<
>

IPTL season culminates in hope despite problems aplenty

play
'I still feel the pressure' - Ivanisevic (2:38)

Croatian tennis great Goran Ivanisevic talks about the IPTL and getting back in shape for the tournament. (2:38)

Carlos Moya and Mark Philippoussis are familiar combatants. They were born within months of each other in 1976. Their careers overlapped on the ATP tour. They shared the six matches they played against each other from 1997 to 2003 equally. Once, back in 1999, they played a bruising five-set final in Indian Wells that the big Australian won. Those memories are locked away from a more high-profile time in their lives, a time they can only look back on and reminisce about.

Except on this Sunday, as they bustled on to the court in Hyderabad, they had the chance to taste their rivalry again, if only for a fleeting few moments. Moya and Philippoussis were the opening act of the final of this season's International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) in Hyderabad. They would take each other on in the men's legends singles to get us going. As a prelude, a boisterous song-and-dance routine had done its bit to lift an arena peppered with a smallish crowd. Local girl Sania Mirza joined in as did Lara Dutta, the film-star wife of IPTL founder Mahesh Bhupathi, the former Indian doubles star. The fun had been had, but it was the games that would determine the course of this day.

This, the third season of the IPTL, had been uncertain and chaotic. On the eve of the final, Bhupathi admitted to ESPN that they had battled several challenges and that he had been "upset and embarrassed" at the minuscule ticket sales on their first-ever stopover in Hyderabad. Once the promise of Roger Federer and Serena Williams appearing evaporated, the tepid response was only to be expected. Yet, Bhupathi insisted the quality of tennis over the previous two legs in Tokyo and Singapore had been "amazing" and the final would be intensely competitive.

So back to our legends to put Bhupathi's claims to the test. Time away from the competitive grind has been kinder on Moya. He is resplendent in a bright orange shirt, flowing locks and a signature headband to hold them in place. He shows soon enough that he still commands the smarts with a racquet in hand. Philippoussis is dazzled as lobs clear him at the net, as Moya scrambles in the backcourt to retrieve balls and cunningly shimmies backhands behind him. The Aussie is sweating and panting even as the Spaniard is bubbling with the zest of a tyro.

The scoring pattern in the IPTL attaches value to every game won and Moya gives his team, the Singapore Slammers, an early advantage. 6-4. Philippoussis meanders back disconsolate to his bench at the end of the set. His team, the Indian Aces, have won both previous clashes against the Slammers this season, but this has been a stumbly start.

The construct of the IPTL inverses the usual routine of tennis. Team members crowd around the player in action at changeovers, they holler advice and encouragement from the sidelines, they create an all-for-one, one-for-all environment. Sania Mirza says "no one wants to lose" and let the rest of the team down. Goran Ivanisevic, who turns out for the UAE Royals, says the pressure one experiences in a setting such as the IPTL is "unique" as players are desperate not to be the reason for the team's defeat.

Nick Kyrgios, a forlorn outsider with well-documented disciplinary problems on the regular circuit, is a steam of energy on the Slammers bench. He rises at the end of each victorious point, he high-fives with great relish. For Kyrgios, turning up in the IPTL is to fulfill a sporting fantasy he had as a kid that tennis snatched away.

"I always look forward to the IPTL and the new faces on the team have been key," he says later. "You make new friends, you have this team spirit that the IPTL offers and we have had such a good chemistry. We have been supporting each other during the whole competition. I love team sports. I love watching and also playing. Everyone supported me this week and that makes it more fun, more enjoyable."

Bhupathi and his staff expect this whole-hearted thumbs-up from the players to count as a significant plus in their favour as they aim to emerge from the difficulties of this season. Over the course of the next few months, they will consider the reset needed to ensure the IPTL stays afloat. Financial considerations are paramount. A source in the management team admits significant losses have been accumulated this season. Player costs constitute nearly 70% of the expenditure but there is no way around that.

Without star power, attracting big audiences in arenas or sizable TV audiences will be a non-starter. While that is a non-negotiable, some of the questions the IPTL will grapple with before putting the next season together are the length of its schedule -- coming as it does at the back end of a long season -- the number of cities they must play in and whether to restrict themselves to what Bhupathi calls the "three biggest markets" in Asia. There is talk of expanding beyond the continent as well, though that is at a nascent stage for now. Within the leadership groups, conversations have already begun to ensure a greater number of big stars commit to the event in 2017.

The final provided a glimpse of the IPTL's potential to be a sporting competition of merit. An inspired Slammers outfit sizzled in the sets following Moya's victory over Philippoussis, including a surprisingly one-sided defeat handed out to the star Indian pairing of Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza in the mixed doubles by Marcelo Melo and Kiki Bertens. The final scoreline read 30-14, again unexpectedly lopsided. As the trophy went up in the hands of an elated Slammers outfit, the men and women behind the scenes heaved a visible sigh of relief.

At times in recent months, it hadn't seemed possible. But the IPTL has lived -- and it intends to fight another day.