For while it may not be an integral member of the ATP or WTA tours, this ITF- and Tennis Australia-validated event has become an integral part of the Australian Open swing for many players drawn by its guaranteed three singles matches plus some lively mixed doubles to sharpen their reactions and net play.
For this is one of the very few places where national teams of two play in a round-robin format: men’s singles, women’s singles and a short-form doubles ‘rubber’ in each of two pools of four nations.
A measure of the popularity of the Hopman Cup is nowhere more obvious than in the names that have played and won in Perth: a list of No1s and Major champions as long as your arm.
Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Serena Williams are among the female winners, while Boris Becker, Goran Ivanisevic, Tomas Berdych, and Roger Federer have all fine-tuned their Melbourne preparations with victory there, and last year alone, there were five top-10 players in the field.
This year, both Williams and Federer are back in what may be the last playing of the Hopman Cup, and they are just two among a fine array of stars: Angelique Kerber, Garbine Muguruza, Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, plus the ever-popular and imminently-retiring David Ferrer.
But next year, the tournament in its current iteration will be overtaken by a new ATP initiative, the ATP Cup, an even bigger team event backed by big prize money and ranking points, which will be played by 24 men-only teams across 10 days over the festive New Year period.
It is, of course, not just the Hopman Cup that is impacted—though the ATP Cup will continue to be an Australia-based jamboree based in three cities—but it is likely to sound the death-knell to this unusual but highly enjoyable mixed format.
Perhaps that is why this year, even more than usual, there is a real festive feel to proceedings.
There is always a camaraderie beneath the serious business of winning matches, and make no mistake: the singles matches are highly competitive, as some of the first encounters have demonstrated. It took Kerber more than two hours to beat Muguruza in a tough three-setter; Zverev only just got the better of Ferrer in a final set tie-break in an emotional conclusion to their tie; and the home crowd could hardly believe their luck when Matthew Ebden came back to steal a win over Lucas Pouille, 3-6, 7-6, 6-2, part of an Australia team victory over France.
Certainly, the doubles matches, played over the new-concept first-to-four games and with ad-scoring at deuce, have a lightness of touch, and an enjoyable pace and vitality, particularly when one team already has the win following their singles bouts—as the faces of the players make abundantly clear.
This, after all, is the format of tennis that every amateur has played at their local club, where every man and woman has toyed with the option of thumping their forehand at their opposite number, weighed up the protocols, and—well the expression of young Briton Katie Boulter when she fired the ball direct at Federer’s midriff summed it up.
He hammed it up—he was in the happy position of knowing Switzerland already had the victory after singles—and Boulter clearly revelled in her first, and maybe only, chance to serve at one of the greatest male players ever to wield a racket.
Federer and fellow Swiss Belinda Bencic are the defending champions, and make a charming partnership between the oldest man and the youngest woman in the competition. For Bencic is just 21, a former world No7, and a returner from wrist surgery who has looked entirely at ease in the company of her idol.
Having beaten the less experienced Boulter, she happily took centre stage with her confident and enthusiastic plays, and the Swiss duo needed just two truncated sets to complete a clean sweep.
The 23-year-old Cameron Norrie won only two games against Federer, but spearheaded a good win over Greece, in the shape of Tsitsipas and Maria Sakkari, in GB’s first tie.
What is more, Greece will next face the altogether more imposing team of Williams with Frances Tiafoe, as the Americans get their campaign under way on Monday. So the youngest pairing in the tournament, Tsitsipas, ranked 15, and Sakkari, ranked 41, will need to find their form quickly if they are to top their group, and only that will do when it comes to the title showdown. The top team from each group will advance to the all-or-nothing final on Saturday.
Before then, there is that mouth-watering proposition of Federer facing Williams in the doubles on the first day of 2019, Tuesday.
It is surely one of the most pleasurable features of the tournament, and one that will be greatly missed about the Hopman Cup, this coming together of unexpected opponents. Just how well will Federer read Williams’ serve? Will he find it as tough to return as her regular opponents? Will she thump her forehand at the Swiss? Most significant of all, just how well will she play in her first matches since last year’s US Open, and in her first matches in Australia since winning the Open in 2017?
But another factor that also brings something special to the tournament is the combination of different generations with a common cause.
Only in the Olympics do men and women from one nation have to partner a compatriot, and in Perth, this has ensured that 30-somethings Kerber, Williams, Federer and Ebden have taken to the court with players a decade or more their juniors, an experience from which both generations can learn, and in which both can revel.
Yes, it will be a sad day if this tournament fades from the schedule. Maybe one branch of the ATP Cup will continue to bring tennis to this western-most state capital in Australia, but it will struggle to match the unique blend of intensity, joy, and patriotic fervour served up in Perth.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge