While Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal draw the crowds and the publicity in Doha, and Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin get the media frothing at the mouth in Brisbane, there’s some fabulous tennis taking the Australians by storm in the baking temperatures of Perth.
The Hopman Cup isn’t on the A.T.P. or W.T.A. radar.
It’s an event with no points at stake for the pairings of men and women who are representing their home nations.
But it is supported by the I.T.F., it is managed by Paul McNamee, and it has drawn an array of big-name players and talent to Western Australia.
While the Hopman Cup may not attract the hype of the Doha men and the Brisbane women, it can give the rest of the week’s tournaments a run for their money. On the men’s side, it has world No. 4 Andy Murray, No. 16 Tommy Robredo, No. 22 Lleyton Hewitt, No. 27 Philipp Kohlschreiber, and three more top 50 players.
The women, too, are holding their own, with Elena Dementieva, currently No. 5, Sam Stosur, No. 13, Sabine Lisicki, No. 22, and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, No. 26. Adding yet more interest to the event is the presence of American wunderkind Melanie Oudin and the burgeoning British talent, 15-year-old Laura Robson.
And it’s the British teenager who has set the tournament alight, helped not a little by her elder-brother-style pairing with Murray. For if Murray thought the tournament would give him a light workout ahead of the Australian Open, he was mistaken. Their mixed doubles pairing has been a revelation, reaping such success that team G.B. has made the finals.
The Hopman Cup is now in its 21st year, and was the brainchild of McNamee and fellow Australian Pat Cash. It is named after Harry Hopman, one of Australia’s greatest coaches and doubles players, and it is because of Hopman that the mixed doubles plays a central role in the event: It was his favorite event.
The competition is structured on a round-robin format of eight teams in two pools. Each tie starts with the women’s singles, is followed by the men’s singles, and finally by the mixed doubles. The leading teams in each group qualify for the final.
The prize money is, of course, a big incentive: Hyundai has once again put up AU$1 million! But there is a certain prestige to the invitation event, as well.
No fewer than 21 world No. 1s, including Boris Becker, Steffi Graf, Serena Williams, and John McEnroe, have used it as a winter-warmer prior to the Australian Open. Another high-profile pairing back in 2002 was a certain Mr. and Mrs. Federer: their tennis partnership was singularly less successful than their personal one!
It must still have come as a shock to Murray, however, that he and Robson beat the very strong pairings from Russia and Germany to win their pool. They now face Spain in the final, and have a good chance of winning.
Robson, not surprisingly for a girl who doesn’t even join the A.T.P. tour until this year, was unable to score a win in the singles. She did, however, take a set off world No. 51 Yaroslava Shvedova, and forced the top-20 Lisicki to a tie-break in the first set before going down 6-3 in the second.
Against Dementieva, it was a more one-sided affair, though she still forced the Russian to 4-6 in the opening set.
In the doubles, it was another story. The British pair got off to a shaky start in their first tie against Kazakhstan—or rather Robson did. They nevertheless held on to win the match in a tense final set tie-breaker.
By the time team G.B. played Lisicki and Kohlschreiber, Robson had found superb form, striking her cross-court returns to both opponents with vim, angle and accuracy. She and Murray showed great tactical awareness and confidence as they intercepted shots at the net, covered one another at the baseline, and read the Germans with ease to take a 6-3, 6-2 victory.
The duo needed all that confidence and skill against the awesome Russian pairing of Dementieva and Igor Andreev, which again ended in a pulsating tie-breaker that sent the Britons through 6-4, 6-7, 10-6.
Murray pronounced himself “rubbish” at mixed doubles before the tournament began. There’s now talk, if not of a Wimbledon pairing, of a very attractive medal proposition for the London Olympics!
He was quick to praise the quality of Robson’s contribution to their success, and picked up the bantering tone that has been evolving between them throughout the week.
“I’ve got to say thanks to Laura. She was awesome today and did a great job. In the mixed, the guys are supposed to dominate a match. But every time I tried to, we lost the point so I just let her do it all herself, and she did great.”
Murray couldn't do anything but praise his partner. Even had she not proven her worth on court, she has become one of the most popular players in Perth.
Robson was born in Melbourne and has family in Western Australia. What’s more, Perth’s Australian Rules Football Club named its grandstand after her great-grandfather, Pat Fogerty. And her uncle, Larry Dwyer, was part of the Premiership-winning South Fremantle of the 1970s.
Murray, though—in tennis terms—has been the star of the tournament, sweeping all before him in the men’s singles ties.
He may have signed up to the Hopman Cup to get three warm-up matches and some time to acclimatise to Australia, but he has sailed through in such style that the men in Doha and Brisbane will be sitting up to take notice.
It took him just one hour to dismiss Andrey Golubev 6-2, 6-2, one hour to beat Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-4, 6-1, and only 50 minutes to slaughter Igor Andreev 6-1, 6-0. There is now every prospect that he will beat Robredo in the final singles tie, though the Spaniard has also looked in hot form with straight-set wins over Hewitt and Victor Hanescu.
Robredo moves like quicksilver around the court, plays the most elegant of serve-and-volley tennis, and lights up the game with one of the few single-handed backhands on the tour.But Murray has looked muscular in both game and physique, is looking nimble and confident, fast and dominant. He’s barely broken sweat in beating some pretty good opposition.
On the women’s side, there have been wins and losses for all the players.
Stosur, for example, looked powerful and fit, but lost two of her singles matches. Dementieva finished strong against Robson but had earlier lost to Lisicki. So results were as uneven and inconsistent as the entire women’s tour seems to be.
Clijsters and Henin are, therefore, unlikely to be as diverted by the Perth results as Nadal and Federer are.
Murray flagged up his intent following his demolition of Andreev. “I didn't feel like I was making any bad decisions. I didn't feel like I was overplaying…If I play like that, then I can win Australia for sure.”
So G.B. is looking for a first senior title this week for Robson. But more importantly, it's also looking for that first Grand Slam, in three weeks' time, for Murray. The Union Jack is out and ready.