Quick and quirky tennis league an acquired taste

Quick and quirky tennis league an acquired taste

Presumably there are defibrillators in working order at the Indoor Stadium. Soon they might be put to use. For traditionalists, whose tennis dreams are still in black and white, the IPTL is likely to cause a seizure.

This is tennis modified and music-fied, scarcely insipid and, perhaps one day, inspiring. This is tennis put in a blender and turned on high.

Tennis that's not interested in the past but only in making its own, glitzy history. Tennis that has a Happiness PowerPoint (which is worth two points), time-outs and a 20-second shot clock.

This is tennis played to a furious beat where Goran Ivanisevic, who knew a bit about fooling around, says "there's no time for fooling".

This isn't tennis' future for that would airily presume there's a problem with the present. This isn't tennis with nuance and unfolding stories, where character is examined and lungs tested. But this isn't tennis that can be shrugged off, mocked and dismissed.

Because this is smartly amputated tennis for a planet with an abbreviated attention span. One set per match. No advantage point at deuce. This is tennis - five contests finished in three hours - built for a Twitter world. Compressed and truncated. Lively and fun. Glib and provocative.

Then erased from memory.

This is tennis that isn't tasteless but more an acquired taste. Intriguing and even occasionally intense - but with a format that needs to be better explained to the crowd beforehand. This is tennis never quite approaching the classical - which was precisely the idea - but never entirely carefree.

This is an evening out to slap hands with stars and chug a beer. See Gael Monfils dance to a ball and then to music. Watch the new, wiry muscle of Nick Kyrgios and the familiar pigeon-toed walk of that old sage Andre Agassi.

Look at teammates, of both sexes, huddle, giggle, high-five, push each other. See colour yet also craft.

This is tennis in a tinkering, new world where fiddling with formats is the fashion. In a recent event, in an eight-lane pool, two swimmers raced each other head-to-head in a final. Like often with change, it takes some digesting.

Cricket has done it successfully with the Indian Premier League, but it was born of a generation's impatience with overlong five-day Tests.

Tennis, in its traditional form, is flourishing and so does it have room for this IPTL diversion? Agassi was clear: "The players love it." Added Serena Williams, who like everyone is on her off-season: "It's amazing preparation."

Cricket's league - annoying to those who tilt towards tradition like me - is raucous, controversial, popular, rich, but it works because it is competitive.

It is not a mere exhibition, not a mere show, not just some idle congregation of preening stars. As a former IPL team captain told me yesterday: "Winning and losing really matters to players." And this, eventually, will decide if the IPTL will endure.

This is tennis, right now, purely as a curiosity. The novelty of it - a fan I met had come for a first glimpse of Agassi - will wear off, but true competitiveness rarely does. Sport can be new, altered, redesigned.

Sport doesn't even need to have history - everything must start somewhere. But sport must have meaning beyond mere entertainment and business.

People will invest themselves in a league if they see players are emotionally invested. They will arrive armed with clappers to support a franchise only if players sweat for that franchise.

Of course, there isn't a Wimbledon trophy here to be taken. Nor ranking points to be grabbed. Nor even reputation to be burnished. But beyond mere fun, a crowd needs that little frisson of excitement that arrives with something on the line.

Last night there was enough of it, probably born of the competitive conditioning of professional athletes.

Kristina Mladenovic tossed her racket after her defeat. Ivanisevic insisted "everyone is playing serious". His student, Marin Cilic, was his echo: "No one likes to lose." Sport, they must know, matters only when it is real.

Tennis is a planetary sport, yet its roots are less firm in Asia. No Grand Slam event is held on this continent nor does anyone feel compelled to give us one.

The East has no substantial history, nor surfeit of stars, yet it has now arrived with an idea. It is an experiment, even a trial run.

It will not change tennis, but it might spark interest here, create awareness in a game, fuel a dream. It is a consequence even cynics cannot entirely disapprove of.

rohitb@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Dec 3, 2014.
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