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Previewing the inaugural United Cup: Rafael Nadal, Iga Swiatek descend on dual-gender showdown
The United Cup, the first co-ed team event to offer ranking points, will end 50 years of separation between ATP and WTA. Will it be a success, too? Three things to watch for at tennis’s 2023 kickoff.
Published Dec 28, 2022
WATCH: Events like the World Tennis League and United Cup are bringing new emphasis on co-ed competition.
For the five decades of their co-existence, the ATP and WTA have traveled on parallel tracks without ever officially meeting in the middle. While the men and women of pro tennis cross paths regularly—at the Grand Slams and the Masters 1000s, during World Team Tennis and the Olympics—they’ve never joined forces in a team event, on the same courts, with real live ranking points on the line.
That era of separation will end on December 29th, when the United Cup begins. The 18-country, 11-day competition will be headlined by many of the best from both tours. Rafael Nadal and Paula Badosa will play for Spain, Iga Swiatek and Hubert Hurkacz for Poland, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Maria Sakkari for Greece, Alex De Minaur and Ajla Tomljanovic for Australia, Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe, and Jessica Pegula for the United States.
For those of us who believe that tennis is—as the phrase once went—stronger together, this is a promising, forward-thinking way to kick off a new season. It takes us back to the co-gender camaraderie of the now-defunct Hopman Cup, but expands it across three cities, in matches that mean something for the players’ rankings, and for significantly more money—$7,500,000 each for men and women.
Of course, it won’t come without its bumps in the road. The home nation’s biggest draw, Nick Kyrgios, pulled out at the 11th hour; the tournament’s Russian ban will keep Top 10ers Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev, and Veronica Kudermetova sidelined; and the male player who has been most supportive of dual-gender tennis, Andy Murray, isn’t competing for Great Britain.
Still, it will be an historic 10 days. Here are three things to look for as the United Cup unfolds.
How does the format compare to other team events?
The United Cup has some advantages over other team tennis events. First, you can find the entire schedule for the first six days here. Second, like the old Hopman Cup, each tie is simple to follow and easy to digest: There’s a men’s singles match, a women’s singles match, and a potential tie-breaking mixed-doubles match.
Unlike in Davis Cup, one player can’t dominate the competition. As you can see from the schedule, each team will use different singles players on different nights. Nadal will play one tie for Spain, and Pablo Carreño Busta will play the next; Pegula will play one for the U.S., and Madison Keys will play the next. The sport’s breadth, rather than its few famous stars, will be showcased.
Who are the most intriguing players to watch right now?
With Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic not participating, Rafael Nadal will take center stage among the men. He has a lot to live up to: Last year he was perfect Down Under, winning an Australian Open warm-up event, and then the Australian Open itself. It seems possible that 2023 could be Rafa’s last, or next-to-last, season; he’ll turn 37 in June, and he was sidelined with injury for months at a time in 2022. He’ll play his first match on the 31st, against Cam Norrie.
If Nadal is returning to Australia as a conquering hero, Alexander Zverev is simply returning. The last time we saw the German, he was holding his leg and screaming in pain after tumbling to the clay in the Roland Garros semifinals. Zverev will also make his debut on the 31st, against Jiri Lehecka of the Czech Republic.
On the women’s side, Swiatek will be the headliner, but I’m most interested in seeing how Caroline Garcia and Maria Sakkari begin their seasons. Garcia ended 2022 on the highest of high notes, with a victory at the WTA Finals; does this famously streaky player have the staying power to keep herself in the Top 5 stratosphere for an entire season? With Sakkari, I have the opposite question. After several up years, 2022 was a down season for her. Was that a blip, or a sign of a more muddled and erratic future for her? Garcia and Sakkari will both make their 2023 debuts on the 30th.
Is the United Cup destined for success?
Staging an 18-team round-robin event is certainly democratic, but doing it over 11 days can get unwieldy. To fit all of the matches in, some are scheduled for 10 A.M.; that’s an eye-opener for even the hardest of hardcore tennis fans. And for every match that features a Nadal or a Swiatek or Team Australia, there’s one that features a relative unknown.
That said, the United Cup should bring a new type of energy and equality to the tours, and to sports in general, one that tennis has mostly failed to harness as it as traveled on separate tracks all these years. That, by itself, sounds like successful way to start a season to me.