The stage is finally set for the second season of the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) as the league gets underway on December 2 at the Kobe World Hall in Japan. The next 18 days will see a lot of glitz and riveting action on the courts as the pan-Asian tennis extravaganza sweeps across the continent with subsequent stops at Manila, New Delhi, Dubai and Singapore.
The first match will see the 2014 runners-up UAE Royals clashing with last year’s bottom-placed Singapore Slammers. (For tickets to the matches, click here). The Royals are a power-packed team this time with Roger Federer, Tomas Berdych and Ana Ivanovic in their ranks. The Singapore Slammers too have refurbished themselves with the addition of Novak Djokovic, Nick Kyrgios and Belinda Bencic.
But Federer and Djokovic will both be absent from the Japan leg, due to their scheduling issues. Will the absence of the World No. 1 Djokovic be detrimental for the Slammers’ chances and tilt the balance in favour of the Royals? We try to find out:
Women’s singles: Ana Ivanovic vs Belinda Bencic (probable)
What better way to kick off the 2015 IPTL than with a fascinating contest pitting Ana Ivanovic’s ferocious forehand against Belinda Bencic’s blistering backhand? Both the girls have the ability to set the Kobe World Hall on fire by unleashing the deadly weapons at their disposal.
The 2008 French Open champion Ivanovic and the 14th ranked Bencic are tied 1-1 in their head-to-head meetings, which makes this showdown even more intriguing. However, while the former Indian Aces star has the experience of playing and thriving in the vibrant atmosphere of IPTL, for Bencic this will be the first taste of the razzmatazz of the league.
Can the new format and ambience distract the young Swiss? Bencic might be all of 18 years old, but she has already shown tremendous maturity beyond her age. The two-time junior Major champion remains one out of just three women to have defeated the mighty Serena Williams this year, a feat she achieved when she upended the World No. 1 at the Canadian Open.
On her way to title glory, she also got the better of her UAE Royals opponent –Ivanovic. The Serb certainly needs to be wary of that if she is to have any hope of helping the Royals cross the final frontier this year.
Men’s singles: Tomas Berdych vs Nick Kyrgios (probable)
The fans in Kobe would probably need to duck for cover in this match, as it promises to be a ruthless battle of devastating serves and groundstrokes. The games of both Berdych and Kyrgios are based on power, explosiveness and an innate desire to attack. And tennis fans will certainly be eager to see who wins this contest between the uber- aggressive players of two different generations.
For all of his youthful exuberance and antics on the court, the 30th-ranked Nick Kyrgios has one quality that stands out. He is fearless, and can bring forth his full ammunition against any player, irrespective of their rank or legacy. His wins over two of the game’s legends – Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer – all at 20 years of age, stand testimony to this.
Royals’ Tomas Berdych has never met the Aussie on the tour, and with his wealth of experience, should start as the favourite in this match. But the sixth-ranked Czech cannot be complacent, given how freely Kyrgios can strike the ball.
One thing is for sure - there will be plenty of fireworks in this set to keep the fans thoroughly entertained.
Men’s doubles: Cilic/Nestor vs Melo/Kyrgios (probable)
Two of the world’s finest doubles players will lock horns in men’s doubles as the current World No. 1 Marcelo Melo faces the former top-ranked Daniel Nestor on the other side of the net. The two met just once this year, at the Montreal Masters, when Nestor partnered Philippine Mavericks’ Edouard Roger-Vasselin to victory over Melo and Ivan Dodig – the last of whom is playing for the Indian Aces.
That should give the legendary Canadian some confidence coming into this match. However, their paths have followed different trajectories this season as Melo wrested the No. 1 ranking from the Bryan Brothers and won the French Open while the now 18th-ranked Nestor won two titles at smaller events, apart from the Cincinnati Masters.
The doubles specialists will need assistance from their respective partners, both of whom are more accomplished in singles but also dabble in doubles occasionally. While Marin Cilic of the UAE Royals reached the doubles quarterfinals of the Madrid Masters this year, Kyrgios made it to the last four in Rome.
It goes without saying that both Cilic and Kyrgios will need to summon their big serves and reflexes on the court to boost their respective team’s chances.
Mixed doubles: Nestor/Mladenovic vs Brown/Pliskova (probable)
This pits a heavily favoured team against a pair built from scratch. Daniel Nestor and Kristina Mladenovic come with an intimidating record, having won the 2013 Wimbledon and the 2014 Australian Open together. Even though the Frenchwoman, a World No. 9 in women’s doubles, has given up playing in mixed doubles event after the 2015 Wimbledon, the IPTL will give her a chance to reunite with her former partner and recreate their old magic.
Having said that, one should not overlook the big-serving pair of Karolina Pliskova and Dustin Brown. The maverick German who famously upset Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon this year is a pure serve-and-volley specialist, and his deft touches would surely come in handy in this set. Pliskova, who played a key role in the Czech Republic’s Fed Cup win, is a decent doubles player herself and has four titles. The 23-year-old has some of the fiercest groundstrokes on the tour and would be expected to hold the fort from the baseline.
Legends’ singles: Goran Ivanisevic vs Carlos Moya
In the head-to-head between two Grand Slam champions with contrasting playing styles, it is the claycourt expert Carlos Moya who has a 3-1 edge over his Croatian rival. But the one time that Goran Ivanisevic beat his younger opponent was when the former World No. 2 had his career-defining, title-winning-campaign - at the 2001 Wimbledon.
Perhaps buoyed by that memorable win, Ivanisevic and his booming serve prevailed over the 1998 French Open champion Moya when the Dubai franchise and the Manila Mavericks met last year.
The Royals captain would surely like to repeat his act again, and if he brings out the crushing serves with consistency, Moya would have his task cut out.
Note: The singles and doubles match-ups are as per our assumptions for the most obvious player combinations. They are subject to change if one or more of the players are unavailable from either team, or if the team managements decide to change the combinations based on current form.Published 01 Dec 2015, 14:16 IST