Amid pandemic and cozier tour talks, Hopman Cup is the event we need

Amid pandemic and cozier tour talks, Hopman Cup is the event we need

The ATP and WTA couldn't get much closer than they did at the Hopman Cup, a streamlined and popular event that seems bubble—as well as player-friendly.

The pandemic has caused the loss of some prime combined (ATP plus WTA) tournaments, including, for the second consecutive year, Indian Wells.

But it has also led to some valuable out-of-the-box thinking, and a long overdue effort to create greater engagement between the two tours.

So maybe it’s time to make a serious run at reviving the defunct event that not only featured men and women playing at the same venue, as they do at the Grand Slams and some 1000-level events, but with—and against—each other.

The ATP and the WTA working together? They couldn’t get much closer than they did at the Hopman Cup.

Pam Shriver experienced many exciting match points while winning 111 doubles titles (including a calendar-year Grand Slam) on her way to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. But few of them resonate with Shriver as vividly as the clincher that capped Switzerland’s final-round win over Germany in the 2019 Hopman Cup competition.

“It was one of the greatest mixed—forget it—one of the greatest doubles points I’ve ever seen,” Shriver told me recently, recalling the title-deciding point that earned Roger Federer and Belinda Bencic the win over the German team 0f Alexander Zverev and Angelique Kerber. “It was the exclamation point to an event that had produced some terrific, once-in-a-lifetime moments.”

Tops on most lists: Federer and Serena Williams squaring up on opposite sides of the net for the first—and thus far only—time.

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That exclamation point turned out to be a punctuation mark that also spelled the death of Hopman Cup, which had been ringing in the New Year in Perth, Australia, for 30 consecutive years. It wasn’t the pandemic, or lack of interest, that killed the event. It was a fan favorite that attracted large crowds, undone by tennis geo-politics. The event was relegated to the dust bin to make room on the calendar for the new, muscular team-based ATP Cup. 

True, the Hopman Cup was an exhibition. With a limited number of nations (eight) and three-person teams, it did not have the clout or big picture significance of other team events. 

Also true: Hopman Cup was the first event (and thus far, only) event of any significance featuring mixed teams of men and women. It demonstrated a strong public appetite for the format, and prefigured the rise of revamped or new international team events (think Laver Cup, or ATP Cup) as well as the new era of ATP/WTA engagement.

The demise of the event left a bitter taste in the mouths of many, including co-founder Paul McNamee.

“I’m very proud of Hopman Cup and what we achieved,” he wrote in a text message. “The loss of Hopman Cup has left a hole.”

McNamee isn’t the only one feeling the emptiness.

"We had an unbelievable event here for so many years," Federer told reporters at the last episode of the event. "We [men and women] share a lot of tournaments together, but it's not the same as when you play together or share the same court. Let's hope it [Hopman Cup] continues in some way shape or form. I enjoyed the last three years playing there. I'm a bit torn.”

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Sentimental attachments aside, Hopman Cup is the kind of event the tours could really use right now. It’s impossible to tell the extent to which the pandemic will continue to shape tennis tournaments, but bringing together a manageable field of streamlined, three-player teams to duke it out in a best-of-three match format seems bubble- as well as player-friendly. 

“Everyone is looking for revenue, or for added value to two- or three-week properties,” Shriver said. “The US Open really showed the way in terms of putting on an event during the pandemic. Maybe it could become a three- or four-week event, especially if there’s a strong desire or a mandate to keep everyone on the property.”

The Hopman Cup format is straightforward and simple. It levels the playing field for the family of tennis nations because many countries have at least one high-quality player in each division, but few have three or four. Greece cannot be competitive in, say, ATP Cup (as we saw this year), but Stefanos Tsitsipas and Maria Sakkari are a potentially formidable Hopman Cup pairing.

Then there was the just-plain-fun factor. The men's and women's stars clearly enjoy playing together. The chemistry works. And as the third and final match, mixed doubles assumes heightened significance.

In an earlier, more far-ranging conversation, McNamee explained how he and co-founder Charlie Fancutt “lost” the Hopman Cup. In hopes of ensuring the event’s legacy and long-term status, they turned it over to the International Tennis Federation. The plan called for McNamee to continue to manage the event, but the ITF booted him when the original term expired in 2012. The political football was on the kicking tee. 

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The ITF turned management of the Hopman Cup over to Tennis Australia, which was already making behind-the-scenes moves to secure the planned ATP Cup. When Australia got the green light from the ATP, Perth was chosen as one of the three host sites for the new men’s team event. That was the final nail in the Hopman Cup’s coffin.

“The ITF is committed to upholding the core values of the Hopman Cup in the future and [we] are encouraged by the interest that has already been expressed,” ITF President David Haggerty said shortly after the Perth decision, referring to a bidding process initiated to find a new home for Hopman Cup. That process was suspended last fall due to the pandemic, and the ATP and WTA both told me in email that there has been no talk at this point of a “new” Hopman Cup event. 

Although the tournament was ahead of its time in many ways, in at least one it lagged behind: the name. Hopman was the iconic Australian coach who mentored Rod Laver and presided over the nation’s staggering success in Davis Cup through the 1950s and 60s. But partly because he was not a champion himself, the fog of time has obscured his role for subsequent generations of fans.

“I don’t see how some properties named for people can go forward,” Shriver said. You have to find a way to honor his [Hopman’s] name—maybe naming the trophy after him—but also have an appealing event.” 

Shriver, who teamed with John McEnroe on the Hopman Cup team that lost in the final of the 1990 edition, added: “The event probably needs a different name, and a title sponsor. It needs to be maybe the Zoom Cup, or named for someone who has done really well during the pandemic.”