that players have to sweat out. And, I suppose, the five minute shootout could equal five minutes of hilarious Cornet drama, where a long form set can equal hours of French-brain fun. So I won’t argue to strongly on this one.
DK: Long before the IPTL kicked off its season, though, the parallels between it and Mylan World TeamTennis were uncomfortably uncanny. Billie Jean King’s “Little Engine that Could” has been trucking along in the middle of the schedule for decades; often featuring a smattering of top players, it has been quickly usurped in sheer number of recognizable names by IPTL, which has featured Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Andy Murray, and Roger Federer (who subbed in for an otherwise injured Rafael Nadal). Where some dismiss WTT, there has been a great deal of serious interest around IPTL, which has a much greater air of exhibition than its predecessor. Is the tennis world so shallow that a couple of megastars in one place is all it takes to make an exhibitional league relevant?
VC: I take issue with the fact that people seem to be responding positively to this, but bemoan that WTT is “dead.” Aren’t they essentially the same thing? People make the argument that players should be resting during the WTT season, in-between Wimbledon and the US Open Series, and they say the same thing about the off-season. How do we feel about that dynamic in a sport that doesn’t have that many breaks to begin with?
RD: There is no doubt that what we’re looking at is a WTT pastiche and that format has been dwindling over the years. Now we have the IPTL and several big names in the tennisverse declare it innovative and an interesting idea when it’s just riding on the coattails of King.
Jane Voigt: The fact that it’s a mix – current touring pros, challenger players, and legends – is pretty smart and interesting for fans.
DK: But that’s exactly the WTT format, only the proportions for IPTL have tipped far more in the direction of top pros. It’s fairly evil genius of them; each morning, social media was buzzing about Williams, or Ivanovic, or Murray and Sharapova mixed doubles. IPTL truly is providing something for everyone with its roster. With new blood like Venus Williams and Andy Roddick taking on partial ownership positions along with King, I’m optimistic that there is still life in WTT, a truly entertaining and important institution.
AE: To address the “they should be resting” conversation, which i’ve been seeing a lot of, I think it depends on what you see as a valuable training period. The off-season is generally less a resting time and more a training time anyway. I wonder if the players are better served having competitive play in formats they’re not used to, against a good mix of players, rather than isolated training? If they commit to it competitively, while not letting themselves get emotionally involved, it’s just baggage-free competition; that strikes me as valuable.
JD: I’m also just wondering how much money the IPTL is offering this wide variety of top players. It must be quite a large sum to get them to come halfway across the world, experience weekly jet lag, and minimize their rest/recovery/training time.
RD: I’m not particularly peeved at the fact that they’re are playing during their off-season. I mean, there’ve been several exhibition-series throughout December. And to be fair, the Manila event was fairly well received in terms of attendance and the players seem to have enjoyed themselves immensely. From what I’ve read, there’s quite some demand for tennis amongst the Pinoys but wouldn’t they be better served by a couple of challengers and an ATP 250 event rather than just spending millions on a three-day long exhibition? Though to be fair, the “growing the game” aspect is a completely different kettle of fish.
DK: For all its similarities to WTT, there’s one crucial difference. The IPTL doesn’t feature women’s doubles, where the former includes all the disciplines in tennis. Most of the top women have played doubles, so it’s strange how it should be absent; what do you guys think?
JV: No women’s doubles, for me, is troublesome. I hate to scream sexism, but it could apply.
AE: Here’s something that is bothering me about the format: why no women’s doubles? Would women’s doubles not be a better 5th rubber than legends? I feel like there’s a lot of quality sets being missed out on by excluding a full roster of women’s players. It does really shout out to me as a pretty huge missing piece; I was shocked when I saw the women had been excluded in that way.
RD: Totally agreed and a very good point. It’s a fairly #men heavy format and there are a couple of formidable female Asian doubles players, too. But unfortunately the men’s legends like Agassi and Rafter are probably a bigger drawing card than Peng Shuai and Chan Hao-Ching.
VC: Considering what a force Sania Mirza is, the absence of women’s doubles on the IPTL card is surprising to say the least. It would’ve been nice for her to get as much time as possible on court in front of her home fans when the IPTL goes to India from Dec. 6-8.
AE: Anything for more Errani in my life, frankly. I’d rather pay money to see current players at full fitness than to watch a legends match, which really does have much less bite to it. I suppose if we wanted things to be equal, and to keep the legends, then mixed doubles would be the logical tie to abandon. But then there would be no Sharapova-Murray, and I can’t imagine that world now. That was a darker world.
JV: This team format could work for only challenger-level players, which would be a spin-off idea. Sponsorship is definitely possible, too, because it’d open the door for companies with smaller promotional budgets. And, challenger players would make money…most important.
AE: On your point about making it challenger-only, Jane, I’m not convinced that making it an all-challenger event would be sustainable from a spectator point of view. Would anyone watch that? And with very few watching, would sponsors really emerge? Isn’t the draw of this event seeing exciting combinations of players on one team, particularly the marquee names like Serena, Murray etc? I have a few problems with that as a spin-off idea.
Also, in regards to the players having fun, I think this comes back to the question of their use of the off-season. They DO seem to be having fun, and if they can get some matches in while doing so (and make a little extra cash, draw a few new fans to the sport, etc.), then I think this is the perfect relaxation-training combination. It’s nice for spectators to see players so relaxed and just enjoying the game.
JV: I guess the ‘challenger-only’ spin-off would be a challenge to produce (no pun intended). However, if marketed correctly and located in an area hungry for sport entertainment I do think it could work on a smaller scale with sponsorship backing from smaller budgets, as I said. The players are worthy. It would be the producers and organizers’ job to create interest. Maybe I’m reaching for the stars here or being somewhat naive; however, I think it could work and bring attention to another segment of the game, just one that’s not as glamorous and lucrative.
VC: For the debut edition of the event, looking glamorous and being lucrative was probably the goal. I’m sure that Bhupathi and the rest of the executive team wanted to show that they’ve developed a product that’s not only innovative, but sustainable.
What are your thoughts on IPTL? Sound off in the comments!