Asian Tennis League could feature Djokovic, Murray and Serena Williams

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Keith Mitchell recently wrote in the ‘Guardian’ about proposals being mooted to establish a post-season Asian tennis league for Tour players (the International Tennis Premier League). The idea is to hold the event in the November/December months to be based in locations in the Middle East and the Indian Sub-Continent – something akin to cricket’s IPL.

The plans are currently at a very preliminary stage. No one has firmly signed up yet, but it is suggested that players of the calibre of Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Serena Williams have expressed some interest.

How feasible is such an idea? At one level, the idea of players on the Tour eager to add to their bank balances at the end of the season competing in the ‘out of season’ months, seems attractive and innovative. Tennis is already an almost ‘all-year round sport’, so adding a further two-period of competition to those who want to avail of it does not sound exceptional. This has to be balanced, however, (as rightly pointed out by Mitchell), by the need for those at the top of the game to have a sufficient recovery period after their long, punishing regular ten-month schedule. Individual calculations on the merits of the proposal will be made by the top Tour players and if their bodies tell them they can’t be ‘pushed’ any further in the dying months of each calendar year, then that’s that. The lure of prize money, on the other hand, may be enough of a spur to many of the lower earners on the Tour for them to compete. In  a commercially-based, sponsorship-driven such as is envisaged, however, it is the potential draw of the ‘big names’ that will dictate the feasibility and the success or failure of such an event.

So far, the idea is gathering a certain amount of steam, but has not yet gathered critical mass. Key sponsors clearly won’t commit until they first see the ‘whites of the eyes’ of a few top Tour players and the players will hold back until they see the full deal on offer – a case of joint choreography with all parties only likely to jump together.

If the cricket analogy is a possible template, the IPL has provided a helpful fillip to the game of cricket in the Sub-continent, attracting huge fan interest and commercial involvement. Tennis (so far at least) does not have anything like the same appeal in that part of the world, so realistically, any similar league should have to tailor carefully its ambitions to its potential market`.

That said, the proliferation of tennis Tour events in Asia and the Middle East in recent years indicates a growing interest in the game there. The economic and commercial growth of China and India and their surrounding economies also suggest a huge potential market of discretionary spending for a high-profile tennis event as that envisaged.

Taking the cricket analogy further, the proposal for events with one-set encounters bears strong similarity to cricket’s 20/20 format – an idea that once caused the die-hard afficianados of the game to blanch, but which now, owing to the format’s popularity is securely in the mainstream – might suggest that the one-set idea could catch on in time. Players and fans voting with their feet will be the ultimate arbiters of that one.

Would the top players in the game used to the majesty of best of five-set Grand Slam events, wish to subject themselves to a new, diminutive and as yet untried format? How much do they cherish these out of season months to rest, recoup and rebuild? It has to be remembered too that the year’s first Grand Slam event (the Australian) takes place in January, an event that all wish to be fresh for and the preparation for which might clash with League commitments.

Further on the question of R&R, the sport of rugby union provides some useful insights. Many in that sport have bemoaned the effects on players in terms of ‘wear and tear’ of the punishing match schedules most top players have to endure in an average season – mostly commercially driven. Rugby’s national leagues, European and Celtic leagues, international and Lions’ appearances all impose huge physical costs and early burn-out on the players. Is this the way tennis wants to go? Or like in earlier debates on the banning of Sunday trading in Britain, do the tennis authorities want to encourage maintaining an ‘off period’ when tennis takes a back seat briefly? Players only have a limited shelf-life.

I could see the great Dan Maskell turning in his grave at the thought of one-set matches, but as cricket’s 20/20 has demonstrated, the short, sharp event increasingly appeals to a public transfixed by instant entertainment – whatever about the finer points of the game. Three and five set matches usually ensure that quality prevails in the end – that can not always be guaranteed by a one-set format. However, if it is not the celebration of ‘quality’ which such events want to encourage, but rather commercial opportunities, then so be it.  That should become clear from the very outset.

It has to be said that what we know of the ITPL idea has a faint whiff of the 1970’s Packer cricket ‘circus’ about it, or even of the early days of the WCT, also during the 1970’s. This is not to damn the idea before it has taken off. Rather, a sensibly constructed series of events could indeed enhance the status and outreach of the sport. In a crowded sport market, tennis is wise to seek out innovative ways to retain and extend its viewing public. What is vital, however, is for the objectives and the motives to be made up-front and transparent from the beginning, so that the paying tennis public can make their own judgements on the merits. Let’s see how the proposal evolves over time.

Paul McElhinney

April 2013

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