The Hopman Cup made its return to the tennis tour in July, but in a very different locale.
After a four year hiatus, the mixed teams event played in honour of former Australian Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman, reappeared on the red clay of Nice, France. A setting far removed from its previous home of Perth, Australia.
The historic Nice Lawn Tennis Club, established in 1890, played host from 19-23 July in weather that perfectly suited the height of the European summer.
The tournament field was reduced from its usual size of eight teams to six and was an all European affair. Hosts France, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Spain and Switzerland comprised the entry list.
The teams were divided into two groups of three with the winner of each group progressing to the final after round robin play. Both singles and doubles matches were to be decided by a match tie break if level at one set all.
The Swiss were the last winners of the Hopman Cup during its three decade long run in Perth. As a matter of fact, Roger Federer and Belinda Bencic teamed to hold the trophy aloft in 2018 as well as 2019.
The 2023 edition of the tournament was affected by two late withdrawals due to injury. Bencic was suffering a shoulder problem in the aftermath of her Wimbledon campaign and 18 year old Celine Naef replaced her.
As a youngster, Naef was coached by Melanie Molitor, the mother of Martina Hingis. She has also received advice from Hingis and earned her Hopman Cup call up after slashing her ranking since last September from 904 to 157. Lanky 21 year old Leandro Riedi, a former Roland Garros junior finalist, was her partner in Nice.
Meanwhile, Paula Badosa of Spain was still nursing a back problem which resulted in her retirement from singles at Wimbledon. She was replaced by top 75 ranked Rebeka Masarova, who would team with newly crowned Wimbledon champion Carlos Alcaraz.
World No. 1 Alcaraz was the centre of much attention in Nice upon his arrival just three days after toppling Novak Djokovic in the final at the All England Lawn Tennis Club.
Danish world No. 6 Holger Rune, who had made the quarter finals of Wimbledon before being ousted by Alcaraz, was the other top ten singles player to travel to Nice and would play alongside Clara Tauson.
Croatia looked to be the most even team on paper with world No. 15 Borna Coric and No. 22 Donna Vekic to take the court.
Belgium would rely on top 30 singles player Elise Mertens (also just coming off an appearance in the Wimbledon doubles final) and former top tenner David Goffin. France were represented by the veteran pair of Alize Cornet and Richard Gasquet.
Group A consisted of France, Switzerland and Denmark. Belgium, Croatia and Spain were placed in Group B.
Switzerland opened proceedings on day one with an upset 2-1 win over Denmark. The 20 year old Tauson had given Denmark the early lead with a straightforward 6-2, 6-3 victory over Naef. Riedi, ranked 160, then surprisingly brushed aside Rune 6-4, 6-3. The Swiss pair then combined in the mixed to win 6-3, 7-5.
Denmark would bow out the next day losing 2-1 to France. The talented Tauson, a winner of two WTA titles in 2021 before injury halted her progression, edged out Cornet 7-6, 6-4 in the opening rubber. However, Rune again disappointed losing to Gasquet 6-2, 6-3. Cornet and Gasquet clinched the tie 6-4, 6-4 in the mixed.
Rune’s performances appeared to be very lacklustre, but the Dane revealed after the event that he was battling a lower back injury. The back complaint resulted in him withdrawing from an ATP event in Umag, Croatia, the following week.
Switzerland and France then faced each other on day three to decide who would win Group A. Cornet withstood a strong start from Naef to prevail 1-6, 6-3, 10-8. Riedi provided an avenue back for the Swiss yet again overcoming Gasquet 3-6, 6-3 10-8. The Swiss pair then grabbed an unexpected place in the final getting the better of the French in the mixed rubber 6-4, 7-5. Switzerland would top Group A with a 2-0 record.
Croatia faced Belgium in the opening tie of Group B on day two. Mertens raced to a 6-2, 6-2 win over Vekic. The men’s singles rubber was ultimately decided in a match tie break with Coric edging out Goffin 6-3, 2-6, 10-4. The Croatians then prevailed in the mixed 7-6, 3-6, 10-6 to win the tie 2-1.
Alcaraz made his entrance on day three alongside Masarova as Spain faced Belgium. Mertens shaded Masarova in a close opening tussle 7-6, 2-6, 10-5. Alcaraz then recovered from a set down to get the best of Goffin 4-6, 6-4, 10-8. The Belgians would prove to be a level above the Spaniards in the mixed cruising to victory 6-3, 6-1 and ensuring a 2-1 win.
The final day of group action pitted Spain against Croatia. Spain needed to win 3-0 to top the group while Croatia needed victory in the tie to do the same.
Vekic quickly snuffed out any chance of Spain advancing to the final, dispatching Masarova 6-2, 6-1. Alcaraz and Coric then battled for just over two hours before the Spaniard won 6-3, 6-7, 10-5. The mixed encounter proved a worthy end to the group with Vekic and Coric saving a match point before winning 1-6, 6-4 14-12 to take the tie 2-1 and finish with a 2-0 record in Group B.
This resulted in the fancied Croatian outfit taking on the unheralded Swiss for the title.
Vekic kicked off the final with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Naef. Coric then sealed a 2-0 win for Croatia with a 6-1, 6-4 victory over Riedi who was not able to replicate his exploits from the round robin. As the final was already decided, the mixed doubles was not played.
The 27 year old Vekic and 26 year old Coric had snared Croatia’s second Hopman Cup title. This was fitting as the duo were contemporaries and had known each other since their junior days.
“Borna, it was really a lot of fun playing with you,” said Vekic at the trophy presentation. “We’ve known each other for almost 20 years, and we’ve never played doubles before now. So far, we’re unbeaten. I’m a little bit sad we didn’t have another chance today!”
Coric felt similarly saying “When we came here, we were both not playing our best tennis, and we never played mixed doubles. We were not sure how it was going to play out, but we were very happy that we were playing, and it was my pleasure to be here with [you].”
Croatia’s first Hopman Cup triumph was delivered by Goran Ivanisevic and Iva Majoli in 1996 when they defeated the Swiss team of Marc Rosset and 15 year old Martina Hingis 2-1 in the final in Perth.
That 1996 final was decided in extraordinary circumstances when Rosset punched an advertising hoarding with his right hand in anger and had to retire with the injury in the third set of the decisive mixed doubles rubber.
Incidentally, Majoli is now the tournament director of the revamped Hopman Cup.
Perhaps Majoli will look at adding a team from Australia in 2024 as a nice nod to the origins of the event.