By Mike McIntyre
Considering how tennis players often lament about the excruciatingly long tennis season on the ATP and WTA Tour's it may come as quite a surprise to see so many top level professionals opting to play tennis in December during their short off season. Yet here we are a mere two weeks until Christmas with superstar players like Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal playing in the relatively new International Premier Tennis League in Asia. With a format that resembles a combination of Davis and Fed Cup with Billie Jean King's World Team Tennis there is much to excite both the casual and the hardcore tennis fan.
Only in its second season of actual play, the IPTL was lauched in Spring of 2013 but did not begin play until November of 2014. Now sponsored by Coca-Cola, the league has franchises based in India, the Philippines, Singapore, Japan and the United Arab Emirates which appeals to a fan base that is hungry for more professional tennis and does not necessarily get to see it live as often as their counterpart nations in Europe and North America. The IPTL accurately boasts that it, "brings together current champions, tennis legends and upcoming talent in a format that's never been seen before." Play consists of five sets that are broken down into one set each of men's singles, women's singles, mixed doubles, men's doubles and men's legends play. The order in which the five sets are played is determined by the host team and there are several twists that bring a unique element of strategy into play. Coaches can for example decide to substitute a player (only once) in the middle of a set. Legends players can only be substituted for another legends player to prevent having someone like Roger Federer come in and demolish an aging champion. Each set is a first to 6 games affair with a first to 7 point tiebreak (called a shootout) played if the score reaches 5-5 in games. A "super shootout" is played if tied at 5-5 in men's singles play only and the first to reach 10 points is crowned the victor. Another interesting facet of the IPTL (and one that Nadal must loathe) is the shot clock. Players have a max of 20 seconds between points, 45 seconds during changeovers and a 3 minute break between sets. Any team that goes over the time limit is docked a point. Other than that it's top level tennis wrapped up in a fun team format that appeals to players and fans alike. After a round robin format between the five teams, the top two squads advance to play each other in the finals.
So why would tennis players sign-up to play in the IPTL after a long and physically punishing season that only ends in November? There is clearly a financial incentive to getting back on the court early which entices the big names who no-doubt are compensated at a higher level and also to second tier players who could use the extra payout to help subsidize their upcoming season on the pro tour. Another drawing card for players is that with only three weeks of tournaments in January before the first Grand Slam of the season in Melbourne the IPTL offers a jump-start on match play and a chance to shake off the rust from their brief hiatus. With most pros only entering one, perhaps two events in 2016 before the Australian Open, there are not a whole lot of matches to get fully up to speed. The only potential downfall with the IPTL is the risk of injury but this is a reality that all pros face whether it be in an exhibition match or back at home in practice. Milos Raonic just withdrew from further IPTL competition with back spasms but perhaps it is better to deal with something like this now and rehab in time for January.
Kudos must go out to the very professional manner in which the IPTL is marketing itself. Aside from big name sponsors, the league has a very sleek website and keeps a comprehensive list of statistics for any tennis junkies out there who want to keep tabs on their favorite players. I would also imagine that the ATP and WTA Tour's appreciate the free promotion of their players throughout the month of December and in an area of the world that they are seeking to increase their visibility.
In 2014 the Indian Aces were crowned the inaugural IPTL champions. So far this season with stops already completed in Kobe (Japan), Manila (Philippines) and New Delhi (India), it is again the Aces who are on top of the league with a 6-1 record at the moment. The Aces boast a strong lineup that includes Rafa Nadal, Gael Monfils, Sam Stosur, Aga Radwanska, Sania Mirza, Ivan Dodig, Rohan Bopanna and legend/magician Fabrice Santoro.The IPTL will next move to Dubai (UAE) from December 14-16 and then wrap-up in Kallang (Singapore) from December 18-20.
While the format is competitive it also allows the players to enjoy the experience in a way that is quite different from the solitude that they normally find themselves surrounded in as they travel from city to city on the professional tour. The co-ed, team environment allows these talented athletes the chance to rediscover the fun that comes along with playing tennis and get to know their fellow peers on a more social level as well. As Federer remarked after his 6-5 loss to Nadal this past weekend in New Delhi, "...to me it is serious tennis with the fun aspect of playing for your team." For fans around the world it provides another month of checking-in on their favorite players and for those fortunate enough to live in or travel to these five remarkable cities, the ability to watch live tennis during a time that is normally devoid of such action. I can't find anything wrong with that and I'm confident most of the tennis world would say the same thing. Enjoying a sneak-peek of the upcoming ATP and WTA tennis season is a most welcome Christmas time treat.