Roger Federer (left) and Sania Mirza during their mixed doubles match of the IPTL league in delhi.It was a rally that lasted 16 shots. Each laden with power, precision and sublime skill and each cheered lustily by a 15,000-strong raucous crowd at the Indira Gandhi Stadium in Delhi. The world’s,Roger Federer (left) and Sania Mirza during their mixed doubles match of the IPTL league in delhi.It was a rally that lasted 16 shots. Each laden with power, precision and sublime skill and each cheered lustily by a 15,000-strong raucous crowd at the Indira Gandhi Stadium in Delhi. The world’s two best sporting gladiators, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, were doing everything to enthral and entertain, to compete and win. It was competitiveness of the very highest pedigree, rubbishing all scorn that the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) is no more than exhibition tennis masquerading as a league. That not a soul had moved till 11.20 p.m. braving the chill outside was proof that the IPTL, world tennis’ newest kid on the block, is here to stay.Laden with innovation and backed by broadcast and corporate support from the likes of Star and Coca-Cola, the inaugural season has been a success by every yardstick. But can it be sustained and can the league be made economically viable in the long term? Can team owners who are likely to have paid $4-5 million as licensing fee to own a franchise expect to get their money back? Are players’ salaries, estimated to be a total of $ 15-million plus, justified? Finally, can Mahesh Bhupathi and his team well and truly ‘break the code’? For the longest time tennis has remained immune to change. While embracing baseline technology and other such technical advancement, the very kernel of the sport has remained unchanged. Most matches continue to be played for five or three sets, Davis Cup encounters are still played over three days, the number of games won by players has little consequence in the larger scheme of things and there is never a time limit to how long a match can continue. A Grand Slam semi-final can get over in under an hour or continue for five hours or more.advertisementThe IPTL has changed all of this. By making each match a single-set affair, the well thought-out spectacle has ensured that five matches are completed in three hours or so, allowing broadcasters to plan television schedules to perfection. Speaking on the innovation, Mahesh Bhupathi, the prime mover behind the league, says, “Ours is the only sport where we can’t put a time quotient to a match. A Wimbledon semi-final can get over in an hour and it can also go on for five-and-a-half hours. Even in cricket you can put a time cap. For all our broadcasters, Sky in the UK, Singtel in Singapore, ESPN in Brazil, Star in India we have been able to put a time cap for matches. What we have done is put a shot clock inside the courts- there can’t be more than a 20 second gap between points. The moment a point is over, the shot clock will start to tick. It should make the game faster and more interesting.”While the naysayers will always have some words to say, there’s little doubt that team tennis in the form of the Davis Cup is commercially difficult to sustain. Spread over three days, it doesn’t give much to the broadcaster or the sponsor. In contrast, the IPTL offers its partners a viable package. With the very best in action, the broadcaster is assured of eyeballs and the sponsor of packed stadiums.By getting some of the biggest names associated with the modern game on his roster, Bhupathi has already won the first set. “We never intended it to be a challenge to the circuit. The Grand Slams will forever remain the pinnacle of our sport. But just like in cricket, in tennis too both formats can co-exist,” says a confident Bhupathi at the end of the Delhi leg of the league.Clearly the biggest coup for the IPTL has been the signing of Roger Federer. At some level, Federer is bigger than the sport itself. He is associated with everything that is good about tennis-competitive but never ultra-aggressive and perhaps the most complete player ever. Federer committing to the concept has been a huge point won. And for Indian fans to be able to watch Federer play Djokovic in Delhi was a real bonanza for a few thousand rupees. Never had these two legends played in India and in that sense Delhi’s signature match-up was a real toast for sports fans.Speaking on the concept and if he thinks it can be sustained in the long term, Federer emphasises the importance of getting the best players to Asia. “You don’t always get the world’s best players to play in these parts of the world. By taking the league to Manila, Singapore, Delhi and Dubai, the IPTL has opened up new constituencies for tennis. It is always important to increase the fan base for the sport and this I think is an important task accomplished,” said Federer.advertisementDjokovic, his arch rival and the current world number one and who was earliest among the mega icons to commit to the league, agrees. “Mahesh had approached me a year-and-a-half back and I immediately sensed the potential of the format. For example, I had never come to India. It is because of the IPTL that I could come to Delhi and play here. People loved the tennis and there’s no doubt the support base will only continue to grow in the years to come.” While the players have loved the experience, sceptics have questioned the economics of the league. The moot question is, can the owners of the four franchises ever aspire to make a profit? Bhupathi is cautiously optimistic. “Some teams will break even in three years and others in five. The response has been tremendous and we are already planning to increase the number of teams to eight by 2020. Just check the corporates who have come on board and you will realise that each of them believes in the concept.”Sunil Gavaskar, the co-owner of Singapore Slammers, suggests that by ensuring every team has an equal chance, the organisers have ensured that IPTL is a level playing field, which in the long term is expected to help its economics. “When the opportunity arose to buy a stake into an IPTL team, I was very excited by the idea. It is a terrific concept, is a unique format where every team has an equal chance, and it will surely catch on with fans who will be getting a great opportunity to seeing the very best of tennis in action. With every match being a set each, there are no favourites for a start. The top players are able to make a comeback in Grand Slams even if they lose a set but here with a set being the decider, it will always be a very open competition.” While the tournament may not have been won yet, there’s no doubt that the IPTL is already two sets up in a fiveset final.Boria Majumdar is consulting editor (sports), India Today GroupTo read more, get your copy of India Today here.