Rankings, rivalries and riches: Why players have embraced United Cup

Key points

  • Teams from 18 countries in six groups will compete across Sydney, Perth and Brisbane during 11 days from December 29
  • Players will compete for ATP and WTA rankings points, plus a combined $15 million in prize money
  • Team benches will feature courtside and captains will be allowed on court during matches to coach their players

A good test of a tennis tournament’s credentials is the quality of the field it attracts.

By that measure, the history-making United Cup is off to a strong start, boasting four of the top 10 players from the women’s and men’s tours and a combined 31 major singles titles and nine major doubles titles across the field.

Casey Dellacqua with the United Cup in Perth.Credit:Getty

Competitors include Rafael Nadal, Nick Kyrgios, Alex Zverev, Frances Tiafoe, Casper Ruud, Stefanos Tsitsipas from the ATP tour, and Iga Swiatek, Madison Keys, Maria Sakkari, Caroline Garcia, Ajla Tomljanovic and Jessica Pegula from the WTA, to name a few, with Nadal and Kyrgios going head-to-head in the group stages when Spain play Australia in Sydney.

It’s a fresh start for tennis in Australia, promising big-name clashes from start to finish and more drama across each round than your average major, with in-match coaching allowed by player-appointed team captains and a “strategy room” packed with data available to players and coaches.

Alex de Minaur and Nick Kyrgios will team up for Australia in the United Cup.Credit:AP

A Hopman Cup with teeth, it has all the camaraderie of its invitational precursor, but borrows the ATP Cup’s three-city format and ups the ante with equal rankings points for men and women, plus a combined $15 million in prizemoney.

How it works
It’s a beast of a tournament, with 18 country teams competing in six groups across Sydney, Perth and Brisbane during 11 days from December 29.

Six countries qualified based on the ranking of their No.1 ATP player, six countries qualified based on the ranking of their No.1 WTA player and six countries qualified based on the combined ranking of their No.1 ATP and WTA players. Australia received an entry as the host nation.

The top six seeds are Greece, Poland, the US, Spain, Italy and France.

Each country can field up to four men and four women, with each tie comprising two men’s and two women’s singles matches, plus one mixed doubles match. In the event of two singles wins apiece, the mixed doubles will decide the winner.

Each city hosts two groups of three countries, competing in a round-robin format, and the winner of each group plays off to determine a city champion. The three city champions, plus the next best performing team, head to the semi-finals in Sydney. They’re played over two days, with a final played on the last day of competition.

Lleyton Hewitt will co-captain Australia with Sam Stosur in the United Cup.Credit:AP

Why it’s different
This is the first joint ATP-WTA mixed tournament – a feat of diplomacy in itself – taking the best of the ATP and Hopman Cup formats and combining them in a bold move for tennis. Some of the best men and women in the world will play side-by-side, in teams and against each other in the mixed doubles.

Unlike glamour event majors like the Australian Open, which opens days after the United Cup crowns a champion, there is no slow burn while low-ranked hopefuls are weeded out in the opening week. The tournament starts with solid match-ups against the backdrop of a team competition.

Team captains will add intrigue. Selected by the highest-ranked player in the team, some are playing captains and others are just there for moral support and entertainment. Take Australia, with Sam Stosur and Lleyton Hewitt. Stosur, who retired from singles this year, has put her hand up for the mixed doubles and could team up with Tomljanovic. Hewitt will be an excellent presence on the bench for viewers, armed with his iPad full of stats and replays, ready to bound onto the court to coach the likes of de Minaur, Kyrgios and Tomljanovic.

Then there’s husband-and-wife duo Agnieszka Radwanska and Dawid Celt who will sit on Poland’s bench supporting Swiatek and Hubert Hurkacz. Petros Tsitsipas was chosen by his brother, Stefanos, to captain Greece.

Rafael Nadal, Nick Kyrgios and Ajla Tomljanovic. Credit:AP

Team benches will be courtside and captains are allowed on court during matches to coach players, backed by live data and replays on iPads. It’s an intriguing set-up for when some of the game’s biggest personalities – Kyrgios and Zverev, we’re looking at you – line up to support their compatriots from the bench. These elements have the makings of some good old-fashioned fun for viewers, with sparks sure to fly when finals spots are on the line.

Why now?
Tennis Australia has struggled to find the right fit for the Australian Open lead-in. The ATP Cup started with a bang in Australia two years ago, Nadal and Novak Djokovic selling out Ken Rosewall Arena in Sydney as Spain and Russia fought for the title.

That was just before COVID-19 shut down global sport and international borders. The competition never recovered. It battled to attract top talent and crowds and, by last summer, Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime led Canada to a maiden title in a half-empty arena.

With fan- and player-favourite the Hopman Cup in hibernation, Tennis Australia took the best of both events and the United Cup was born. TA just needed to convince both tours that a joint event was a good idea and logistically possible. That proved a labour of love for tournament director Stephen Farrow, as the tours use different rankings calculations and points systems.

The appetite was there, however, and the line-up is testament to the players’ thirst for something different. As a season warm-up, the format gives players guaranteed game time, as opposed to the potential for just one or two matches in a singles tournament. For many players, it will also be a tonic to the isolation of the tour circuits, with the team environment offering support and a different energy as they gear up for the season.

Watch the United Cup live and free on the 9Network – Channel 9 and 9Gem. Every match will be available live on 9Now

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