Why the IPTL is more than just racquets and balls

Glitz, glamour and tennis augurs well for Indian tennis, and the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) has plenty of that

New Delhi: Rafael Nadal smiled throughout the 40-minute show at Delhi’s glitzy Sheraton Hotel, balancing a life of tennis and celebrity endorsements.

Someone screamed from the crowd: "I love you very much, Rafael." It was a man, not a woman. The fan had a cordless mike he had acquired, posing as a journalist, from the organisers. He screamed again: "I have my wife’s permission to say this to you. I love your game." This, to Nadal, made sense.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer
Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer

Sitting close, Bollywood star and part-time badminton player, Deepika Padukone, encouraged Nadal to drop questions that did not make sense, she herself had ignored one that questioned her preference for a date between Nadal and Roger Federer, counted among the world’s top blue chip players.

Nadal looked amused, not upset. He had done things like this many times before. In a special match before this year’s US Open, Nadal agreed to shed his Tommy Hilfiger suit if he lost points. But he did not strip, only sacrificing his shirt, tie and a pocket square.

A few miles away, in another event, sponsors asked Federer if he would agree to dance - just a few steps - with some of his supporters. Federer, who had a few racquets close to the stage, preferred slicing and lobbing balls across to his fans. "Can dance but won’t, not now," pleaded Federer, the sponsors eventually backed off.

"I think this (International Premier Tennis) league could take off in a big way, tennis is definitely growing," quipped Nadal. He actually meant India needed more homegrown and home-bred tennis stars to push the game to greater heights. Sania Mirza and Leander Paes are fading sparks, India needs a big push, a handful of big players and some real, big cash victories for the world to note.

"You see glamour in our lives. You must watch us practice (for hours) without the cameras. That makes us, not this stage," Nadal, once considered the most fierce player in the ATP circuit, was getting serious.

This year has not been great for Nadal. He fell to Tomas Berdych in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, lost in the quarter-finals at Roland Garros to Novak Djokovic and was shocked in the second round at Wimbledon by Dustin Brown.

Federer, who had finished a bowl of veggies, - unlike his favourite Chicken Tikka that a London eatery made him call his family signature dish - and was ready to discuss tennis and its ever growing magic like F1, European soccer, American soccer and basketball leagues. "Sports is both excitement and business in India, some of the Indian companies are spending their cash on truly international stars (he referred to the Hero group signing Tiger Woods as its brand ambassador). India is not only cricket."

Federer said he was lucky to have the chance to be the ambassador of such a great tennis push in India. "Everyone is doing their bit in their sport, trying hard to help push it across the world. I will also be one of the beneficiaries if tennis grows further."

Federer turned the spotlight on himself. A few months ago, he had lost the US Open finals to Novak Djokovic in their 42nd encounter, the match stretching over four enthralling sets. "We stand at 21 wins apiece in the rivalry," laughed Federer, 17 Grand Slam singles champion.

He said he deliberately dropped Stefan Edberg as his coach and has no plans to retire after the Rio Games, where he will turn 35. "I am in shape and feel physically fit. I have charted a life much beyond Rio, I will play throughout 2016. I have no definite dates to offer."

At the US Open, Federer - he last won when he was 28 - said he found himself fighting fit, was adventurous in many of his advances to the net (59 times, winning points 39 times) and had 23 chances to break but could convert four of them. Federer used his sneak-attack service return, SABR, or Sneak Attack By Roger by his worldwide fans, to good effect. He unleashed it eight times and won four points on it. But it was not enough. Djokovic, obviously the better player with age (28) on his side, won.

Now, Djokovic is seven titles short of him and catching up fast, Federer remembered the statistics but - almost immediately - said he has never let his age slow his game. "No, there are no serious hits to my concentration, I am totally calm," added Federer, often called The Swiss Gentleman by Boris Becker, Djokovic’s coach.

Faraway, at the Sheraton Hotel, Nadal now shared the dais with Padukone, Bollywood’s top actress who had already predicted Nadal will win the IPTL.

"Wish I had an astrologer who would tell me which matches to skip. I would then play on those I would win," laughed Nadal. 

Nadal knew he had been struggling, including the loss at the US Open, the last chance to win a major this year. But Nadal has had a row of success since he won his first French Open title in 2005.

But on stage, Nadal looked firm and determined. "I think it worked very well for me in some tournaments, I should have played better."

He did in the evening, beating Federer in a pulsating match watched by 18,000 plus people in the Capital.

The one who missed was the one who shared the dais with Nadal, Padukone. She, being a film star, had other assignments, and called up the sponsors: "I am just ten minutes away from the stadium, do I come?"

The organisers blundered, telling the film star not to come because Nadal was leading 3-1. But the game rose to greater heights, and Nadal eventually won 6-5.

And the pani puri moments with Federer and Nadal that followed after the match, thanks to Sania Mirza.

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