Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer delighted Delhi last weekend as two of the greatest sportsmen of all-time lit up the second season of the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL).
The superstar duo, who have 31 Grand Slams between them, met in the main dish of the Indian leg of the five-city franchise event, with Nadal coming out on top 6-5 in a one-set shootout.
The Spanish big-hitter, representing the Indian Aces, was the crowd favourite against Federer, now playing for the UAE Royals after spending last year with the home side.
Nadal also teamed up with local hero Rohan Bopanna in the doubles during their 30-19 victory which kept them top of the table.
Over 10,000 crammed into the Indira Gandhi Sports Complex last Saturday (12) for the third and final day of action which also saw big names like Sania Mirza, Marin Cilic, Agnieszka Radwanska and Goran Ivanisevic take part.
Dismissed as nothing more than a glorified exhibition, Nadal and Federer both insisted the IPTL, founded by Indian doubles legend Mahesh Bhupathi, is so much more.
“I don’t think these are exhibition matches, these games are very competitive. The intensity of competition is good. I feel the rules are perfect in the IPTL and it’s a great idea. But obviously, in the (ATP) World Tour, it doesn’t have a place,” Nadal said.
“It is an unbelievable event. I have had a good time and it’s good preparation for the next season. The format is quick and anything can happen.
“I am very glad to be back in India after two years; the fans have always been great and I enjoy being in a place where my foundation is too.”
Nadal broke the Swiss legend in the first game with a backhand winner and served out the next to love to take a 2-0 lead. Federer broke back in the fourth game, with his stunning single-handed backhand shots wowing the crowd.
Nadal broke again in the fifth game and led 4-2 with another hold. Federer stayed in the tie by saving two break points and winning the deciding point on deuce. Nadal then avoided a break point but hit a forehand error defending a second, setting up a tie-break.
He led 5-1 but Federer rallied to take three points in a row to reduce the margin to 5-4. An unforced error though eventually gave Nadal a hard-fought victory.
“The question is: ‘What is an exhibition?’” Federer asked afterwards to mass laughter. “There is a kids’ day exhibition in Australia, Nickelodeon-style, where you giggle with Scooby Doo. This is not Scooby Doo, we are playing serious tennis.
“You have thousands of people here serious about tennis, so it is a question of who is in the crowd. Is it filled with 10-year-olds because it’s kids’ day, or is it because people want to support the Indian Aces and UAE Royals?
“It depends on how you see it, but to me it is serious tennis with the fun aspect of playing for your team. It’s played with great spirit and fair play.”
He added: “Seeing the legends play is phenomenal. I would like to give them a shout out for playing so well because it must be really hard for them. Personally, I love it. It is a fun concept and that’s why I am back here again.”
The format sees points scored for single set matches over five categories; men’s and women’s singles, men’s and mixed doubles, and a legends singles. There are also slight rules tweaks designed to speed up play, like no advantage points at deuce and no lets.
The competition has expanded from four teams to five in 2015, with defending champions the Indian Aces on course to come out on top again going into the penultimate leg in Dubai at the time of going to press.
Other star names to play for the other three franchises, the Philippine Mavericks, Singapore Slammers and Japan Warriors, included Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.
Indian doubles queen Mirza reckoned the event is a great way for the players to build camaraderie together and offers a great alternative to the hard grind of a long season.
“There were a lot of fun moments last year. I guess it helped us pull through some of the tough matches,” the Aces player said.
“The league shows the friendship and chemistry that the players share on the circuit. The camaraderie definitely carries forward to the tour as well because you just can’t cut off your relationships suddenly.
“For three weeks, we spend 15-16 hours together during the league. You stay together, travel on the same flight and go out for dinners all as a team. You develop some great friendships. I have known Rafa for a long time. Radwanska is fun and smart on court.”