United Cup fills void for local fans but players must rally behind format for true success
The new tennis teams event unites nations, genders and fans on Australian soil. But the gap between the United Cup’s potential and its current reality is stoking conflict
Firing forehand winners past a legend and pumping his fists in a ferocious manner, Alex de Minaur gave the United Cup the local morale boost it needed on Monday night in Sydney.
In front of an adoring audience at Ken Rosewall Arena, the Australian spearhead overcame a set deficit on his favourite court to defeat Rafael Nadal 3-6 6-1 7-5 for the first time. But his thrilling victory in the inaugural competition also served as a reminder of what Australian tennis has lost given the remodelling of the Davis and Billie Jean King Cups in recent years.
Those events once provided the best atmosphere in tennis. Partisan crowds almost always enhanced the occasion. Generations of players were inspired watching their heroes in national colours in ties from Melbourne to Mildura, from Perth to Cairns. But the centralisation of the competitions has eroded that passion. Without those ties, dreams could be dashed.
As a case in point, Australian teams performed admirably to reach the finals of both the Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup in November. The men were beaten by Canada in Spain. The women fell to Switzerland in Glasgow. But both finals were played in the middle of the night, far removed from the eyes of young Australians, and drew nowhere near the attention they once would have around the nation.
As finalists, Australia automatically qualify for the latter stages of both events in 2023, meaning the Davis and Billie Jean King Cup teams will be absent from home soil for at least another year. It gives the United Cup an opportunity to fill what has become a gaping void for Australians starved of regularly watching their best men and women in the traditional team competitions.
The large crowds who have attended Australia’s clashes against Great Britain and Spain at Ken Rosewall Arena over the past week demonstrate again just how strong that appetite is.
The United Cup can only go so far, with Australia to alternate between Sydney, Perth and Brisbane on a triennial basis. But every three years fans in those cities can cheer on their local heroes. Young fans fortunate to watch de Minaur deliver on Monday must feel as inspired as the Australian was by those barracking for him.
De Minaur said “enjoying the atmosphere, the crowd, (where) you almost want to get the crowd involved after every single point and get fired up after every single point” added to the thrill.
A challenge for each of the Cups is to both lure fans and recreate this type of fervent passion for ties involving countries without the fortune of being able to play at home. De Minaur’s triumph preceded a staunch defence of the inaugural event by Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley on Tuesday in Melbourne.
Tiley believes there is proof the event will be a success in Australia, stating that 40,000 fans attended ties played across the three host cities on Monday. In accepting this point, it must be noted that two-for-one ticket deals were on offer leading into the start of the tournament amid reports that sales were slow.
“The United Cup is absolutely fantastic. If you watched last night, we’ve had full stadiums. We’ve had over 120,000 people already go through the gate,” Tiley said. “That’s remarkable. We’ve never had that. It beats most major tennis events around the world for one day’s attendance.”
But the withdrawal of Australia’s top ranked players Nick Kyrgios and Ajla Tomljanovic was a significant blow and the reaction has proven far from united, despite Tiley’s claim of “unbelievably successful, great, positive feedback from the players.”
Nadal best signifies the conflict between those who see the United Cup’s potential and what it currently is. The joy at watching his support for teammates is among the highlights to date. American great Chris Evert noted, watching Nadal scream his support for Badosa “warms my heart”. Similar support has been evident on the team benches across the competition.
Former world doubles No 1 Paul McNamee, co-founder of the Hopman Cup that ran in Australia until 2019, has long been an advocate for mixed teams events. He believes the mixed doubles rubber is the competition’s best asset and believes it should be played earlier in the tie to add to its importance. Still, Nadal’s criticism of a convoluted format on Monday night is among the reasons Tiley was forced to defend the United Cup on Tuesday.
Earlier losses to Great Britain downgraded the Australia-Spain tie given the title hopes of both nations were shot (though it is worth noting ranking points and prize money were on the line in matches). Both Paula Badosa and Zoe Hives opted against playing a rubber scheduled for Tuesday night, citing shoulder and abdomen injuries respectively as precautionary measures ahead of the Australian Open.
“(The) competition is great. (The) idea is great. It’s not great that today we are playing for nothing,” Nadal said. Tiley himself acknowledged aspects of the United Cup require tinkering but said some problems stemmed from rushing to bring the event forward a year from an original date of 2024.
“We’ll do a debrief (on) what can be improved for 2024,” he said. “It’s going to be a great event. It’s going to finish really strong in the finals in Sydney.”