Founder and managing director Mahesh Bhupathi believes the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) still has a chance to return to Dubai next year but owners of the UAE Royals team will have to figure out a way to make it financially rewarding.
A compact third edition of the IPTL wrapped up in Hyderabad on Sunday after what had been a difficult time for the organisers.
Bhupathi explained how a string of problems stood in the league’s way in the build-up to its third season and resulted in a three-stop IPTL, compared to five last year, and a long list of high-profile absentees.
Dubai and Manila were axed from this year’s IPTL, while the team representing the Philippines did not take part.
Instead, four teams – champions Singapore Slammers, runners-up Indian Aces, UAE Royals and Japan Warriors – took part in the action from December 2-11 in Saitama, Singapore and Hyderabad.
Superstars who took part in previous editions but did not compete this month include Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Maria Sharapova, and Andy Murray.
The host city for the India leg was relocated from New Delhi to Hyderabad, with the official schedule and team rosters of the league made just eight days before the matches kicked off.
The late announcement had prompted rumours that the IPTL would not take place and Bhupathi admits it was touch and go there for a while.
“We had the challenges that we have had to deal with but our main goal was to make sure the season stayed afloat and we were able to achieve that,” Bhupathi told Sport360.
“Now there’s the opportunity to bounce back next year. I think what we’ve been through throughout the season this year, it would have been close to impossible (to stage the league) and yet we were able to get that done.”
A concept initially described by the likes of Djokovic as a “revolutionary” idea, the IPTL faced numerous roadblocks in 2016.
“We just had a bunch of different challenges that kept coming at periodic times, which was the most frustrating part,” admits Bhupathi.
“At the beginning we had an issue with one of the owners, the Japanese owner who was based out of Singapore, he went through financial difficulty so he wasn’t able to keep his commitments to us.
“Then when that went, we had some issues trying to move Manila to Kuala Lumpur and then finally the demonetisation of the currency in India, so every few months we felt like we were getting hit by something so finally we decided to downscale to three legs, and just get it done and keep it alive.”
The owners of the Dubai-based UAE Royals team, Neelesh Bhatnagar of NB Ventures, and Sachin Gadoya of Musafir.com, have had a rough time attracting attention and bringing in revenue during the first two seasons of the IPTL, despite the presence of big names like Federer, Djokovic and Murray.
This year, the UAE Royals participated in the league but Dubai did not host any matches and while the future remains uncertain regarding the return of the IPTL to the Emirates, Bhupathi is hoping the showpiece comes back to the Arabian Gulf.
“The Dubai owners are very supportive of everything,” said Bhupathi.
“They’ve been having their own challenges internally in Dubai with the revenues. You were there last year when we had Roger playing Andy and we had like 300 people in the stands.
“So that in itself is a different challenge to deal with because if the revenues don’t support the cost then everybody suffers.
“So they want to explore UAE of course if it makes sense for them financially. But if they have to move the franchise to another city, they are open to it. But personally obviously IPTL is based in Dubai so we’d like to see if we can figure out how to keep it there.”
He added: “I think in general Dubai, they just have so much going on all the time, events, concerts and plays, so much going on all the time so the crowd are kind of spoiled for choice and obviously the Dubai Open is the premium event over there which people have been used to for 25 years.
“So it’s tough to come in and create something else. It’ll take time. But time is also not a luxury at all times.”
The economic troubles in India forced Bhupathi to ask Federer and Williams not to participate this month as the league would have been unable to fulfil its financial commitment towards them.
The 42-year-old says decisions are currently being made regarding the format for next year’s edition and once such details have been settled, he will begin negotiations with all the top players to return.
Sticking to a shorter version of the IPTL remains a possibility.
“We will decide soon. But right now I think the players were happy with the fact that we did three cities, so the travel was cut down. But obviously every owner wants a weekend as well, so we’ll figure that out pretty soon,” said Bhupathi.
Some feel the IPTL’s targets were too high to begin with and that perhaps starting small and growing gradually should have been the way to go. But Bhupathi doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think we really want to spend time on hindsight. We started something that was never there before so obviously we didn’t know what right or wrong was. I think we’re definitely open to evolving. If it’s doing it in five or four or even one country only every year, we’re definitely open to evolving. I think it’s well-received by everybody; sponsors, broadcasters, and players and we want to keep it going. So evolving is definitely part of the growth going forward,” he explains.
While the IPTL relies on featuring the biggest names in the sport in order for it to succeed, Bhupathi says the goal is for the league to eventually have its own following, irrespective of the line-up.
“Obviously the first few years we need the players wearing their names in the front before we can change it to the names in the back. It’s a process and I’m not sure how long it’ll take but that’s the eventual goal,” he said.
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