At around 9:45 pm on Saturday, a remarkably deafening chorus of chants resonated around the Indira Gandhi Stadium Complex in New Delhi. As Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, legends of tennis with 31 Grand Slams between them, sat on their seats for a breather after three games of their International Premier Tennis League one-setter, cries of "Roger... Roger!" from the 13,000-strong crowd easily drowned out voices in support of Nadal.

For 45 seconds or so, it made for a surreal atmosphere that almost echoed one of tennis's great rituals: the fanatical chanting that fills the break in play every two games, which climaxes with an ovation for the players when they return to the court and finally falls dead silent as soon as the ball is tossed up for the first serve. It was a brief but intoxicating experience.

It provided a glimpse into the kind of one-sided crowd support that Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and the rest have had to suffer in stadia across the world when lining up against Federer. The Swiss was the clear crowd favourite. It didn't matter one bit that the Spaniard was actually the one representing the home team. Indian Aces versus UAE Royals? Pfft, pfft. This was Roger versus Rafa. Artist versus warrior. Champion versus champion. Modern-day tennis' greatest rivals. A bucket-list event. And the crowd was only just warming up to the occasion.

Next two games saw two breaks of serve. Nadal was up 3-2 and a break when both players took to their seats again. This time, the fans had barely resumed their chanting when they were abruptly interrupted. “DJ waley babu mera gaana chala de” blasted through the stadium speakers -- making a devastatingly ill-timed appearance. All subsequent breaks in play were also accompanied with ear-splitting music (like they had been throughout the tournament), depriving fans of even a chance to recreate those magical few seconds.

That moment, in which the spirit of sport was suppressed for entertainment, was IPTL in a nutshell. It is the worst of its kind among the various franchise-based leagues hell-bent on bridging the gap between sport, entertainment and business. At least other such leagues – in cricket, hockey, badminton, football, kabaddi and even wrestling – retain the very essence of the sport, showcase highest level of skills and offer opportunities for local talent.

The IPTL, on the other hand, is simply a glorified off-season exhibition that is at best an opportunistic piece of business and at worst an entity undermining the sanctity of tennis. Winning or losing hardly seems to matter because teams offer little context in a largely individual-driven sport. Top players, in fact, regularly skip tennis’s most prestigious team event, the Davis Cup.

False sense of atmosphere

A modified format with odd rules, such as one-set matches, shot clock, happiness powerpoints and no lets can make the most casual tennis fan cringe. Players do appear to enjoy themselves but that does not come close to translating into competitive levels of tennis. Organisers attempt to fabricate a false sense of atmosphere even when there is not any need to do so. Spectators move freely during games in the line of sight of players and, at least in India, were rarely quiet during points.

Dwindling stadium attendances – the India leg, for instance, was practically a no-show up until the Federer-Nadal match – and unremarkable TV viewership suggests that the "fast-paced, television-friendly format", as IPTL founder Mahesh Bhupathi puts it, is not particularly engaging.

This is hardly surprising when you consider that tennis, in its regular format, is in great health and doesn't need to change character to woo audiences. Especially not from James Bond to Johnny English. The sport is being played at a faster speed than ever before and continues to enthral its ever-growing global audience.

Sure, the IPTL brings the who's who of tennis from across generations to territories that would otherwise be starved of seeing such talent. But it's hard to acknowledge any noble motive behind its existence due to the sums of money that fans are forced to shell out. Tickets in the India leg ranged from Rs. 4,000 to close to Rs. 50,000 in the second season – which is a rather steep price to pay for an exhibition event that attempts to pass itself off as a competitive affair.

Besides, three of the five participating countries, namely India, Japan and the United Arab Emirates, are already part of the ATP Calendar. Chennai Open in India is a well-attended event with Stanislas Wawrinka, the current world number four and French Open holder, a two-time defending champion. If you are looking solely for world-class tennis, you are better off avoiding the IPTL altogether and flying to Chennai in January instead.

At the end of the league's inaugural season, Federer explicitly labeled IPTL as an "exhibition tournament" and sided with the purists: "The way it is right now, I don’t think it will work as a tour event. I’m very traditional and I like the game the way it is on tour.” But rather curiously he appears to have made a U-turn this season and has joined in with his fellow professionals in trumpeting a common tune: "You can't call it an exhibition where 15,000 people have paid to watch us play."

Jaded FedEx

However, even on Saturday, the 17-time Grand Slam champion’s demeanour on court seemed to betray his comments. Federer looked jaded in the opening exchanges and his game was littered with double faults, botched up volleys and an uncharacteristically poor smash. Perhaps, all of this was a consequence of landing in India only a day prior to the match to make his first appearance in season two. His serve too, which had been a key weapon for him throughout the year, was broken twice by Nadal in three games.

The Spaniard, on the other hand, appeared to be in much better rhythm even though the 20-second shot clock between points did not allow his fans to marvel in all of his famous pre-service rituals. A stunning backhand return broke Federer's serve in the first game; another crosscourt winner sent the crowd into raptures; and a deceptively soft pick-up from near the net was a treat to watch.

Just when it looked as if supporters of the Swiss maestro would leave nearly empty-handed, he saved three set points (basically, match points) on his serve at 3-5 down, and followed it up by breaking Nadal in sensational style. Three venomous forehands, two of them clean winners, brought down the house and sent the set into a shootout (a first-to-seven tie-breaker).

Nadal eventually prevailed 6-5 (7-4) but a cat-and-mouse contest with both players showing glimpses of their best form at least gave the Delhi crowd memories to cherish and some of their money's worth.

For the record, and if it matters at all, the Indian Aces beat UAE Royals 30-19. It probably does not. Because although you may leave the stadium with a sense of gratitude towards the organizers for bringing your heroes closer to you, the IPTL simply isn't tennis as we know and love it.

Akarsh Sharma is a Delhi-based writer who occasionally tweets here