Hopman Cup

Hopman Cup: Serena Williams and Roger Federer draw record crowds for memorable encounter

"I really enjoyed playing against Serena. What an honour!" says Roger Federer after facing Serena Williams at the Hopman Cup

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis

There may be no ranking points at stake, but over the years, many top players have chosen to use the team-based format of the Hopman Cup to fine-tune their Australian Open preparation.

After all, players can enjoy both singles competition and quick-format mixed doubles in a round-robin format that ensures at least three challenging singles matches—to test timing, fitness, and sharpness after weeks of training—and three short-and-sharp doubles contests to get the net game and reactions up to speed.

This year, though, the star quotient in sunny Perth has had extra appeal. Both Roger Federer and Serena Williams have won this tournament twice before, but these giants of tennis also have a combined tally of 43 Major singles titles, and have spent a combined 621 weeks at No1. What is more, as Williams pointed out, she and Federer have followed parallel paths at the top of the game for almost 20 years: They turned 37 within weeks of each other last summer.

It so happened that the USA and Switzerland were drawn in the same pool of four nations, and ever since that announcement many weeks ago, the hype had built. For not only would they play in the same tournament, they would play opposite one another on the same court.

It was a first—and it may be a last—so it became an iconic moment long before the tournament began. But by the time the two nations faced off, the USA had lost to Greece, and thus needed a win over Switzerland to keep alive any hope of making the final.

And once Frances Tiafoe went down to Federer in the singles, Williams had to beat Bencic—and she fought back from a set down to do just that. So the coming together of Williams and Federer would carry still more significance: Their doubles match was a ‘live’ rubber, and the winner would seal the tie.

America won the toss in front of the biggest ever crowd for a match in Hopman Cup history, over 14,000 fans, but it was not Williams who opened proceedings. Instead, Tiafoe took first strike, and all went well until he was broken at 2-2: the Swiss served out the set, 4-2.

Bencic resisted break points in the second set for 2-2, though along the way, Federer took a heavy blow to the side of his head from a Tiafoe smash. They laughed it off, but it might have been a different story had Federer not turned at the last moment: Just ask David Goffin, who wrote off weeks of his season when a ball accidentally caught him in the eye in Rotterdam.

The second set went to a tie-break, 3-3, and the Williams serve took the US to an initial lead in the all-too-fast, first-to-five game. But with the balls in Federer’s hand, the score was level and, true to form he served out the set, 4-3.

So the USA will play a final tie against GB on Thursday, knowing that is the end of their campaign, while Switzerland takes on a classy Greek duo comprising world No15, the 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, and the fast-rising Maria Sakkari.

And certainly, these kinds of high-quality contests between different generations can teach both parties a great deal about, on the one hand, the standard needed to top the ranks and, on the other hand, the nature of the threat from the new wave of talent that has ambitions to upset the old order.

But each player is also able to pick up a lot of feedback about the state of their own game, their own fitness, about what needs more work, or whether the body needs more rest and recuperation.

Federer’s serve, for example, has been working well, though with a good scattering of double faults. He talked afterwards about the need to adjust to Perth’s fast courts, and transitioning between opponents who range from a double hander, a leftie, and finally the single-hander of Tsitsipas.

But all in all, Federer has looked fit, fast, and sharp, and against Tiafoe in particular, he seemed to adjust his backhand wing as he went along, turning wayward misses into some winning drives in the space of a few games.

And what of Williams, who won the Australian Open the last time she played it—while two months pregnant—in 2017? Her seven titles in Melbourne out-do Federer’s six, but there has been a swathe of different Major champions since her last visit to Australia.

What is more, she has played just seven tournaments since she returned from maternity leave last March, and took a long break after reaching the final of the US Open. So her form and fitness are perhaps being more acutely assessed than any other player.

Williams played her first match of the season at an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi last week, losing to sister Venus in a tight three-setter. She has won both her singles matches in Perth, however, and while her biggest weapon, her serve, has not been firing on all cylinders, it looked promising enough, and certainly had Federer beaten several times in their doubles match.

If there is an area of concern, it was some apparent soreness in her right shoulder by the latter stages of Tuesday evening. Time will tell if that is significant, or merely the effects of getting back to full-blown competition after several months’ absence.

But to end where we began, and the meeting of two of tennis’s greatest stars. There must be few who anticipated all those years ago, when Williams and Federer first topped the tennis charts, that on the very first day of 2019, these now 37-year-olds would share the same stage for the first time while still playing at the top of their sport.

That each of them seemed as thrilled with the occasion as their millions of fans only added to the occasion.

Federer: “It was great fun. I really enjoyed playing against Serena. What an honour!

“I was nervous returning because people talk about her serve so much. I see why, it’s such a wonderful serve because you can’t read it… It was bit nerve wracking too—this is Serena Williams! But it was great, great fun, She’s a great champion, you see how focused and determined she is, and I love that about her.”

Williams: “This is a moment I will always cherish…

“The guy is great. He’s the greatest of all time. There’s a reason why he is so great. He has a killer serve. I’ve watched him all the time, but I never realised how good it was.

“It was so fun—as I said, it’s something that as growing up, together really, watching each other, after all these years we get to do it—at such a pinnacle of our careers really. For me it was super cool: I wanted to take pictures!”

And she got her wish: Federer did the honours with the selfie stick, both beaming, arms around one another, a truly delightful New Year moment.

Other New Year news as 2018 morphed into 2019

· World No5 Juan Martin del Potro will miss the Australian Open as he continues recovery from the fractured kneecap he sustained in a fall at the Shanghai Masters. He announced on Twitter:

“Recovery is going great and I will tell you later where I will be making my comeback. It won’t happen in Australia, but I’m happy with my progress.”

· Andy Murray, who this time last year was about to undergo hip surgery, made a winning start to 2019 after going 7-5 during 2018 and not playing since September. Playing with a protected ranking, he beat James Duckworth, 6-3, 6-4, and became noticeably emotional in his post-match interview:

“It’s been a really hard 18 months, a lot of ups and downs—it’s been tricky to just get back on the court competing again. So I’m happy I’m back out here again. I want to try and enjoy it as much as I can and just try and enjoy playing tennis as long as I can. I don’t know how much longer it’s going to last but we’ll see.”

· Johanna Konta advanced to the second round in Brisbane with a 6-4, 6-3 win over No5 Sloane Stephens. Currently ranked 37 after a tough run of form in 2018, Konta next plays Ajla Tomljanovic in the second round.

· Venus Williams survived a big first-round encounter with fellow former No1 and Major champion, Victoria Azarenka, in Auckland, 6-3, 1-6, 6-3.

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