The mysterious IPTL (International Premier Tennis League) held their inaugural “draft” today behind closed walls in the money-rich mecca of Dubai. Among the draftees included a who’s who of pro tennis, both past and present: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams, Andy Murray, Pete Sampras, Patrick Rafter and Andre Agassi.
Overall, 28 players were selected by four teams (list below) for matches scheduled to be played between November 28th and December 20th starting this year.
Dubai: Novak Djokovic, Caroline Wozniacki, Martina Hingis, Goran Ivanisevic, Janko Tipsarevic, Malek Jazeri, Nenad Zimonjic
Mumbai: Rafael Nadal, Ana Ivanovic, Pete Sampras, Gael Monfils, Sania Mirza, Rohan Bopanna, Fabrice Santoro
Bangkok: Andy Murray, Victoria Azarenka, Carlos Moya, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Kirsten Flipkens, Daniel Nestor
Singapore: Tomas Berdych, Serena Williams, Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt, Patrick Rafter, Daniela Hantuchova, Bruno Soares, Nick Kyrgios
The circuit originally slotted for six teams, then five and has now settled after quietly Kuala Lumpur backed out in recent days with four cities which will play a series of eight home and away matches with the top “marquee” stars like Nadal able to pick and chose which matches he’ll play.
Of the 70 or so players initially “committed” to the league but left undrafted were Agnieszka Radwanksa, John Isner, Stanislas Wawrinka, Sloane Stephens, Richard Gasquet, Jelena Jankovic and Jerzy Janowicz.
Curiously, stars like Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova and Li Na (the latter two represented by the same agent), chose not to participate.
“I don’t know that much about it, to be honest,” Federer said Thursday in Dubai. “I wish I could tell you like exactly what’s going on. I don’t even know when it starts and everything. I just didn’t sign up because, you know, I didn’t want to. I just first wanted to see it get off the ground. I wanted them to put in the work. They already signed up with a lot of other guys. I hope it’s going to be successful, because there is definitely potential, you know, in the Asian market, so many people live here, a lot of tennis enthusiasts come from this part of the world. So I hope it’s going to be very successful. Who knows what’s possible.”
As if by right, players have long criticized the tours for the season being too long, too exhausting, too harsh. Yet once again those same players have signed up to extend their season playing this Asian exhibition series.
But can you really blame them?
The format is simple. Similar to World TeamTennis, played during the summer in the U.S., each “match” will consist of one no-ad set of men’s singles, women’s singles, mixed doubles, men’s doubles and if tied 2-2 then legends.
“I think it’s a fantastic concept if it happens. I hope and I believe it will,” Djokovic said earlier this week. “Most of the players have been informed about it for, you know, a long period of time. We have been discussing about eventual participation in the event, and it’s a very positive thing for the sport.
“It’s going to promote tennis in the Asian part of the world. That is a huge market. It’s a fun concept. It lets the players enjoy in the court and off the court together.”
Each team, per reports, is budgeted for minimum of $4M in player salaries, a figure that could climb as high as $10M.
According to reports Nadal has been offered $1 million per match, just to play one, maybe two sets of tennis. Djokovic, Agassi, Serena and Sampras will also command similar high dollar appearance fee amounts for travelling to Asia during the holidays. So for players naturally it is a “fantastic concept”.
Djokovic’s new coach, Boris Becker, just so happens to be a league co-founder along with Mahesh Bhupahti. Said Becker last month, “This is something that tennis needs. Back in my time we would have loved to have a series of tournaments in Asia, where the demand for world class tennis as an entertainment concept merges with the needs and wishes of millions of fans.”
But there are more questions than answers early on with IPTL:
Where’s the money coming from to pay these high priced stars?
How many matches, for example, will Nadal and Sampras or Murray and Agassi, really play together, if any?
Where will the players play? What venue? On what surface?
Who owns these “teams”?
Won’t flying an IPTL “team” from Dubai to Singapore be expensive? Djokovic won’t be flying coach either!
What happens to the undrafted players, are they the reserves when the stars opt out?
Are there global TV deals in place, sponsors, infrastructure?
What if a match gets hit by bad weather?
What will happen to those other December exo series like South America or Abu Dhabi? Maybe Federer will return or Nadal/Djokovic can play both?
And bigger picture, what will the response be, if any, from the ATP/WTA and even the ITF who will hold their Davis Cup finale the weekend before the league’s start? The tours have shortened their calenders to appease the players, but players can now make as much money in the lucrative off-season than during the regular season – Nadal doesn’t make $1M per match at any ATP/ITF event! And that won’t help the sport in the long run.
Imagine if this takes off, players get their money, and next year it’s even bigger, longer. Then what’s the motivation to even play tour events which don’t offer the same in terms of prize money?
“You come to a tennis tournament and you don’t know who you’re going to see because it’s all up in the air and you don’t know when it starts and when it finishes,” said IPTL CEO Morgan Menahan last month.
“With this, you’re going to know who’s going to play on that day, what time the matches start, what time the matches finishes and what we’re going to build around that. Because there’s going to be some outreach programmes for kids.
“Who says that in 10 years time we’re not going to have the Americas, Europe, Asia, and they play against each other and then we have a Grand Final in Abu Dhabi or in Dubai for example.”
The reality is, for now, if you live in Mumbai don’t get your hopes up of seeing Rafa or Sampras play just yet. Even though co-founder Bhupahti calls that city home, there appears to be a lot of work that still needs to be done to get this actually off the ground. As Djokovic reminded, “if it happens”.
In the end the players will ask one simple question: Show me the money! Because the IPTL is going to need a lot of it to work, and right now there doesn’t seem to be any. There’s not even a website!
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