The inaugural AU$15 million United Cup culminated in January with the USA proving too strong for Italy in the final.
The mixed team competition, which offers ranking points for every rubber, has potential but adjustments to the format are needed for it to be fully realised.
The format of 18 teams split into six groups of three threw up a dilemma.
Two groups each were played in Perth, Brisbane and Sydney. The six group winners advanced to the next round. In what was dubbed the City Finals, the two group winners from each city played off to determine the semi final line up. The winners of each City Final progressed along with the best performed losing nation. Subsequently, Italy qualified for the semi finals despite losing their City Final to Poland.
There is also no question the USA, based in Sydney, received a significant advantage not having to travel the day after the City Finals.
The Poles and Italians had to fly down from Brisbane (a 750 kilometre journey; one hour and 15 minutes by air) while the Greeks made the arduous trip from Perth (a 3290 kilometre journey; four hours and 15 minutes by air).
Jessica Pegula acknowledged this after her 6-2, 6-2 defeat of world No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the USA/Poland semi final.
“I know they [Poland] had a tough turn around yesterday flying here,” Pegula said. “We’ve been lucky enough to be here and have maybe a little bit of an advantage being used to the court. I wanted to take that and use it as much as I could.”
The three teams per group format also presents a potential problem. The group of Australia, Great Britain and Spain was a case in point.
The Brits defeated Spain and Australia in the group’s opening two ties rendering the Australia versus Spain tie effectively dead as Great Britain had already won the group.
Rafael Nadal, who represented Spain, was supportive of the event overall, but expressed concerns about that particular issue.
The ties were played over five rubbers – two men’s singles, two women’s singles and the mixed doubles which was always played last. There were calls within the tennis community for the mixed to be moved to the third rubber ensuring that it would always have a critical role to play in each tie. The City finals and the indeed the Final itself were played in one day, meaning a morning start to fit in the five rubbers.
The decision by Tennis Australia to include 18 teams in the draw should be a subject for debate. A number of teams struggled to fill out their squads with enough depth and had to rely on players ranked well outside the top 100 (or outside the top 200 in some instances).
Team Norway, for example, was led by world No. 4 Casper Ruud, but the next highest ranked player was Viktor Durasovic at No. 333 while the sixth member of the team was ranked 1264.
How to improve the tournament?
The field could be reduced from 18 teams to 12, ensuring more competitive ties across the board.
There would be four groups of three nations with the top two in each group advancing to a quarter final stage. That scenario would ensure each tie in the round robin would be live.
The most feasible option would be to play two of the four groups in Sydney, and one group each in Brisbane and Perth.
The tournament organisers could adjust the schedule to ensure the groups in Perth and Brisbane finish two days before the semi final round in Sydney. This change would give the qualified teams from Perth and Brisbane an extra day to recover from travel obligations.
Significant obstacles present if Tennis Australia was thinking of adding a fourth venue.
The Canberra Tennis Centre hosted a WTA satellite tournament this year in the same week the United Cup was played. The venue, which boasts a 4,000 seat centre court, also does not have a roof, while the Sydney, Brisbane and Perth venues all do.
Hobart, in Tasmania, plays host to a well established WTA 250 event the week following the United Cup and, in any case, the Hobart venue does not have a roof either.
Adelaide runs consecutive combined ATP/WTA events in the fortnight before the Australian Open so has a clash with the United Cup.
Another concern was that the City Finals and the Final itself had to be completed all in just one day – as opposed to the usual schedule of spreading each tie over two days.
If the field was reduced to 12 teams, there would be fewer first round ties perhaps opening up more room in the schedule to spread all ties – including the Final – over two days.
Alternatively, the format of five rubbers played over two days could be reduced to three in one day, ensuring an outcome for a tie each day. This would also alleviate the public’s confusion over the format.
Last but certainly not least, Tennis Australia has already agreed it will look at moving the mixed doubles rubber from the fifth match to the third match, ensuring it would always have a critical role to play in each tie. This would most definitely be welcome.
As Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley has conceded, the United Cup was pulled together quickly. “We had a five week run up to organise it. Everyone wanted us to only do it in 2024 but we made a decision to do it in 2023,” he said.
“Any tweaks that we need to make, we are prepared to do that.”
Title photo of Team USA by Tennis Australia/James Gourley
The Queensland State Government and Tennis Australia announced on 15 September 2023 that the Brisbane International, a combined WTA 500 and ATP 250 event, would return in 2024.
The tournament will run during the first week of the new tennis season from 31 December 2023 to 7 January 2024. The women’s singles draw will contain 48 players (up from 32 in previous years) and the men’s singles 32.
The Brisbane International was last played in 2019.
Tennis Australia has also confirmed that the 2024 United Cup will run from 29 December – 7 January. With Brisbane now committed to the International, the United Cup host cities will be reduced to Sydney and Perth.