Of tennis, noise, Federer and Khan
The IPTL was part tennis, part blockbuster masala, and the crowds swooned for both
Is the Indian Premier Tennis League (IPTL) a glorified exhibition or does it have any claim on serious innovation?
The verdict is still out. On 7 December (Day 2 of the IPTL in India) at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Indoor stadium, Diksha Kalra, 20, was having a ball in the upper stands cheering loudly for France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of the Manila Mavericks. “What I like is this (IPTL) is very fast, but what I don’t like is that it is very, very fast.”
Kalra claims to be a purist at heart and prefers tennis as it is usually played. “I wouldn’t want this format to be adopted to the traditional game of tennis”, she adds. Like many in the stadium, Kalra says that IPTL, like it or hate it, gives many people an opportunity to see their favorite stars play. Harshad, 23, from Delhi and his friend Divya from Bengaluru said that they “don’t much care for the IPTL format”, but bought tickets only to watch Roger Federer. “We don’t like this quick tennis format. “The music is too loud and they play it between points; that’s perhaps why players don’t take it seriously”, says Divya.
But some are forgiving. Shravan, 26, from Bengaluru, who brought his Hyderabad-based mother Hemalata, 60 to watch the tournament couldn’t stop taking pictures of his favorite stars. And he didn’t much care about the complicated format, which he claims he eventually understood as play went along. “As long as tennis players keep visiting and playing in India, we’re fine with any format. They should just come here and play, that’s more important”, he says as his mother jumps with joy as Novak Djokovic hits a winner.
Roger Federer, the men’s number two player in the world, was the main attraction for fans.
Seated in a row located at the farthest end of the court, wearing a trademark Roger Federer cap and accompanied by her father, 23-year-old Anupama Iyer couldn’t contain her excitement as she watched the players practice before play started on 6 December.
“I have waited for 10 years to see Roger; my life’s dream is about to come true”, she said. Iyer and his father came from Nagpur to watch the IPTL. Iyer said that she has been following tennis since she was 13, and has tracked Federer’s career like a hawk. She rattled off scores of a few of his important matches—from his painful loss in the 2008 Wimbledon final to Rafael Nadal, to another of their 2008 faceoff where Nadal wiped out a huge 2-5 lead, twice, in the match that Nadal eventually won. Small wonder then that the largest cheer was reserved for Federer through the IPTL days.
Clocks ticking away
Speed is the crux of the tennis that the IPTL plays. Everything should finish in time to accommodate the television viewer, for which IPTL is ‘custom-made’ as the organizers put it. Twenty seconds are allowed between points. It doesn’t matter if the players are perspiring; no towels, just play. As soon as a point finishes, the player serving has to get ready to serve. Every time there’s a changeover, a minute and 5 seconds are given. Teams can take coaches’ time out, but there’s a time to consult as well; 1 minute 15 seconds. Tiebreaks are allowed for five minutes. The 20-second clock goes on even for the five-minute tie-breaker shootout. Forget toilet breaks during matches. Is there anything here that players would like to see getting adopted into mainstream tennis? Tsonga believes it’s the shot clock; the 20-second time between serves. “Some players take so long to get back to serving”, he said at a press conference on Day 1. But players at large felt IPTL and mainstream tennis are different.
“There’s no place for the IPTL format on the tour for now. These are very different rules; you can bend it, customize it. But I am very traditional, I like the mainstream tennis as we play it on the tour”, said Roger Federer at his press conference on Day 2.
But what about the noise?
Music is not new during tennis matches. Tournaments in the US play pop music during changeovers. Even the US Open, the last of the four grand slam titles on the tennis calendar, is known for playing music during changeovers.
IPTL took it to a new level. It had a live DJ that nudged people “to make some noise” and “get loud” even between points. Micromax Indian tennis stars Sania Mirza, Rohan Bopanna and Gael Monfils, on a high after having won their first tie on home soil (against Manila Mavericks) were speaking at the press conference. When I asked them if the noise disturbed their play, a smug Mirza shot back: “Wow, is that the first question you’re asking us? Are you serious? After a match like this?” Bopanna quickly took over and said they love music and “it really pumps us all up.” Mirza then said “We like dancing and music; we love the atmosphere, we don’t feel disturbed.” For Tsonga, whose team Manila Mavericks lost that tie, music was a distraction. “Yes, sometimes it’s a bit frustrating when things aren’t going the way you want on the court and there’s all this loud music. But it’s good for the fans, they seem to enjoy it and that’s why it works. We (the players) are just here to do our job and play to win”, he said.
Surprisingly though, the DJ was low-key during Federer’s matches. I wonder if that was Federer’s wish.
Of Bollywood, free tickets and Delhi
It doesn’t take long for Bollywood to make a grand entry into any sporting event these days. So stars like Aamir Khan (with child in tow), Akshay Kumar and Deepika Padukone, accompanied by Sunil Gavaskar, played a match on the centre court on Day 3. Khan paired up with Federer for a doubles game against Sania Mirza and Novak Djokovic. Khan played poorly, but sent the crowd into raptures everytime he hit a shot, even if it landed on the net. At one point, Federer and Djokovic jokingly sat on either sides of the net to lower it, just so that Khan could get the ball across. The audience loved every moment of it.
Not all were amused. Some members of the organizing team were fuming. An event manager told me later that it was a “mistake” to have the Bollywood match as the stars apparently had “a lot of protocol”. Their security had to be accommodated which was a nightmare.
A journalist asked Mahesh Bhupathi, former Indian doubles star and IPTL’s managing director about whether pricing of tickets would get “better and revised next year”, as many fans were heard complaining about the high ticket prices. For instance, some fans complained there was just a row separating the Rs3,000 seats from the Rs.12,000 ones. “Unfortunately, in Delhi, there is a culture of free tickets. You got to give away a lot of free tickets. We had to keep that in mind when we did the pricing. Unless you can give me a way out of this freebie business, I think ticket prices would remain more or less the same”, he said.
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