INTERVIEW-Tennis-Top players 'intrigued' by IPTL - Bhupathi
PARIS May 26 (Reuters) - If Novak Djokovic is to be believed then Mahesh Bhupathi has lit the touchpaper for a revolution in tennis.
The Indian doubles specialist is the driving force behind the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL), launched earlier this week to great fanfare with a dazzling list of top-rank players already signed up.
World number one Djokovic will be joined in the inaugural edition, scheduled for December 2014, by 11-times grand slam winner Rafa Nadal and U.S. Open holder Andy Murray. Retired grand slam champions Pete Sampras and Carlos Moya will also take part.
Among the women, 15-times major winner Serena Williams and twice Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka will be the headline acts.
"The players are intrigued and willing to commit and I think we will bring a whole new set of fans to the sport, with a fast-paced entertaining short concept like this," Bhupathi told Reuters in an interview at the French Open in Paris.
The only notable absentees, for now, are Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer, but don't be fooled into thinking the Swiss is not behind the idea - he is.
Whether or not the league, that will take place in six as yet unspecified cities across Asia and will feature players drafted into teams to compete in one-set shootout tennis, soars into orbit or falls flat remains to be seen.
Bhupathi, however, is adamant about one thing - it will be a serious competition and not a glorified exhibition.
"That word is taboo," he said.
The format is fairly straightforward. The six franchises will bid for players at an auction that will take place in Melbourne around the time of next year's Australian Open.
Teams will then compete in men's and women's singles, men's and mixed doubles and a men's legends singles - one set per match, with no advantage scoring.
Djokovic calls the tournament a "revolutionary idea", Nadal says "it will be a big success for sure", while Williams described it as "like a dream come true".
The players talk about innovation but unsurprisingly there are also hefty financial incentives on offer to persuade them to extend their already-lengthy seasons through to the end of the calendar year.
All talk about burnout on the tour seems to have been silenced and replaced with hints that players could choose to miss other tournaments to rest their weary limbs.
"We cannot force anybody to play or not to play," Bhupathi rightly points out.
"Tennis has always been an open market. Even playing at Roland Garros is the option of a player. So we are creating something that we think is exciting."
Will it affect how players approach the tour schedule?
"It could," the 38-year-old added.
"Each player is different and they know their bodies themselves. They will take the breaks as and when they need to make sure they peak at the times they want to during the year."
Cities under consideration to run franchises include Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Jakarta, Manila, Bangalore, Calcutta, Doha and Dubai.
At the moment it is restricted solely to Asia but that could change if the concept takes off. Similarly the size and scale of the event could grow if everything goes to plan.
"We would like to spread it, ideally in the first year I don't want to have two teams in India, even if there is demand. We plan to start with six and grow over time," Bhupathi added.
Why tennis needs this league is an intriguing question. Team tennis already exists through the Davis Cup for men, Fed Cup for women and the Hopman Cup for mixed teams. Bhupathi is adamant that those competitions will not be overshadowed.
"I think that tennis has been in a place for many years without any change. Davis Cup and Fed Cup has always been a very exciting platform for players because it is such an individual sport and we get to play a team competition," he said.
"We love being part of a team. We all have our football favourites. We all have our basketball favourites. Here we are creating the opportunity for players to be part of a team and part of a community."
If the first step to success was getting the players on board then Bhupathi's league is well-placed.
Federer will not be involved due to other commitments but he likes the concept of broadening the game through Asia.
"It's nice to have another opportunity, and Asia is very strong," he told reporters after booking his spot in the second round at Roland Garros on Sunday.
"I went to play there quite often. That's why I think it's a very good idea."
The appeal of the growing Asian market seems to have caught the imagination. Lleyton Hewitt, who lost in five sets to Gilles Simon under cloudy Parisian skies, is another keen to give it a go.
"The Asia-Middle East market is massive for tennis," Hewitt told reporters.
"I would definitely look at it, absolutely. I enjoy playing in Asia anyway. I have a pretty big following there. My biggest sponsor is Japanese and I have had a lot of success in China and Japan in the past."
Whether or not the IPTL is set to turn the sport on its axis as Djokovic suggests is up for debate. Bhupathi is circumspect.
"We feel it is a great idea, and a lot of people feel it too," he said. "To see how it is accepted by TV and fans, though, is the most unpredictable element of it." (Additional reporting by Martyn Herman and Julien Pretot, editing by Pritha Sarkar)
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