January 4, 2011

For Love of Country

We don't waste any time in tennis, do we? The New Year barely even started before eight teams of players traveled Down Under to represent their countries at the Hyundai Hopman Cup. And so far we've had some pretty interesting -- and encouraging -- results.

For those unfamiliar with the action in Perth, it's not your usual Davis Cup/Fed Cup play. Until the Olympics adopt the discipline next year, it's the only professional, non-Slam event which includes mixed doubles -- and probably the only one in which it plays a Major part. Players endure a series of Round Robin ties which include men's and women's singles and mixed doubles, and every match, every set, every game carries equal weight. It's sort of like World Team Tennis, all smashed into one week -- but there's a bit more of a nation's pride on the line.

The unique format emphasizes the team aspect in a sport which is so centered around the individual. And while players don't earn any ranking points at the tournament, it's nevertheless been able to attract some of the world's greats from Steffi Graf to Serena Williams to Roger Federer, each of whom paired with a compatriot to bring home the trophy.

This year's field boasts three top-ten athletes and another three former #1's. Ana Ivanovic and Novak Djokovic headline the top-seeded Serbian team, with Andy Murray, Francesca Schiavone, Justine Henin and Lleyton Hewitt each leading their own pairs. And while it shouldn't be too surprising that the Serbs have so far compiled a perfect record, a bit more shocking is that the unseeded Americans John Isner and Bethanie Mattek-Sands currently lead Group B with a tidy 3-0 record.

But it only gets harder from here. Ivanovic faces her first big test since staging her recent comeback when she faces Justine Henin, a woman she's never beaten, and Mattek-Sands should have a much tougher time against French Open and Fed Cup champion Schiavone. And though Isner has beaten top-ten players in the past, he's only faced Murray once before and hasn't taken a set off him.

Of course there's a lot of game left to be played, but early results sure must give these two nations -- both of which have been struggling in the sport in one way or another the last few years -- a little bit of hope. And what better way is there to kick off a new year?

No comments: