A new event called the United Cup has taken over the space of the ATP Cup in the tennis calendar.
The ATP Cup ran from late December through early January for three years from 2020–22 and was won by Serbia, Russia and Canada.
In its first year, 24 teams competed during ten days of tennis shared by the cities of Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. The event was well attended but the local television ratings were poor, even though Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic played in the final.
In the following two years, the pandemic took its toll on the tournament. Crowds were sparse and the number of teams were halved in 2021 and numbered 16 in the final year.
There was always resistance to the concept in host city Perth, as plenty of tennis fans there resented the cancelling of their very own mixed team event, the Hopman Cup. As well as missing the mixed doubles they loved to watch for 30 years, with just the men-only ATP Cup as a replacement, they had now lost the opportunity to see any top women players in their hometown.
The presence of women players is the main difference between the United Cup and the ATP Cup.
But still the Perth crowds were still unforgiving. They missed having teams of two, with star players in all three matches of a tie, two singles and a doubles. Steffi Graf and Boris Becker; Arantxa Sánchez Vicario and Carlos Moyà; Nick Kyrgios and “Dasha” Gavrilova; Ana Ivanovic and Novak Djokovic; Martina Hingis and Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Laura Robson and so many more, played for their country together.
The teams in the United Cup could include up to eight players each, meaning that some teams had to delve deep into the rankings to find enough players. Norway, for instance, stretched from Casper Ruud at world No. 4 to Andreja Petrovic at 1264.
United Cup attendances in Perth were small unless Team Greece was playing, when the local Greek community turned out in force. Otherwise, some sessions had only 500 people in a venue that holds 15,500.
Women’s world No. 6, Maria Sakkari, played the 2019 Hopman Cup with current men’s No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas. She now joined him as part of the top-seeded United Cup Team Greece, and referenced the Hopman Cup when she said, “I think it’s great to have a mixed team event again.”
Across all three host cities, there were nine top 10 singles players in action from a total of 133 players.
Each team had a captain who performed the same role as a Davis Cup/Fed Cup coach at matches – sitting courtside delivering tips, instructions and motivation.
There were several playing captains in the event – Kirsten Flipkens: Belgium; Edouard Roger-Vasselin: France; Alexander Bublik: Kazakhstan; Stan Wawrinka: Switzerland; Sam Stosur: Australia, and Grigor Dimitrov: Bulgaria.
Dimitrov explained how the double role was for him. “It’s a great pleasure for me to just have been in the side. It’s been a bit extra for me, I’m not going to lie about that. [But] everyone from the team has been trying to contribute the best way they can.”
After beating Great Britain’s Katie Swan 2-6 6-3 6-4 in the third of her 5-0 wins, Madison Keys of Team USA, commented that she accepted advice from the top ten players on the bench during the match, especially Jessica Pegula. “Jess is in charge, always. So we just do what Jess says.”
There were also, of course, former players as captains. 1997 Roland Garros champion Iva Majoli captained Team Croatia, an interesting development since she has recently been appointed as the tournament director for the new Hopman Cup, taking place in Nice, France.
Great Britain’s captain Tim Henman was a revelation. Having allowed himself to be miked for the television audience throughout the tournament, he was certainly not the “Mr Beige” some called him in his playing days. He was cheeky and at times combative.
In Great Britain’s Sydney City Final against the USA, Taylor Fritz served to Cam Norrie at 4-4 and Ad in the second set and faulted. As Fritz prepared to hit a second serve, Henman called out to him “Barney Rubble”, slang for double fault. Fritz paused as he took in the comment but denied Henman his wish.
Henman could be blunt with his own players. After Australia’s Jason Kubler took the first set 6-3, his British opponent Dan Evans was on his way back, leading 2-0 in the next set. As Evans came to the bench, Henman’s comment to him was “Forehand wasn’t great…wasn’t your best.”
Kubler got it done to defeat Evans and in the next Australian tie he defeated Spain’s Albert Ramos-Vinolas. Through beating these higher-ranked opponents, the ranking points he accrued through his United Cup performances saw him rise from No. 107 to a career high of 81.
He is also an example of how the AU$15 million dollars available in prize money to the United Cup players can benefit someone outside the top 100. Kubler received a participation fee of AU$23,000 for showing up and playing. Added to the AU$77,000 for his two wins, he came away with AU$100,000, providing a huge inflow to his coffers for tour expenses this year.
On the flipside, the United Cup has problems to solve for its next edition. Craig Tiley, CEO of Tennis Australia who devised the event and ran it jointly with the WTA and ATP, acknowledged that “…we’ll do a debrief on what can we can improve for 2024. Any tweaks we need to make…we can do it.”
It’s hard to imagine that the format of playing five rubbers over two days will last. More practical for both players and fans would be three rubbers played over a one day session. This move could have the additional benefit of reducing the number of dead rubbers in the event.
Spanish team member Rafael Nadal withdrew from his second round mixed doubles match as it was a dead rubber in a dead tie.
An even bigger issue was the occurrence of the dead ties. Teams Spain and Australia had to play a redundant two-day tie when they were already unable to progress further due to their previous losses.
Nadal spoke at a press conference about his disappointment in playing a dead tie. He cushioned his comments by saying the event was a great idea but added, “It’s not great that today we are playing for nothing” and suggested some scheduling solutions for 2024.
Then there’s the issue of players in the Brisbane and Perth City Groups having to fly to Sydney for the semi-finals and final. Each of the cities has its own summer time zone. And while the Sydney players have a rest day, the players joining them must travel, and for the Perth based players, it’s a four hour flight, not including time spent at airports, combined with a three hour time difference.
Plus a team based in Sydney has almost a home court advantage, something acknowledged by Pegula when she thrashed world No. 1 Iga Świątek in 71 minutes in their semi final match after Świątek had to fly down from Brisbane.
As a wild Sydney storm raged outside the Arena, Świątek wept after her loss. She had won all five of her matches – three singles and two mixed doubles – to that point of the tournament. The Poles in the Sydney crowd chanted “Iga” but Świątek waved to them with her towel over her head and was consoled by Polish captain Agnieszka Radwańska.
Despite the tournament’s structural defects, it featured some exciting matches and the players seemed to genuinely enjoy a camaraderie with their compatriots.
“You can see that the team chemistry is unbelievable,” remarked Stefanos Sakellardis after providing one of the event’s good news stories.
The 18 year old member of Team Greece had replaced the injured Michail Pervolarakis at the last minute, to take the court for his first ATP match. He won over Belgian Zizou Bergs 5-7, 6-1, 6-3. Bergs is the world No. 129 while Sakellardis is 830, now on his way to 647 thanks to his fighting win.
Sakellardis couldn’t repeat the feat against Lorenzo Musetti in the semi final against Italy, winning just two games. Still, through the United Cup, he got his first ATP tour win, and as he remarked, “prize money that I couldn’t imagine”.
Nadal was unable to play at his best in the tournament. He has sensibly adjusted his serve to make contact lower on the ball toss and spare his fragile abdomen from straining. But he served poorly and was beaten in his singles matches by Great Britain’s Cam Norrie 3-6 6-3 6-4, and Australia’s Alex De Minaur 3-6 6-1 7-5.
He managed some remarkable forehands, but generally lacked his usual sharpness. “I need hours on court…I didn’t play much official matches the last six months, almost seven,” he said as he bowed out of the event.
His presence, however, gave the event added credibility and he drew in the crowds. Even for a dead rubber in a dead tie, Ken Rosewall Arena was absolutely packed for perennial fave Nadal versus homegrown boy De Minaur.
In the first semi, despite the lopsided scoreline of 5-0 to Team USA, there were two outstanding matches. The second men’s singles saw Fritz squeeze past Poland’s Hubert Hurcasz 7-6(5) 7-6(5), and the mixed doubles between Kubot / Rosolska and Pegula / Fritz was 115 minutes of dazzling winners from both sides ending at 7-6(5) 4-6 10-6. Team Poland must have felt unlucky to lose.
The Italian team made the semis by being the best-ranked losing nation from the City Groups round and played Greece for a berth in the final.
This semi featured a gritty battle Tsitsipas between Matteo Berrettini over two hours and thirty five minutes.
Tsitsipas started the match struggling to return Berrettini’s impressive serve. The Greek focused on holding his own serve, reminding himself “you have to accept a few” and adding, “I was waiting for my chances”.
After losing the first set 4-6, Tsitsipas finally got his return going in the second set tiebreak to take it 7-2.
He eventually broke to go 4-3 in the deciding set. “I think my concentration peaked at that particular game,” he said after the match, which he had clinched 6-4 in the third.
As sometimes happens, the final itself was anti-climatic after the excitement of previous ties. All the matches were straight sets, including Musetti’s retirement, with the closest being Fritz’s double tiebreak defeat of Berrettini, and since it was already a 4-0 clean sweep to Team USA, the mixed doubles rubber wasn’t played.
The United Cup is a hard tournament to watch and keep track of, with simultaneous ties across three cities for the City Groups. To see it all, a fan must watch live in one city while recording on two TV channels the two concurrent day and night telecasts.
But it’s a promising idea that provided some outstanding matches. And the necessary “tweaks” will improve the format for 2024.
Title photo of Francia Tiafoe by Tennis Australia/James Gourley