Earlier this week, Roger Federer walked out into a large multipurpose indoor arena in east Delhi. He wore a dark tracksuit jacket and dark shorts, and filled the air with charisma. There are sportsmen and then there is Federer—no longer in the majesty of his full bloom, but enjoying a lovely late flush. I want to say he received a rousing ovation, but that would not quite convey it: it was the kind of cheering that Indians used to reserve for Sachin Tendulkar.
Federer was in Delhi for a new, intriguing, overpriced and borderline grotesque tournament called the IPTL. Unlike the IPL, its glamorous cricket counterpart, the “I” stands for “International”, not “Indian”—this is the International Premier Tennis League. But it is the brainchild of an Indian, the doubles specialist Mahesh Bhupathi, its founder and managing director. The large (undisclosed) appearance fees and the relaxed format tempted a cast of 29 extraordinary players to the inaugural IPTL, among them Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Serena Williams, as well as retired players—branded “legends”—like Pete Sampras.
It is a travelling tournament, with 12 match days over a fortnight, played in the homes of four franchises: the Philippines, Singapore, the UAE and India. Each franchise has its own team, comprising roughly three men, two women and two legends. Federer was a Micromax Indian Ace. It takes cues for its format from the USA’s World Team Tennis. A match has five sets, and each set is played in a different category: men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, mixed doubles and men’s legends’ singles. Like runs on a cricket scorecard, games won are tallied, and the team with the higher total wins. There are no advantage points and no lets; there are substitutions and something called a “Happiness” Power Point (Coca Cola is the sponsor) that can yield double points for the receiver, but not the server. There are time outs, and a maximum of 20 seconds between points. Instead of a potentially endless tie-breaker at 6-6, there’s a five-minute shootout at 5-5. In short, match durations can be comfortably predicted and accounted for on television schedules and media-buying spreadsheets.
The tennis, which unfolded amid ear-splitting DJ interventions, sound-and-light effects and dancing girls, carried the pleasures of variety, novelty and, sometimes, brilliance: Tsonga’s powerhouse athleticism, Cilic’s stickly velocity, Monfils’s showmanship, Ivanisevic’s good humour and still-booming serves, Philippoussis’s intensity and gladiatorial physique (though, as my wife observed, he is “strangely ill at ease with his pecs”).
On his first evening Federer played victorious doubles alongside Sania Mirza (his first mixed doubles partner after “Martina Hingis, Martina Navratilova and my wife”) and, with spontaneous choreography, Rohan Bopanna. He executed a graceful, classy dismantling of Tomas Berdych in the singles. There were enduring chants of “Roger, Roger” and occasional shouts, from both sexes, of “Love you, Federer.” Later that night he tweeted: “Got naan?” There was a picture of him holding a naan the size of a table for two. It was retweeted 4,000 times and favourited 6,500 times.
On Federer’s second day on court there was terrible degeneration: Bollywood was brought in to hit with him. “How are you feeling?” Federer was asked by an emcee. “Nervous,” he replied. “Who will you play with?” Forgetting the name of his film-star doubles partner, he said, “I’ll play with the…the man. He’s got a lot of muscles, I think he’s got a big, big serve.” This was the actor Aamir Khan, who was apparently a junior tennis champ of some kind, but who couldn’t get a serve over the net. At his volleying station, Federer crouched low on the ground, placing his racket behind him in mock protection of his backside. Eventually he sat elegantly on one end of the net, with Djokovic on the other, lowering it to half its height to give Aamir a chance.
The extended interlude succeeded in dragging a gimmicky sports event down to the lowest common denominator of Indian entertainment. In his legends match against Ivanisevic, Sampras began serving like Aamir Khan, and the coach Fabrice Santoro substituted him—with himself. Though the cheering grew louder, not even Federer’s exuberant doubles sets could quite restore sporting dignity to the occasion.
But then something very special happened. Federer and Djokovic played singles. As in, they played. It is astonishing how much better the best can be than the excellent. For half an hour they traded strokes that, even on a sluggish court, travelled like a puck on ice. Djokovic struck his remarkable angles from improbable positions; Federer glided about on his swift feet with his dainty hair, his subtle touch, his quick racket, his constant creativity, rolling out skyhooks, lunge volleys, dead drops. They sliced, spun, smashed and soared. The crowd was stunned into respectful awe in between roars of appreciation; tennis fans were moved to the brink of hushed ecstasy. We had, many of us, never seen its like.