By Abigail Hinto
(December 1, 2014) MANILA – There is no other word to describe it but surreal. After fitting tennis tournaments to my vacations in order to see live tennis, professional tennis and its superstars have finally come to me. I’ve seen and covered most of these players before, but seeing them introduced to the Manila crowd to raucous cheers was goose bumps-inducing. Andy Murray, Maria Sharapova, and Serena Williams, the current best of the world were actually playing on a tennis court in my city. Not to mention the legends Goran Ivanisevic, Carlos Moya and Patrick Rafter; exactly the players I followed when I first became a fan of the sport. Even when I finally got the opportunity to travel and watch tennis, I never imagined I would still get the chance to experience seeing my early favorites who are now long retired, play live.
I have to admit that I was initially skeptical when the concept of the International Premier Tennis League was introduced, as I would guess most tennis fans were. Would they really be able to get the players, especially the superstars on board? Tinkering with the rules seemed sacrilege to the long tradition of the sport. But then Manila got a franchise when IPTL had to pull out of Bangkok because of political unrest in that city, and I knew no matter what, I was going to be there.
Let me now say straight out that all the new rules introduced for the league, made to make the matches faster and therefore more conducive to television, are just secondary to the real tennis being played on court and the team atmosphere displayed. Yes, it was real tennis. While some players like Maria Sharapova first seemed undecided whether she would treat the game as exhibition or competition, with nary a shriek heard from her at first, probably the thought of an embarrassing loss against Kristina Mladenovic in her first match for her home team spurred her to increase her level of intensity and turn the match around. I also didn’t think we would have seen Mladenovic be unable to close out the set after being up two breaks if nerves weren’t involved. Ana Ivanovic played flawless tennis for her part against Sharapova and displayed her pleasure at her level of play with her trademark fist pumps and “ajdes.” Andy Murray was crazily retrieving balls all over the court to make-up for his poor level of shot making. Even the legends were groaning at missed shots and opportunities. As one hardcore tennis fan who attended the tournament expressed, she was indeed worried at first whether the players would take the matches seriously because she still believes the tournament is just an exhibition. But she ended up being satisfied with what she saw on court. Even the players themselves were surprised how everyone was treating the matches seriously. In the end, they are competitors at heart who want nothing more than to win. And playing for a team, which they very seldom get to do, increases that desire to be able to help put your team in a winning position. Stakes may be lower than playing on tour, but wins don’t necessarily mean less.
The team competition format also allowed for players to showcase not just their tennis but their personalities as well. Gael Monfils, to no one’s surprise shone in this kind of format. The fans embraced his goofiness and showmanship, but also marveled at his shot making. Mladenovic, who outside serious tennis fans most in the stadium have probably never heard of before continually gained fans as the three days got on. Treat Huey, who even though was the local boy most Filipinos have never seen play awed the crowd with Jo-Wilfred Tsonga once they finally gelled on the 2nd day. Goran Ivanisevic will always be willing to please a crowd. You see these players interacting with each other on the sidelines which you will never see just watching regular tour matches on tv. There’s Murray and Daniel Nestor who couldn’t stop talking and laughing. Same for Serena Williams and Daniela Hantuchova. Ivanovic and Sania Mirza were practically inseparable, and who could ever forget Ivanovic’s absence of dancing skills thanks to Monfils. Of course, there were the more silent and reticent types, but that’s showing their personalities too.
As a team competition, it was no surprise that the team that got on together from the get go won this leg of the league. The Indian Aces was clearly that team. Right off the bat, they were huddling during changeovers, cheering loudly for their teammates and just generally showed the most positive team spirit. The Aces’ players continually acknowledged this fact saying how much they’re having fun together. Not that the other teams didn’t embrace the team aspect of the competition, but Manila Mavericks for one took time to gel together, probably not helped by having the more introvert players while the Indian Aces had Monfils providing unbridled energy throughout.
Eventually, the Manila Mavericks were helped by relentless cheering from the home crowd urging them on until it paid off on the 3rd day when they finally won their last match. Mark Philippoussis, who subbed in for an injured Carlos Moya set the tone by winning the first set coming from behind against Patrick Rafter. Kirsten Flipkens, the home team’s other female player was showered loudly with support when she finally stepped up to play on the 3rd day. I didn’t think Andy Murray would have liked to lose all his matches in front of his home team so he was finally able to pull off two wins on the 3rd day. It was the most electric on that last day and last match as the whole stadium cheered louder and louder for the home team especially as the last set, the men’s singles between Murray and Nick Kyrgios got down to the wire and the last and longest rally of the set finished off the 5-minute shoot-out with a Kyrgios backhand to the net. It was the fitting end to 3 days of tennis fun and excitement.
The competition will probably continue to have its critics, but I for one was converted. That IPTL was able to bring all these tennis superstars to my country already makes it a winner in my book. But the overall experience just solidified that fact. I talked to several people, hardcore fans, casual fans, people who have never watched a tennis match in their life and they all came out of the experience with nothing but positive words to say, all saying that they will definitely be back next year to watch some more. For the casual fan, it was like watching tennis on steroids with the faster paced play. For the non-tennis fan who was greatly entertained, it was a marvel seeing how gorgeous all of the players looked. I asked another non-tennis fan whether she will watch tennis on TV if she chances upon it and she said that she already did the following day. Most of these people just got complimentary tickets, but their enjoyment showed that next time, they will already be willing to pay for the experience. And if the aim of the IPTL is to grow the fan base of the sport, in areas that are rarely or never served by the professional tours, then so far, it seems to have achieved its goal. A day after, and everyone is suffering from IPTL hangover.
Will IPTL supplant the tours? Most probably not. It’s still an exhibition in the mind of players and fans. Will it eventually be part of tennis’ history especially with some of its innovations as Carlos Moya says it could be? Too hard to tell after the first leg. I feel its success is highly dependent on the commitment it gets from the biggest superstars of tennis. It has managed that so far, will it continue to do so in the future? Is there a place for it in the current tennis landscape as founder Mahesh Bhupathi says it does as he summed up the Manila experience? Why not? We all got to see Andy Murray and Maria Sharapova play mixed doubles together to disastrous results all with smiles on their faces, the biggest cherry on top of this wonderful cake. And that alone should make the fans demand for the continued existence of the IPTL.