Tennis tournaments rolled on in Dubai and Acapulco on Tuesday, but the locker
room chat was all about this coming weekend, when the International Premier
Tennis League has promised to stage its inaugural player auction in Dubai.
If all goes to plan, five teams – based in Hong Kong, Mumbai, Singapore,
Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur – will send their minions to the Oberoi Hotel armed
with minimum budgets of $4 million (£2.4 million) each.
In a format borrowed from cricket’s Indian Premier League, the teams will each
sign up a handful of players – men, women, and champions of yesteryear – for
an off-season event that has been scheduled to eat up the majority of
But who will commit, and where is the money coming from? At the moment the
IPTL’s creator, Mahesh Bhupathi, feels like one of those movie characters
who has 48 hours to save the planet. He might pull it off, but if he
succeeds, it will be by the skin of his teeth.
Bhupathi was due to sit down with Novak
Djokovic, one of his key targets, in Dubai on Tuesday. But the
leading players’ agents are all saying the same thing: firm details, whether
about the ownership of the teams or the sale of TV rights, have been hard to
come by. Much persuasion will be required over the next few days.
is understood to be the keenest member of the so-called “Big Four”, as well
as the most valuable property for Bhupathi to secure.
Sources suggest that he is being offered $1 million (£600,000) per night, to
play perhaps three of the eight matches. (According to the ground rules,
“marquee” players – those who have been world No 1 or won slams – are
entitled to pick and choose their appearances, while others are in it for
the three-week duration.)
Federer, by contrast, has never shown any interest in the project.
As for Djokovic and Andy
Murray, they have been weighing up their options.
Murray’s manager, Ugo Colombini, has spent the last few days with him in
Acapulco – where the Scot faced Pablo Andujar overnight – to coordinate
Several top-10 players of both genders are understood to have already signed
up. In order of ranking, Stan Wawrinka (No 3), Tomas Berdych (No 6) and
Richard Gasquet (No 9) among the men, and Agnieszka Radwanska (No 3),
Victoria Azarenka (No 4) and Caroline Wozniacki among the women (No 11).
But even these deals may be dependent on a certain sum being raised at
Sunday’s auction, and then produced in hard cash shortly afterwards.
Bhupathi has promised to deliver 40 per cent of the fees into bank accounts
within a month of the auction, and there are plenty of naysayers in the
tennis world whose reaction is ‘we’ll believe that when we see it’.
The next few days will be tense for everyone involved – players, agents and
promoters. There is a sense of bated breath within the tennis world as
everyone asks everyone else what they have heard.
For all the scepticism, most would be delighted if Bhupathi can fit the pieces
of his puzzle together in time for this winter, and not just because it
would represent a lucrative payday. As a radically different event, in an
underused part of the tennis world, the IPTL has undeniable potential.
Tennis’s great weakness is the sameness of its 11-month calendar, especially
now that the court surfaces are all playing like each other. The Bhupathi
model – which fills up the one month still available for entrepreneurs –
calls for each match to be played over five sets, as in a grand slam. The
difference is that one set will be contested in men’s singles, one in
women’s singles, one in men’s doubles and one in mixed doubles. If they all
cancel each other out, the tie could come down to the “legends”.
You might expect the Association of Tennis Professionals and Women’s Tennis
Association to be kicking up more of a fuss about a tournament that could
potentially accelerate burnout.
But then they are both players’ unions, at least partly. Any figurehead who
tried to shut down an earning opportunity like this one would be risking his
or her popularity among the ranks.
Of course, there is an irony in the way so many players have spent recent
years complaining about the length and arduousness of the regular season.
Nadal, indeed, has been the most vocal critic. “Things need to change,” he
said in 2009. “I believe the bad thing about the calendar is how it is made
and obligates you to play tournaments all year.”
But those players could reply that they spend December training like marines
in any case. What difference does it make whether that training happens in
Miami, say, or Hong Kong?
“If I go to play in it,” Murray said of the IPTL last year, “what I agreed to
is playing three nights in one place, so I’m not travelling around across
the whole of Asia in the space of a week. If I can go somewhere for one week
and set up a camp where it’s warm and there are good training conditions, if
I’m playing against the best players in the world, that’s the only thing
that is missing from Miami.”
The International Premier Tennis League explained
Mahesh Bhupathi is the instigator of the IPTL. He won five grand slam
doubles titles, four of them in partnership with fellow Indian Leander Paes,
before quitting the game last year to launch a business career.
Bhupathi was then signed up by Andy Murray to represent his business interests
for a while, before that relationship lapsed last winter. The project also
has a well-respected chief executive in Morgan Menahem, who manages
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Other allies include Justin Gimelstob (a players’
representative on the ATP board), Boris Becker (who is now Novak Djokovic’s
coach) and press spokesman Benito Perez-Barbadillo (who also works with
Eight matches between five city-based teams, played home and away, running
over three weeks from the end of November to late December. Each match is
intended to consist of five separate sets, contested in men’s singles,
women’s singles, men’s doubles, mixed doubles, and legends’ singles.
Sets are to be shorter than usual: no-ad scoring (in which the first point
after deuce decides each game) and a tie-break at 5-5. “It’s made for TV,
three to 3½ hours, so you know when it ends,” said Menahem in January.
Leading singles players who are believed to have signed: Stan Wawrinka,
Tomas Berdych, Richard Gasquet, Agnieszka Radwanska, Victoria Azarenka,
Leading singles players showing zero interest at present: Roger Federer, Maria
Leading singles players watching and waiting: Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray,