It all came down to sudden death.
The Philippine Mavericks and the Micromax Indian Aces, both undefeated teams in the Manila Leg of this year’s International Premier Tennis League (IPTL), split their first four sets coming into the final matchup between Milos Raonic and Rafael Nadal. It had the potential for an intriguing rubber: the relative newcomer versus the veteran champion, flat winners versus topspin counterpunching, quiet composure versus dramatic grit. The Canadian, who observers say is the next best bet to disrupt the top heavy totem pole of the ATP tour, started off strong. Relying heavily on his booming serve and groundstrokes, Raonic broke early and kept the grand slam champion at bay. With the crowd torn between supporting the home team and the amiable Mallorcan, the latter bounced back late in the set and forced a seven-point decider with an unexpected break. The shootout, an innovation unique to the IPTL, makes do without the two-point separation in a regular tiebreak and instead, at 6-6, provides the opportunity for a winner to be decided immediately. And that is how the play unfurled, with both men relinquishing leads after every few points. The set and the tie ended when Nadal’s inside out forehand sailed wide, handing the Aces its first loss of 2015 and the Mavericks an unblemished leg.
The match capped a fantastic leg of (so far) a successful sophomore run for the event, which is a brainchild of former Indian champion Mahesh Bhupathi. The league added another team and another stop this season, which opened in Kobe, Japan on December 2. But the Manila Leg, taking place at the Mall of Asia Arena for the second year in a row, continued to be one of the favorites of the players. “Everybody really loves playing here. The crowd is great and electric. And you really love sports,” says Mavericks coach Treat Huey. The Fil-Am doubles specialist is one of the holdovers from last year’s team, which then featured Andy Murray and Maria Sharapova.
But this year, the home team got Serena Williams, perhaps one of the greatest athletes to ever play the sport. The World Number One suited up for all three days, playing both singles and doubles. This event came after a lengthy rest period for Williams, who, after being upset in the semifinals of the US Open last September decided to withdraw from all her regular tour spots as well as the season ending championships. “I don’t lack motivation,” Williams responded in the IPTL day 1 press conference when asked about that particular loss. “I just needed to take some time off and heal, to be able to walk without pain.”
While the American showed a bit of rust in her return (she was upset by Kurumi Nara in Kobe), she won all of her singles matches in Manila. “I really enjoy the format, and that’s why I’m here again. The crowd in Manila was great last year, and more so this year, it was wonderful walking out for the home team,” Williams says. “Since my season ended earlier this year, I thought it was great to be able to come here and get some good match practice.”
Nadal, an IPTL first timer, was one of the biggest draws for this year’s leg and Rafa fans of all shapes, sizes and ages came out of the woodwork. “I heard some wonderful things about the IPTL from the players last year. I was looking forward to playing last year too, but had to pull out because of my appendicitis injury. But I’m really excited to be playing here today. It’s a great format, its superbly organized, all the players love, and it’s great for the sport of tennis to be able to go to new markets,” he says. “It’s my first time here in Manila, and the crowd has been fantastic. I did a tennis clinic here yesterday with the kids, and it felt wonderful. I love being with children, to help them play better.”
After Manila, the Mavericks and the rest of the teams move on to New Delhi, Dubai, and then finally in Singapore to close out the season. While the Aces currently sits atop of the standings, the Philippine team is right behind them at number two, and growing support for the Mavericks and the event bodes well for upcoming seasons and the future of the sport. “I think the IPTL has been terrific for tennis in the Philippines. We have some great junior talent coming up, and this kind of exposure is terrific for them,” says Huey. “It’s wonderful to see fans come out and support tennis the way they have been doing for the IPTL last year and this year too.”