New Delhi: Aimed at whetting the appetite of Asian fans, generally starved of top-level action, the reaction in India to the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) was crucial to the inaugural tournament's fortunes.
The tournament, conceptualised by former India Davis Cupper and multiple Grand Slam winner Mahesh Bhupathi, targetted that part of the Asian audience who are forced to content themselves seeing the creme de la creme of the sport only through television, with a heavy emphasis on the Indian market.
Bhupathi planned to provide the malnourished Indian fans with the right supplement, with an eye on making his attempt a profit-making exercise. The tournament had four teams participating in the first season - Indian Aces, Manila Mavericks, UAE Royals and Singapore Slammers - with the matches in all the four cities starting in Manila and ending in Dubai with stops in Singapore and New Delhi.
With the business angle in mind, the competition began in November with the period for action carefully chosen, utilising the break in the ATP calendar after a gruelling season, to maximise chances of the availability of all big names in the maiden venture.
The league was admittedly modelled after the Indian Premier League's franchise-based structure but in reality all rules were heavily borrowed from the World Team Tennis that started in the 1970s.
Keeping the obvious business proposition intact, tickets were kept at a premium, with the lowest range for the three-day (Dec 6,7 and 8) event to be played at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Arena, pegged at Rs 3,240 to as high as Rs 49,680 and Rs 29,160.
The organisers pulled all the stops to make it a success on-and-off-the court, naming an all-star cast last including World No.1 Novak Djokovic (UAE Royals), 17-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer, women's No.1 Serena Williams and pin-up girl Maria Sharapova. They were tight-lipped about the remuneration paid to these stars but unconfirmed reports suggested Federer was given a hefty sum of 2.4 million dollars.
Bhupathi, whose wife Lara Dutta, herself a Bollywood star, drew in more glamour with prominent Bollywood stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan, Deepika Padukone and Akshay Kumar watching the action live and even indulging in some fun-hitting.
But the presence of such stars, cocktailed with a heavy dose of glamour, still weren't enough to fill the 15,000-capacity Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium, one of the largest in Asia. The large crowd that attended the stadium were more eager to watch Federer, acknowledged as one of the greatest players ever, rather than enjoy tennis of the highest order.
The crowd assembled shouted "Roger, Roger" spontaneously at every given opportunity, who showed glimpses of his enormous talent to awestruck fans. The mood was festive and intensity of most matches exhibition at best. Indian fans were happy with that, as long as they could worship Federer.
It was the marquee match, Djokovic vs Federer, deliberately scheduled as the final match of the New Delhi leg, that showed what top-level tennis was all about.
Both players were at their best and gave nothing away in a frantic see-saw contest that gave a glimpse of what the global audience missed when he withdrew from the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals in London due to an injury.
Though questions regarding the tournament's business model, lack of clarity over player contracts and sustainability remain, average tennis fans, not concerned about these weighty issues, got what they wanted,a point highlighted by Asish Arora, who watched the action unfold in front of his eyes on all three days.
"Watching Federer and the rest was a dream. This is the greatest experience of my life. Never thought I will be able to watch them live in action," Arora said.
Suffice to say his comments sum up the mood of the Indian audience.