The tournament boasted 20-time Major champion Roger Federer for the third straight year, along with 23-time Major champion Serena Williams playing in Australia for the first time since winning the Open two years ago. The two superstars would even share the court for the very first time in their careers, in the mixed doubles rubber between Switzerland and the USA.
Then there was world No2 and three-time Major champion Angelique Kerber, paired up with the man almost a decade her junior but already a champion at the ATP Finals, world No4, Alexander Zverev.
Greece introduced the flamboyant world No15, Stefanos Tsitsipas, to a whole new fan-base, while David Ferrer bid his farewell to Australia in his retirement season with typical passion and fight alongside another Major champion, Garbine Muguruza.
No wonder the crowds had come out in such numbers, no wonder Twitter was alive with quotes, and scores and photos.
And it saved the best for last, in a repeat of the 2018 final, between three of those huge names, Federer, Kerber and Zverev, along with the Swiss 21-year-old Belinda Bencic, a former top-10 player held back by injury but beginning again to show her formidable talent and charm on the biggest stage.
She clearly revelled in the company of her illustrious partner, revealing after the final that, “He talks a lot—he thinks everyone is a genius who can do all the things he says!”
When it came down to the final, though, there was almost certainly a little more edge to proceedings than just the Hopman Cup. The precocious Zverev had, early on, scored wins over his tennis idol, dating back to Federer’s stronghold, the grass of Halle, in 2016.
He scored another blow over the Swiss in the semis of the ATP Finals two months back, too, and here was a chance for Federer to reassert himself before the first Major of the year in Melbourne.
And the 37-year-old defending Australian Open—and Hopman Cup—champion had looked fit, eager, and aggressive throughout the week’s competition, winning all three of his singles matches. And his fourth would be the best of them all, a superb contest of attacking tennis played at a high pace and intensity.
The unswerving focus was etched on Federer’s face: He wanted to throw down a marker against the young star at the start of a new season after that London victory, but Zverev took a page out of his idol’s book with repeated early strikes.
The German’s serve is big—and here he maintained a near constant speed of over 200kph—but the more nuanced and accurate serving of Federer ensured the Swiss dropped only two points on his serve in the entire first set.
Zverev showed great footspeed and resolve to hold a seven-minute game, 4-4, but Federer was picking up the German’s serve with eagle-eyed accuracy, forcing the pace, and holding firm on the baseline. He broke for the set, 6-4, having pulled off 14 winning points at the net.
Zverev had a glimmer of hope in the first game of the second set, 0-30, and two deuces, but the Federer serving was just too good. The Swiss then pulled off a quick break with a backhand pass onto the baseline, 2-0, and after just an hour and 10 minutes, Federer smothered the net to break with his 25th volley of the match, 6-2.
It had been a statement performance that showcased Federer’s fitness and determination, one of his best matches in many a month. But now Kerber, also a former Australian Open champion, would be aiming to make a similar statement of intent.
The world No2 got off to a flyer against Bencic, breaking twice in short order for a 3-0 lead. But the Swiss, almost as quickly, hit back with a hold and break for the loss of one point, and then worked three break chances, as Federer hovered courtside taking photos. Five deuces took the game to almost eight minutes before Kerber held for 4-2.
Kerber got herself back in control with a fine game of power and touch, a forehand winner then a drop-shot winner. She went on to hold to love, 6-4.
Bencic started the second set just like the first, offering a break in the first game, but hung on through deuce for 2-3. Both kept up some admirable attacking tennis, and Kerber defended deuce with a pounding forehand down the line. Bencic held to love, but now she needed to break to keep her hopes alive. And break she did, 5-5.
They were not done, though: Kerber broke again for another chance to serve out victory, but again Bencic dug deep to break back: It went to a tiebreak. And Bencic took a bold 2-0 lead with a pounding backhand down the line.
They changed ends at 3-3, with their partners both watching intently from the side-lines, and Bencic saved two match points to change ends still all square, 6-6. But in the end, the experience and athleticism of Kerber proved just enough to seal the match, 7-6(6), with a final winner.
So the short-form doubles would, as last year, prove decisive—and almost impossible to call.
First the Federer serve faced break point, then the Zverev serve did the same. The difference was, Bencic pulled off a winner to hold for her partner, while Kerber was forced into an error, 2-0. And in the blink of an eye, and several razor-sharp interceptions from Federer at the net, the Swiss were at 3-0. Bencic sealed a final love break of Kerber with a forehand winner, 4-0.
Germany hit back fast and hard in the second to break Bencic courtesy of some great net play by Zverev, and Kerber held for 3-1. Then Bencic played a couple of weak net shots to put Federer in trouble on serve, and the Germans were swift to take advantage with a sizzling return to break, 4-1.
The Swiss had two break chances against the Zverev serve in the first game of the third, and the German double faulted to concede it. But Kerber denied a couple more break points to keep her team in the match with a hold, and when it came to Federer serving it out, she pulled off the shot of the match, a round-the-post winner, and Germany broke.
It came down, then, to the all-or-nothing, first-to-five-points shoot-out, and via some more glittering exchanges, that came down to the very last point of the match, a winner-takes-all ninth point at 4-4. It was, too, an appropriately tense, long exchange, once again sealed by one of the women: Bencic. The Swiss had won, literally, by one point.
The smiles and embraces spoke volumes, as did the affectionate, joking speeches after a tie of high quality, intensity, and crowd-pleasing performances.
However, this may well be the last Hopman Cup, which is scheduled to be displaced by the new ATP Cup which will overlap with the event from next year. But each of the players in turn stressed their hope of playing again.
Zverev talked of hoping to return next year, and Bencic admitted, “I would love every week to play Hopman Cup!”. Federer concluded with: “It’s been so much fun playing with you [Belinda] the last three years, and I hope it’s not the last time.”
With so few chances to see tennis in this format, including mixed doubles, and certainly between national teams—indeed only the Olympics—this event will be sorely missed.
Just ask the many, many thousands in Perth, and the millions more around the world.
There may be no ranking points here, but for quality, for guaranteed match-sharpening preparation for the Australian Open—and for fun—there is nothing like it.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge