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Bring in the clowns: IPTL a circus that will ruin tennis

Finally, the circus has left the city of Delhi. The name of the circus: International Premier Tennis League (IPTL). Who were the jokers, you want to know. The answer: the spectators.

It was one big ride that the spectators were taken for, exploited for their weakness for tamasha, for their fondness to see stars in flesh and blood, for their knack of reducing every moment to mimic a slice from a masala Bollywood film.

 Bring in the clowns: IPTL a circus that will ruin tennis

Pete Sampras in action during the IPTL. Getty

They walked in numbers far beyond the numbers a Davis Cup match attracts, unaware that they were perhaps guinea pigs for tennis organisers and TV channel bosses. Many of them returned disappointed from the IPTL matches, but these are still early days. They are oblivious of the possible grand plan to alter the pleasure principle which has had them relish the sport of tennis over all these decades.

The reason for the disappointment of spectators, camouflaged behind indiscriminate screaming and vacuous sighs, lay in the wide chasm between the reality of IPTL tennis and the reality of television. We wanted the former greats, such as Pete Sampras, to play in accordance to our memory created through years of watching international tennis on TV. Unfortunately, as we all discovered, memory doesn’t age with time.

Remember the incredible serve-and-volley game of Sampras, tongue hanging out, those awesome crawling back from imminent defeat to victory, the seven Wimbledon titles he won, perpetually wrapped in the aura of invincibility that his opponents found forbidding. And so as he stood at the baseline of the court in Delhi’s indoor stadium, dressed in black, with spectators screaming, we settled for a walk down memory lane, believing it would be warm and romantic.

It was worse than watching a rock star whom you had first heard in school, and whose concert at 60 plus you are still pulled to out of fidelity to your memory. The rock star can lip-sync his old songs. Tennis doesn’t provide that option – the serve must not crash into the net, the rallies can’t be faked. Your memory of Sampras was soon transformed into nightmare, unable as he was to produce the aces he could at will in another time, which is what you remember of him from having watched his matches on TV for years.

But the IPTL wasn’t just about parading the superannuated superstars. It was also about getting into the circus ring those who straddle the tennis world of today – Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, for instance they were IPTL’s USP to woo us Indians, our chance to watch in action, in flesh and blood, the stars who have been heroes of many an epic battle. You couldn’t possibly miss out on them, could you?

They laughed and kidded around, but the intensity seemed simulated but for the one match in which they were pitted against each other.

But watching the Federer-Djokovic match was akin to reading an abridged version of a classic. No, it was, in fact, more like a Google preview of a book, a few pages to read for free, to provide you a glimpse into the author’s talent and his or her sweep. However, unlike the Google previews, you had to pay for the IPTL matches or call people influential enough to provide you passes.

Tennis is a popular spectator sport, draws large crowds, as we have seen so often on our TV. But TV viewership of the sport is in no way comparable to its popularity. The reason is that tennis isn’t time-bound – you can start the first match of the day on time, but you can never predict when it would end, in an hour or three, thus making it impossible to provide a precise schedule for the next one of the day

This unpredictability has an exciting charm for the spectator on the ground. He or she, quite obviously, is more interested in grueling battles across the net: the longer the game the more engrossing it is likely to be. The future, the other scheduled matches, are postponed. The present is riveting to him or her. And when the future arrives, when two other players take their positions on the court, the spectator hopes for yet another prolonged battle.

But such a structure isn’t tailored to lure the couch-potato. TV watching is built into the daily routine – a certain number of hours in the evening, after returning from office, or on holidays. In those few hours nobody is interested in gazing at two unknown faces slug out on the screen. The couch-potato is looking for heroes who can substitute those in soaps. But he or she has to wait for a Federer vs Djokovic match because lowly ranked players are unable to go in for the kill. Soon, it is time for bed, for the customary six-eight hours of sleep to negotiate the idiosyncrasies of the boss next day.

It seems the IPTL wants to undo the tennis as we know it today, infuse it with the predictability TV czars are comfortable with. So the matches start at a fixed hour, even the best get a set to play, the deuce is ejected to ensure points don’t keep getting exchanged, and shootouts or whatever evolved so that matches end at the appointed time, give or take a few minutes. It would enable TV channels to advertise the big matches involving stars and pull in commercials.

Undoubtedly, it is an abbreviated form of tennis suited to the dominant culture of abbreviations – abbreviated texts, abbreviated tennis! Old habits are difficult to break, particularly in those countries which have a rich tradition of tennis and whose people are accustomed to genuine tennis. For them, a one-set match would seem a cruel joke. They wouldn’t flock to it unless it is for charity.

This is why IPTL has showcased its abbreviated version of tennis in countries where people watch the sport on TV, but haven’t seen its stars off the screen. The result: Get Federer, Djokovic, Sampras, Goran Ivanisevic. Thrown in Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna to tap the pulse of patriotism, bring in Aamir Khan to provide the filmi touch. Play loud music, pump the crowd to scream, create the atmosphere which will have people to ask each other, as Delhiites are already asking each other, “Did you watch Federer play?”

IPTL is a circus, most likely mounted for TV, to hook couch-potatoes to the idiot box’s version of tennis.

(Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His book The Hour Before Dawn will be published by HarperCollins in December-end. )

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Updated Date: Dec 10, 2014 11:15:26 IST