Fate of IPTL in UAE’s court of public opinion

Ahead of the International Premier Tennis League’s final leg, which starts in Dubai on Thursday, Gary Meenaghan explores whether the unconventional competition has a place in the sport’s long-term future.
Novak Djokovic will lead the UAE Royals in Dubai from Thursday, but the question is whether fans in the country will accept IPTL's formula. Clive Brunskill / Getty Images
Novak Djokovic will lead the UAE Royals in Dubai from Thursday, but the question is whether fans in the country will accept IPTL's formula. Clive Brunskill / Getty Images

The International Premier Tennis League has been called “a gimmick”, and it has been called “game-changing”. The ever-diplomatic Roger Federer even recently managed to compliment and criticise the league simultaneously when he called it “crazy but fun”.

Starting on Thursday, UAE residents will get to make up their own minds. Will the IPTL sink or swim?

Your guide to the IPTL in Dubai.

If that is the question at this weekend’s three-day season finale, the choice of host venue could hardly be more fitting. The Hamdan Sports Complex on the outskirts of Dubai is more renowned for hosting Fina swimming and diving events than world-class tennis, be it elaborate exhibitions or otherwise.

However, following an impressive makeover that involved draining the two pools, laying a basketball court on top and unfurling a state-of-the-art blue Premier court surface, the venue yesterday looked resplendent and ready to host some of the highest-profile players in the game. Its capacity has been slightly reduced from 10,000 to 8,000, but around 650 seats have been constructed around the court to bring fans closer to the action.

The four teams from four cities – Manila, Delhi, Singapore and Dubai – each have squads of seven or eight players. Each team is contracted ty bring six players to a tournament, with the home team obligated to bring its icon players.

That means the UAE Royals will be represented in Dubai by both world No 1 Novak Djokovic and former women’s world No 1 Caroline Wozniacki.

Federer, who lives in the emirate and is currently in the city, is not scheduled to take part, while Andy Murray, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Andre Agassi have also not made the journey.

Organisers were quick to highlight that previous tournaments have seen players make unscheduled appearances.

“We didn’t know that Roger wanted to play mixed doubles in Delhi or that Novak wanted to play on Day 2, but that just shows the enthusiasm the players have for the league,” said Eric Gottschalk, the IPTL’s chief operations officer.

“They turned up, saw the atmosphere and said they wanted to play. That’s testament to what we are building here.”

The 24 players who are scheduled to appear – and that includes Pete Sampras, Ana Ivanovic, Sania Mirza, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Goran Ivanisevic – will compete over the next three days in a bid to be crowned winners of the inaugural league.

The Indian Aces lead the standings, but three teams are still capable of finishing the season on Saturday as champions.

Sampras, a 14-time grand slam winner, retired from the ATP Tour in 2003 but was signed up by the Indian Aces franchise as their icon player during last year’s draft. He is making his first visit to the UAE and joked last night that he has “never played on a swimming pool before”.

“It’s obviously different rules and you have got to be prepared from the first point on – I learnt that the hard way,” said Sampras, who lost 6-2 to Pat Rafter in Delhi on Saturday.

“It’s a different atmosphere to what I am used to. To have your whole team and your owner on the bench when you are playing puts a bit of pressure on you. But it’s fun, everyone is into it – and it’s competitive.”

The competitiveness of the league is what will determine whether the IPTL is a long-term success. Morgan Menahem, the league’s chief executive, is quick to stress that although there may be smiles and jokes – and jeering when the opposition double fault – the results matter.

“We have seen such camaraderie between the players, which is unusual on the tour,” Menahem said.

“They have dinner together, discuss strategy together, they take it seriously. This is not just fun for them, even though it is a fun atmosphere. You will see, when their team wins a point, the players clear the bench and jump up and down cheering. They are really into it.”

John-Laffnie De Jager, coach of the UAE Royals, said he had no doubts regarding the level of competition involved this weekend.

“It’s a format that has created lot of atmosphere fun and excitement, but also the guys want to play,” he said.

“Anybody who saw the set between Federer and Djokovic in Delhi saw that. It was sick. Anybody who thinks this is an exhibition is wrong.”

Tennis fans in Dubai can determine that for themselves from Thursday. Tickets are limited but available at the door.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

Follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SprtNationalUAE

Published: December 11, 2014 04:00 AM

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