Sunday, 10 January 2016

The IPTL: Tennis is more fun as a team sport

The second edition of the IPTL packed its bags on Sunday, with the Singapore Slammers emerging eventual champions. The tournament proved that the success of the first edition wasn’t beginners luck, and that given the participation of a few big names, the format is here to stay.

While I watch tennis only on and off, mostly only at Grand Slams, I found myself unable to switch the channels whenever the IPTL was on TV. I don’t know if it was the innovative rules — with power points and shorter turnaround times — or the star power (personally Sania Mirza was the showstopper for me). Or maybe it was because the format had both a patriotic flavour, as well as a team structure infringing on what is essentially an individual sport. It made me feel like I was watching Davis Cup on steroids, and reminded me of some life decisions I made early in my sporting career.

When I was around 17, and had established myself in the Maharashtra senior cricket team and been touted a future India prospect, my cousin suggested something radical. He advised me to give up cricket. He said I was clearly a good athlete, and I should try an individual sport like tennis.

Around the same time, a Major in the Army Sports Institute in my home town of Pune invited me for some tests. He thought I had the makings of a successful middle distance runner, and he, too, exhorted me to take up the individual game over a team sport.

Their reasons were largely the same: “In team sports, one must rely on others to a great extent in the pursuit of success. You might be good but unless your team is good enough, you will never win. Whereas in an individual sport, your success lies entirely in your hands.”

My reasons for not taking their advice were simple: I loved cricket. Not tennis. Certainly not athletics. Cricket.

Thinking back now, one of the reasons I love cricket is precisely because it is a team sport.

I love the camaraderie of being in a team. I love always having someone whose leg I can pull in training and someone who will not let me forget that dropped catch, or that failed push up. I love the support of a team, and having to find inner strength when the support isn’t forthcoming. I love playing for the name on the front of my shirt, not for the name on the back. I love knowing that a team is more than the sum of its parts. I love that sometimes, a team can rise above what it looks like on paper, and become a new — sometimes transcendental — whole. I love the fact that such a thing is possible only with, and often despite, each member’s involvement.

Both individual and team sports have their fans and detractors, and rightly so. In team sports, some players can piggyback on more talented and hardworking teammates’ success, thus hiding their weaknesses. In individual games, there is nowhere to hide. All you are, all you have, and certainly all you don’t, is laid bare on the court or the track every single time. The glory is all yours. But so is the loneliness. It can be draining, especially if things aren’t going your way. There are precedents of this prompting professionals to switch from individual to team sports. Aussie Ashleigh Barty, a former Jr. Wimbledon champion, recently switched to cricket and made her debut for the Brisbane Heat in the WBBL for similar reasons.

The qualities that individual athletes need to succeed — discipline, intrinsic motivation and self belief — are always on abundant display whenever Nadal and Federer play each other. But when they faced each other in the Delhi leg of the IPTL, the encounter had a rarely seen before aura to it, a je ne sai quoi if you will. It was something intangible, yet clearly visible. It took me a while, but I realised it was created by the presence of their teammates, egging them on and offering advice. You could see it with every high five after every ridiculous shot. It infected the players and showed in their smiles.  Tell me, have you ever seen Rafa and Roger smile so much in a game?

Smiling after the game, yes. Smiling during it? image courtesy facebook

Perhaps it was because this was the first time they were facing each other in a team event. They were the last of many storylines that were unfolding that night. And despite being a dead rubber (the Aces were leading 24-14), their tie had context, as it too was part of a whole.

I am grateful to the IPTL for the fact that it gives us a chance to view these incredible players of an individual game showcase their skills in a team environment. Only the Davis Cup provides anything similar. Like cricket, the IPTL calls for largely individual performances within a team set up. Watching tennis like this is a refreshing change, especially for Indian viewers, who connect well with team sports. And I wager it is highly enjoyable for the players as well, judging by the smiles and high fives on court. It helps that the IPTL is more of a showcase tournament, and doesn’t carry the pressures, dress codes or straight faces that are de riguer in a Grand Slam. But this is not the only reason.

In a 2009 study, psychology professor Dr. John Tauer pointed out that children enjoyed sports more when competition and cooperation coexisted, i.e., in an environment where they were cooperating with members of their own team while simultaneously competing against another team. It is no surprise that we see so many smiles and light-hearted moments on the IPTL bandwagon. While Nadal-Federer were cleaning the lines with their ground strokes in Delhi, even the chair umpire had a laugh when he accidentally called “Let”. 

"We don't stop playing because we grow old," George Bernard Shaw remarked, "we grow old because we stop playing." Coaches in every sport always try to help athletes return to the ‘beginner’s heart’, that childlike enthusiasm we have for the game when we start playing it. We don’t start playing sport for the fame, or the money, or even the competition. We play it simply to enjoy ourselves. The IPTL may be helping these hardcore professionals return to that child-like bubbly enthusiasm. That is not to suggest that they do not enjoy their game on the Tour. This just accepts the fact that the team structure predisposes sports towards greater enjoyment.

It’s lonely at the top. But not if you’re in a team.

This article first appeared in my column on 

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