Tennis should follow, not abandon, Hopman Cup's dual-gender path

by: Steve Tignor | January 04, 2019

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WATCH: Roger Federer and Serena Williams dazzle crowds at the Hopman Cup

 

It’s a rare occasion when tennis gets mentioned during an American football broadcast, but it happened this past Sunday. The reason, as you may have guessed, was that Roger Federer and Serena Williams—the greatest male and female player of the Open era, respectively—were going to meet on the same court for the first time.

The tournament that herded these two GOATs together wasn’t being played in London or New York or Paris, or any of tennis’ other capital cities. It was happening in the far-flung outpost of Perth, on the west coast of Australia, at the Hopman Cup. Thirty years after its founding, this traditionally laid-back team exhibition was making headlines around the world.

Unfortunately, Hopman Cup’s peak moment may turn out to be one of its final moments. Despite the event’s good vibes, star performers, steady growth and penchant for virality—remember when Federer played the bongos? that was in Perth—this will likely be Hopman Cup’s last year. In 2019, the men’s tour is planning to resurrect its old World Team Cup event, rename it the ATP Cup, and make it the primary tune-up for the Australian Open. The 24-nation event will offer $15 million in prize money and, most crucially, ranking points. The Hopman Cup, which is run by the ITF and not sanctioned by either tour, doesn’t count toward players’ rankings.

For those of us who believe that pro tennis is a more appealing product when the men and women play it together, this is sad news. As George Bellshaw of Metro UK wrote, “Losing the only event that brings the top stars of both the ATP and WTA together on a single court would be a serious own goal.”

Losing Hopman Cup would also rob tennis of a model for how the sport can be packaged and presented in an equality-minded, dual-gender format that has the added benefit of being TV-friendly.

Hopman Cup’s arrangement is simple and logical—men’s singles, women’s singles, mixed doubles—and makes for a solid evening’s entertainment. The scoring is traditional, which means it feels like proper tennis, but the mixed doubles provides a novel twist to the proceedings. The format would work just as well for a World Team Tennis-style league as it does for a week-long tournament. It would also work well if tennis’ governing bodies ever tried to create a season-ending, dual-gender, international team event.

But as we’ve discovered over the last two years, the sport has decided, very definitively, not to go in that direction. Instead, it has created three new, all-male team Cups: The ATP Cup, a revamped Davis Cup, and the Laver Cup. In some ways, this retrenchment comes as a surprise. For years, the trend in tennis has favored combining men’s and women’s tournaments. By now, most of the sport’s most successful events are dual-gender—the four Grand Slams, Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome, Canada, Cincinnati. Since 2009, Tennis Australia has also run its own popular dual-gender tournament in Brisbane over the same week as Hopman Cup.

In this sport, though, every step toward unity seems to be followed by a step back toward segregation. That has been true since the start of the Open era: In 1968, the National Tennis League (NTL) became the first and only dual-gender pro tour; for a few months, Rod Laver and Billie Jean King played and traveled alongside each other. By the following year, that short-lived era of good feelings was over. Lamar Hunt of WCT picked up the contracts of NTL’s male players, but left behind King and the other women, who eventually formed the WTA. Fifty years later, the ATP and WTA still function as separate companies that compete as often as they co-operate, and the current Cup wars show that the men are still happy to go it alone.

As for Hopman Cup, that rare forum for integration, it’s likely to be a victim of those turf wars—to fall, literally, between the structural cracks in the game. The fact that it has been backed by the sport’s third governing body, the ITF, since 1997 meant that it wasn’t going to be backed by either tour, let alone both of them. The Hopman Cup has also received money from the local government in Western Australia, money that may now go to the ATP Cup, which plans to hold matches in Perth.

The ATP Cup, with its ranking points and, presumably, star male players, might be a ringing success. So might the new Davis Cup. And we already know Laver Cup is a hit. But they’ll still feel like a road not taken by tennis, one that has been casually carved out by Hopman Cup over the last 30 years. Without it, we’re not going to see Roger and Serena—or Rafa and Maria, or Novak and Naomi, or Sascha and Sloane—together on a court again.


This Week on Tennis Channel Plus:

Hopman Cup (Sat - Sat 12.29 - 1.5)
•    Roger Federer, Alexander Zverev, Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber headline the Hopman Cup. Watch live coverage on Tennis Channel Plus beginning Saturday 12/29 at 9:00pm ET.

ATP/WTA Brisbane (Sun - Sun 12.30 - 1.6)
•    Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Naomi Osaka and Sloane Stephens open their 2019 seasons in Brisbane. Live coverage from three courts begins on Tennis Channel Plus on Sunday 12/30 at 8:00pm ET.

WTA Auckland (Sun - Sun 12.30 - 1.6)
•    Catch the action from the ASB Classic including Venus Williams and Caroline Wozniacki. Live coverage begins on Tennis Channel Plus on Sunday 12/30 at 8:00pm ET.

WTA Shenzhen (Sat - Sat 12.29 - 1.5)
•    Watch first to last ball action from the Shenzhen Open featuring Maria Sharapova and Jelena Ostapenko beginning Saturday 12/29 at 11:00pm ET.

ATP Pune (Mon - Sat 12.31 - 1.5)
•    Watch Kevin Anderson, Marin Cilic and Hyeon Chung live from Pune starting Monday 12/31 at 6:30am ET.

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