Challenge to the IPTL (Philippine Star)

The International Premier Tennis League made Philippine sports history last year when it flew in 30 tennis legends for the inaugural run of this never-before-seen kind of tournament. The IPTL will once again play the Philippine leg at the Mall of Asia Arena fromDec. 6-8.Of course, the big news is that the world’s current number one player, Serena Williams, will play in the country for all three days of the tournament, which officially beginsDec. 2-4in Japan. From the Philippines, the matches continue in IndiaDec. 10-12, then play in the United Arab EmiratesDec. 14-16, then head to Singapore for final eliminationsDec. 18-19. The venue for the final matcheson Dec. 20has yet to be revealed.

All told, Serena and the Philippine Mavericks will be in a round-robin tournament against the Japan Warriors composed ofVasek Pospisil, Leander Paes, Daniela Hantuchova, Lucas Pouille, Kurumi Nara, Marat Safin the Indian Aces of Rafael Nadal, Agnieszka Radwanska, Sania Mirza, Gale Monfils, Rohan Bopanna, Fabrice Santoro, Ivan Dodig theUAE Royals which include Ana Ivanovic, Tomas Berdych, Kristina Mladenovic, Daniel Nestor and Goran Ivanisevic and the Singapore Slammers boasting of Nick Kurgios, Carlos Moya, Dustin Brown, Karolina Pliskova, Belinda Bencic and Marcelo Melo. The teams are a fascinating blend of current top 10 players, prodigies and legends.

The IPTL is gradually gaining respect as a new “team” event in professional tennis. The biggest advantage is that it brings this level of play to audiences that regularly do not get to see these players live. Obviously, the Asian venues are not sites of any Grand Slam tournaments, and very few established, big-money events are played in the region. The IPTL is an opportunity for the game to expand its fan base in these territories, especially the Philippines, which saw the sport hit a peak in the 1970 and late 1980’s. Since then, the main draws of the Davis Cup, and final rounds of the majors have been a dream so tantalizingly close, but yet just out of reach.

The IPTL is so painfully short because it is practically the only break the world’s top players have. Between playing, traveling, shooting advertisements and fulfilling personal appearances, it’s a miracle that this many of them have agreed to play in the first place. It is a wonder that Williams, who has even found time to appear in films like Adam Sandler’s “Pixels” and is poised to eclipse Steffi Graf’s record for most Grand Slam victories, had the time to play such a hectic event. For Nadal, whose ranking has slipped to eighth, it may be an opportunity to try new things in a relatively pressure-free environment.

The challenge to the IPTL is mainly one of perception. So far, it has overcome the initial criticism by some of the more snobbish tennis press as being a novelty event. The off-season competition is a chance tor the players to meet new fans, and experiment with new facets of their game. They won’t lose any points or rankings, can earn some good money, and will not face any real criticism from spectators who are happy just to have them within arm’s length for once. All told, the tournament is going to be a refreshing change of pace for the players, as well. Besides, who wouldn’t want to experience Filipino hospitality? Some of these players have never been to the country, and have only heard glowing stories from their peers.

The next goal is to keep the best players coming over. This poses two challenges. There are only so many top ten players out there, and not that many crack the highest rankings every year. What may result is a revolving-door experience for fans, wherein there are different faces on each team every year. After a while, the need to ensure that the players who make the sports headlines are the ones who do come over will mount. Fans will, in a way, have been spoiled, and will keep wanting top ten talent each year. Ironic, but that may be the case in the next three to five years.

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Also, the inclusion of up-and-coming players and legends of the game is a double-edged sword. On one hand it widens the audience from hardcore tennis aficionados to older, longer-term spectators who really know their stuff. But at the same time, the IPTL will need to educate newer fans on who some of these past players are. And what does that imply for the level of play? Though the older players are great at doubles, where some of the deterioration can be masked, will the world’s present best only play singles matches? We’ll have to see how that goes. But imagine the thrill of seeing your tennis idols in the flesh, regardless of the point in their careers.

Of course, there is always the possibility of injury, particularly to the players who are constantly in the finals of major events. But they have apparently analyzed the risk versus the reward, and are willing to take the chance with all the traveling they will do throughout December. At any rate, the only really long flights are to and from the UAE, which come toward the end of the tournament. The others are relatively short hops, and the time differences negligible or non-existent.

What is interesting to look at is the far-reaching benefit to having the games in this part of the world, where the sport is only really developing. A consistent showcase event like the IPTL, like billiards before it, will grow the fan base, spur the development of more players, and provide an incentive for youth to take up the sport. If the world’s best, whose calendars are already bursting with tennis commitments, can take this on, then it inspires others to match their level of commitment and love for the game. And that’s a good thing.