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Maria Sharapova, Li Na opt out of fledgling exhibition league

By Ravi Ubha, for CNN
February 27, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
India's Mahesh Bhupathi is the man behind tennis' International Premier Tennis League.
India's Mahesh Bhupathi is the man behind tennis' International Premier Tennis League.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Maria Sharapova and Li Na won't be competing in the new IPTL, their agent says
  • Sharapova is arguably the biggest name in women's tennis and Li is hugely popular in Asia
  • The IPTL is hoping to be as successful as cricket's established IPL
  • The official player list is expected to be revealed on Friday

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(CNN) -- The fledgling International Premier Tennis League suffered a blow when two of the world's most recognized female athletes snubbed the event.

Max Eisenbud, the agent of both Maria Sharapova and Li Na, told CNN on Thursday that neither would be appearing in the team tournament that is set to make its debut in Asia this November.

Sharapova transcends tennis and has long been a magnet for sponsors -- the Russian is perennially listed as the world's richest female athlete by Forbes -- while China's Li is one of the marquee names in Asia, having captured a second grand slam title at the Australian Open in January.

Li was "confirmed" as one of the entrants by the League in a press release last May.

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"Maria and Li Na will not be participating," Eisenbud said in an email.

Mahesh Bhupathi, a grand slam doubles winner and the main man behind the project modeled after cricket's highly successful Indian Premier League, will now be hoping he can secure the likes of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

Roger Federer, the 17-time grand slam champion and still the biggest name in the sport, told Gulf News this week he generally backed the idea.

The player list is expected to be revealed Friday.

"Firstly, I want to see whether it takes off or not," Federer told Gulf News. "I know a lot of people have invested in it or are part of it. Anywhere where tennis grows is a good thing, so I hope it takes off and becomes very successful.

"In Asia, there is enormous potential (for tennis to grow), in places like China and India due to the amount of people that live there and the excitement they have for tennis."

The tournament sees five teams -- based in Mumbai, Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and another city yet to be officially revealed -- play each other over a roughly three-week period.

Matches are contested over five sets but will employ no-ad scoring. One set is played in each of men's singles, women's singles, men's doubles, mixed doubles and legends doubles.

Optimism was initially high, with Boris Becker a founding partner of the league and Djokovic -- now coached by Becker -- calling it a "revolutionary idea."

However, there have been delays in the player auction and the League was originally supposed to have six teams, not five.

"I think it will be great for tennis if it can be pulled off," said Eisenbud. "I just don't see how it could ever work, but I hope I am wrong," he added without elaborating.

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A tennis insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity told CNN he didn't know if the TV revenue was in place to fund salaries and other costs.

However, Peter Hutton, CEO of MP and Silva, the firm distributing television rights, said there has been "considerable interest both in Asia and outside."

"We've been waiting to see the selection of the franchise squads before finalizing any broadcast deals," he told CNN. "Mahesh's personal credibility and his contacts within the world of tennis have made people sit up and take notice, and we believe that the 'made for tv' format is a good model on which to grow audiences for tennis worldwide."

Bhupathi didn't return an email seeking comment Thursday.

Apart from who will show up, another question is: How can players complain about a long tennis year but then commit a chunk of the off-season to a tournament?

Pros from the U.S. and Europe also face the prospect of making the long trip to Asia -- after completing the Asian chunk of the schedule weeks or a month before.

Read: Li wins Australian Open

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