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Doubles specialist Mahesh Bhupathi has moved from centre court to centre stage by becoming Andy Murray's manager and floating the star-studded tennis premier league. TOI-Crest meets the new super agent of world sport.
Heavy towel wrapped round his neck, shoulders slumped and legs crossed - Mahesh Bhupathi sits in his customary pose. His answers are characteristically monosyllabic. Every now and then his eyes travel the length of the near-empty garden cafê in the player area of the All England Club whose lawns had been drenched by the early morning drizzle. Then briefly, a little like the sun overhead, a smile breaks out.
"Sometimes when I have meetings during tournaments, after practice or matches, I change into formal trousers and a jacket. I get a lot of whistles from the boys, " said Bhupathi - who played his final Wimbledon event, bowing out in the quarterfinals of the men's doubles earlier in the week - underlining his shift in focus, from pro tennis to player management.
The 39-year-old Bhupathi, on the homestretch of the tennis career that has brought him 12 Grand Slam doubles and mixed-doubles titles, including a career slam in the mixed event, racked up two landmark business deals this year. Besides being roped in to manage world No 2 Andy Murray's business interests, he floated the star-studded International Premier Tennis League which, at once, thrust him into the cash-rich leagues of brands and boardrooms.
World sport has a new super agent. And he is Indian.
Bhupathi's rise and growth in the business world has been met with shock and surprise in the sporting sphere. Back home, the Murray deal was greeted with muted scepticism. Questions were raised. Why would the 26-year-old Scot - Olympic gold medallist and reigning US Open champion - take the Bangalorean on board to manage his commercial interests?
Bhupathi says he visited Murray's London residence in January to talk to him about the International Premier Tennis League. In the course of that conversation, he told Murray about how his management company in India, Globosport, had positioned women's tennis star Sania Mirza when she first came on the scene.
"I had some out of the box ideas, " Bhupathi said, refusing to elaborate. "He liked what I said. Next thing, we were messaging on BBM for a few weeks. All of us knew that the position for Murray's manager was open and a lot of people were angling for it. He believed in my vision and gave me a chance. "
Bhupathi, dressed in an open-necked tee and dark blue exercise gear, admits it's a high-pressure job. "This is a big opportunity for me. It comes with responsibility. I'm more than aware that there is only so much time a professional athlete has to monetize his career. I have no intention of wasting Andy's time. I have a job to do and clearly the pressure is on me to deliver. "
The business of sports agents or managers is still relatively new in India. It's a spin-off from the entertainment world, where professionals took over from parents who managed the careers of their young ones in the 70s and 80s. Earlier, most of India's top-rung sportsmen in disciplines other than cricket went with big label international agencies. Gradually initiatives like Bhupathi's Globosport, started more than a decade ago, started filling their rosters with heavyweight names, including those of cricketers.
Still, the idea of an Indian agency managing an international icon in a global sport like tennis and marketing him in western markets was quite inconceivable. So much so that critics are wondering what exactly Bhupathi, who went to college in the US, can do for Murray.
For the 6-ft-1 " Bhupathi, this isn't a tall order. "Andy is the biggest individual sports star in the UK which is in one of the most vibrant markets in the world. That in itself speaks of immense possibilities. " The Bangalorean, once the owner of one of the most damaging serves on the men's Tour, pointed out that he was aiming to get Murray - who already has contracts with top brands like Adidas, Head, Rado and the Royal Bank of Scotland - a staggering $200 million in off court earnings in the next five years.
Bhupathi's business moves, like that of his tennis, are a mix of instinct and intelligent planning gleaned from books he read in his younger days, notably the writings of American lawyer and sports agent Mark McCormark.
In his book What they don't teach you at Harvard Business School McCormack writes about a study conducted on students of a Harvard MBA program in the late 70s. The students were asked, "Have you set clear, written goals for your future and made plans to accomplish them?" Only three per cent of the graduates had written goals and plans;13 per cent had goals, but they were not in writing;and a whopping 84 per cent had no specific goals at all. Ten years later, the members of the class were interviewed again. The findings were a revelation: The 13 per cent of the class who had goals were earning, on average, twice as much as the 84 per cent who had no goals at all. The three per cent who had clear, written goals were earning, on average, ten times as much as the other 97 per cent put together.
Bhupathi says charting the journey of his brainchild - the $50 million International Premier Tennis League - was a point-by-point exercise that began while he was watching an IPL match in Mumbai two years ago. He said the first person he ran the idea by was Brad Drewett, former player and executive president and chairman of ATP, who passed away in early May. "Being an Aussie, he understood cricket and knew what I was talking about. I said, 'Why don't we do the same thing in tennis?' He was excited by the idea, " Bhupathi says. Next the Bangalorean took the plan to his friend on the ATP board, Justin Gimelstob, who gave Bhupathi the green signal.
World no. 1 Serb Novak Djokovic has described the initiative as 'revolutionary'. Modelled around Indian cricket's IPL, which is six seasons old, and the 40-year-old World Team Tennis, played in the United States, IPTL is a mix of entertainment and cutting-edge competition. The three-week ITPL, which will have franchises in six cities, will be played in the off-season on a home and away basis, starting 2014.
Bhupathi has signed on the biggest names in the men's and women's game for his league. Besides Djokovic and Murray, he has Spanish superstar Rafa Nadal, big-serving Czech Tomas Berdych, athletic Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Serb Janko Tipsarevic among his elite players. Of the women he has signed-on American legend Serena Williams, Russian diva Maria Sharapova, Belarusian Victoria Azarenka, Li Na, Caroline Wozniacki and Sam Stosur to name a few. Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and the lovable Aussie Pat Rafter are among the legends set to take centre stage.
Tony Godsick, who manages Roger Federer and has an endorsement portfolio unmatched in sports when it comes to the number and quality of sponsors as well as the length of deals, said in a recent interview that the IPTL was an 'incredibly ambitious project'. The American added: "If he's got people behind him who want to do it and he's got a lot of top players who want to do it, then anything is possible. At the end of the day, you need the stars, and if he has a bunch of them willing to take part in the inaugural season, he has a chance. "
It's a chance that Bhupathi's firm grip has grabbed at. It remains to be seen, however, if the man with one of the surest backhand returns in the game can capitalise on it.
MANAGING THE STARS
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