Hopman Cup Preview
By Bob Larson (www.tennisone.com
Hopman Cup Preview
With the tennis year set to start next week, we're going to have so much previewing to do next Monday that we thought we should do Hopman Cup a little early.
In any case, Hopman Cup is an interesting event, unlike any other on either the ATP or WTA tours. It is a national event -- like Davis and Fed Cup and the ATP's Team Cup -- but it involves both men and women. It is, in fact, the only event other than the Slams to feature "pro" mixed doubles. Unlike Davis and Fed Cups, it is not associated with Olympic eligibility -- and yet, in many ways, it's a harder task. A Davis or Fed Cup tie involves at most two singles and one doubles match, and so you can qualify for the Olympics with a maximum of six matches (and often less) spread out over four years. But when you sign up for Hopman Cup, you're signing up for a minimum of six matches (three singles, three mixed), and it may be more. (If you can't tell, we think Hopman Cup should also confer Olympic eligibility.)
The format is as follows: Each team consists of a man and a woman. There are eight teams, grouped into two halves. Each round robin tie involves three matches: Men's singles, women's singles, and mixed doubles. As in, say, the ATP year-end championships, the teams with the best round robin records advance to the final.
This makes for a team strategy even more fascinating than in Davis or Fed Cups. In either of those events, you get two singles players and, potentially, two doubles players. In Hopman Cup, the players have to play singles and doubles. And, with only two singles matches, doubles becomes especially important. You have to be able to win one singles match to win a tie -- but the other win can be in either singles or doubles, which means that it may be better to select a great doubles player than a good singles player who isn't good in doubles. At least one country -- Spain -- may have made that choice: Their female player is Virginia Ruano Pascual, who is Spain's #3 active singles player (behind Conchita Martinez and Magui Serna as well as the retired Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario) but who is #2 in the world in doubles.
So who are the teams involved in this contest? Glad you asked.
The #1 seeds are the United States, with Serena Williams and James Blake. Clearly they deserve the top seeds: Serena is the world's #1 player, and she has two mixed doubles Slams to her credit. Few of the other women in the field can trouble her -- Kim Clijsters might, and maybe Daniela Hantuchova, but that's not much. Blake isn't quite as strong, but at #28 in the final Race rankings, he's the #4 singles player in the field. The biggest question for these two may be doubles: Blake plays doubles in Davis Cup a lot, and did win Cincinnati with Todd Martin, but he isn't really a regular doubles player. And Serena played only three doubles events last year, and hasn't played mixed in half a decade. It probably won't be a problem -- but if something breaks down, it will probably be there.
Australia is seeded #2, which shows something about the seeding system. Australia has the world's best male player in Lleyton Hewitt -- but he's teaming with Alicia Molik. In one sense, they meet the criteria for a good doubles team: A big power player and a scrambler. (Molik, in fact, is taller than Hewitt.) And Hewitt has decent doubles skills; he did win the 2000 U. S. Open with Max Mirnyi. But Molik has slumped this year, to #94 in singles and #104 in doubles. And she's pretty much a pure fastcourt player, and this is Rebound Ace. Hewitt, on this surface, ought to win all his singles matches. But Molik may lose all of hers. Can they win enough doubles matches to advance? We really don't have enough history to guess.
The Czech Republic fields a team of Daja Bedanova and Jiri Novak. This team could be real trouble. Novak, of course, had a career year last year and hit the Top Ten. He's also a very solid doubles player, with fifteen doubles titles. Bedanova is the weak link on the team, having fallen to #37 in the WTA rankings. But she is a very streaky player, certainly good enough for the Top 20 when she is on. A lot will depend on whether she is happy and healthy and in-form.
The #4 seeds are Belgium with Kim Clijsters and Xavier Malisse. (Expect a fair bit of fraternizing with the Australian enemy....) Clijsters is the #2 singles player in the field, after Serena, and she beat Serena at the end of last year. She also had good doubles results in 2002 -- though, like many of today's young bashers, she had her best doubles results with other bashers rather than conventional doubles players. But even that may be good news, since Malisse is hardly a doubles player at all. And he's the #3 male singles player. With luck, they may succeed on pure singles prowess.
Our dark horse pick is the unseeded Slovak Republic, which features Daniela Hantuchova and Dominik Hrbaty. It's a fairly good surface for Hrbaty, though it remains to be seen if the Slovak (who turns 25 on the final Saturday) can removed his form of 2000. And Hantuchova has been improving steadily. And she likes doubles. If all the pieces work, these two could be trouble.
Italy, with Silvia Farina Elia and Davide Sanguinetti, doesn't look nearly as threatening. Farina Elia is Top Twenty, but she rarely beats top players, and doubles isn't really her strength. Sanguinetti had the best year of his career last year, but he faded by year-end, and he is not a noteworthy doubles player. It's hard to envision them in the final.
If this were clay, Spain might have a real chance. Even if it were grass, they might do something. Hardcourts -- even Rebound Ace hardcourts -- make that harder. Tommy Robredo is a solid young singles player, with some doubles experience, but he's still learning to play away from clay. Virginia Ruano Pascual has a Conchita Martinez-like game that's produced a fair number of upsets -- but not on this stuff. Her best results have been at Wimbledon; she took out Serena Williams at Wimbledon 1998 (Serena retired, but Ruano Pascual had her beaten), and she beat Martina Hingis at Wimbledon 2001. She won two doubles Slams last year, and is #2 in the world in doubles -- but she plays back rather more than is comfortable on this surface. This is a team that can perhaps pull off an upset, but is unlikely to make the final.
The two teams in qualifying are Paraguay and Uzbekistan. Paraguay has the slumping Ramon Delgado and the steady but by no means spectacular Rossana Neffa-de los Rios. Uzbekistan has Iroda Tulyaganova, who was Top 20 last year but slumped this year (though presumably she's healthier now) -- but also has Oleg Ogorodov, who is probably the weakest male player in the field. Tulyaganova is the best doubles as well as singles player; Uzbekistan probably has the edge to make the main draw. Whether they can do anything from there remains to be seen.