Australia Returns: Previewing the Hopman Cup
More compelling than most exhibitions, the Hopman Cup in Perth hosts a form of national team competition that brings eight men and eight women to Western Australia. The event has become more valuable preparation for the Australian Open than ever after it moved from the indoor venue of the Burswood Dome to the outdoor setting of the Perth Arena. But the Hopman Cup always has attracted an impressive range of stars from Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic to Serena Williams and Justine Henin. While none of those four players appears in Perth this year, the entry list features a group filled with diversity in playing styles and career trajectories.
The eight nations will compete in ties comprised of one women’s singles match, one men’s singles match, and a decisive mixed-doubles encounter. Separated into two groups of four teams, the Hopman Cup follows a round-robin format that sets up a final between the winners of each group.
Most fans headed to the Perth Arena this week will arrive eager to see whether two of their nation’s brightest talents can rebound from adversity in 2013. Team Australia pairs former US Open champion Samantha Stosur with enigmatic prodigy Bernard Tomic, who never quite emerged last season from a scandal surrounding his abusive father. No off-court controversy dogged Stosur, but her ranking nearly plunged outside the top 20 as she failed to reach the second week at any major and split from long-time coach David Taylor. She will seek to atone for her disastrous Australian season in 2013 as Tomic aims to rekindle the memories of a title won on home soil in Sydney last year.
If the home favorites aim to bounce back from a difficult 2013, Team Canada eyes an opportunity to consolidate 2013 breakthroughs. Milos Raonic cracked the top 10 for the first time last summer, confirming his status among the most upwardly mobile talents of his generation, and he also reached his first Masters 1000 final. Leading Canada to the Davis Cup semifinals, he thrives in the team environment. A few steps behind Raonic on her career arc, Eugenie Bouchard gained acclaim last season for reaching her first career final. Perth crowds should embrace the charismatic teenager with a disarming smile.
In contrast to the youth of Canada, Team Italy wields veteran experience. One associates most players from this nation with expertise on clay, and Andreas Seppi is no exception. A strong 2012 campaign on that surface included a five-set epic against Djokovic at Roland Garros, but Seppi regressed in 2013. His career seems headed in the opposite direction from the resurgent Flavia Pennetta, not as deeply ingrained in the dirt as many of her compatriots. Some observers had left Pennetta’s career for dead in the first half of last season, when her comeback from an injury sputtered. To her credit, the 31-year-old Italian reinvented herself with a fairytale run to her first major semifinal at the US Open.
The highest-ranked and the lowest-ranked players in Perth share the same emblem on their passports. Joining world No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska on Team Poland is Grzegorz Panfil, a journeyman replacing the explosive Jerzy Janowicz. A foot injury prevented Janowicz from competing in this year’s Hopman Cup, which Poland might have been favored to win otherwise. All of Poland’s matches should come down to the decisive doubles rubber, where Australian fans can appreciate Radwanska’s deft touch.
Despite the affinity for clay that its players share with Italy, Team Spain has enjoyed repeated success at the Hopman Cup even when it was held on indoor hard courts. The defending champions send Tommy Robredo and Anabel Medina Garrigues to Perth, where each has claimed diamond balls. Medina Garrigues partnered Fernando Verdasco to an upset of Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic in last year’s final, the first held in the Perth Arena. Robredo partnered Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez to a similar upset of Great Britain’s Andy Murray and Laura Robson in 2010. Spain’s strong experience in doubles will serve them well in ties decided by that format.
In events featuring mixed doubles, a whiff of off-court romance never fails to fuel entertaining gossip. More than a whiff accompanies Team Czech Republic to Perth, for incorrigible ladies’ man Radek Stepanek recently ended his marriage with former pro Nicole Vaidisova to pursue a relationship with Petra Kvitova. The 2011 Wimbledon champion won the Hopman Cup two years ago with Tomas Berdych at an indoor venue that protected Kvitova from the Australian heat. If the extreme conditions hamper her, Stepanek still should give the Czechs a spark. An excellent team player, he shone in his nation’s consecutive Davis Cup title runs of the last two years.
Exhibition organizers could find few stars more suitable than the man who spearheads Team France. A perennial member of the top 10, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga specializes in the sort of daredevil, high-octane athleticism that thrills crowds around the world. Tsonga will hope to reassure himself that he has recovered from a knee injury at Wimbledon that troubled him for much of the second half. His partner, Alize Cornet, might welcome the exhibition atmosphere in a different way. Often oppressed by tension when playing for meaningful stakes, the fragile Frenchwoman can focus on simply enjoying her tennis.
Last but not least is Team USA, highlighted not by world No. 1 Serena Williams this time but by the woman whom many view as her successor. Like Canada’s Bouchard, Sloane Stephens should win plenty of Australian hearts with her vivacious warmth. The Hopman Cup will allow Stephens to find her rhythm ahead of defending semifinal points at the Australian Open, the scene of a career-changing breakthrough last year. Teammate John Isner, the only American man in the top 20, will hope to start 2014 better than 2013. Absent with an injury from last year’s Australian Open, Isner can use this event to catalyze a strong January when he defends no points.
Watch the Hyundai Hopman Cup in the Perth Arena from December 28 to January 4.