HPERTH, AUSTRALIA—The Hopman Cup fever is as hot as the summer here in Down Under.
Former World no. 1 Roger Federer of Switzerland will be the biggest drawcard at the 2017 Hopman Cup, the biggest sporting event this summer in Western Australia.
The seventeen-time Grand Slam champion continues to ease his way back into action following a lengthy spell on the sidelines and will be partnering with Belinda Bencic for the Swiss team.
The 2017 edition of the Hopman Cup action begins on New Year’s Day through January 7 at the Perth Arena.
The injury-plagued Federer sat out the second half of last season, watching on as Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic tussled for the number one ranking, while his own ranking slid out of the top ten for the first time in fourteen years.
Yes, Federer had a disappointing year, but it is important to note that he still contested two Grand Slam semi-finals, the most recent of which was a painful five-set loss to Milos Raonic at Wimbledon.
He remains very relevant at the highest level, and injuries permitting, the great Swiss will be a factor in 2017- and it will all begin at the Perth Arena.
The Hopman cup features eight countries split into two groups of four, with the countries playing each other in a round-robbing format. The winners of each group advance to the final.
Each team is represented by one male player, and one female player.
Each match-up between the nations features a men’s singles’ duel, a women’s singles’ match and a mixed doubles’ contest.
This is how the groupings go:
GROUP A: SWITZERLAND, GREAT BRITAIN, GERMANY, FRANCE
Roger Federer has got great memories of the Hopman Cup. His first appearance was back in 2001, when he teamed up with Martina Hingis to win the tournament, but perhaps more memorable was his participation in 2002, when he paired with then girlfriend, Miroslava Vavrinec (now wife, Mirka Federer). Switzerland failed to get out of the group phase.
Federer will be joined in the 2017 edition by teenager, Belinda Bencic in a team of the walking wounded.
Like Federer, Bencic endured an injury-ravaged 2016, during which her ranking slid from a career-high number seven in February to her year-end number 43 ranking.
Bencic made a good enough start to the year, notably pushing Maria Sharapova hard in the fourth round of the Australian Open, but a back injury forced her to pull out of the French Open, and a wrist problem ended her Wimbledon campaign.
Bencic struggled on her return from those setbacks, but there was still time for one more bout of bad luck when she took a nasty tumble during a second round match against Svetlana Kuznetsova in Wuhan. Her tournament ended there. Bencic suffered six opening round losses in the eight tournaments she played after Wimbledon.
It will be nice for Team Switzerland to add to their two Hopman Cup titles, and at their very best, their two former top ten stars should provide a formidable unit- but the Swiss maestro and miss will just be happy to get matches under their belts in a more relaxed environment ahead of the perils of the new campaign.
Britain’s best performance at the Hopman Cup was in 2010, when Laura Robson and Andy Murray guided them to a second-place finish.
The Brits, parading Murray and Heather Watson, just missed out on a place in the final in 2016, but they will be without their world number one superstar next year, and that severely limits their chances of bettering that performance.
Daniel Evans comes in to partner Watson.
Evans’ claim to fame in 2016 was his heart-breaking five-set US Open third round loss to eventual champion, Stan Wawrinka (the Brit missed a match point in that one), but he spent a large chunk of the year on the Challenger Tour, with a sprinkle of appearances at ATP level.
Things were looking up for Watson following a second career title in Monterrey and decent showings in Miami and Rome (in May), but it has been downhill from there. Watson failed to win back-to-back matches until September, and when she finally managed to string a couple of victories together in Wuhan, her tournament was cut short by a stomach bug. She was forced her to retire against American Madison Brengle, bringing back memories of the illness she suffered during her US Open first round loss to Richel Hogenkamp.
Watson, at 76, is the lowest-ranked female player in the Hopman Cup, and with Evans at 66, Great Britain have a combined ranking of 142- comfortably the lowest at the tournament.
Germany’s Andrea Petkovic will make her second appearance at the Hopman Cup, and she will dearly hope that this second coming goes far better than her debut appearance.
The German was taking on Australia’s Ashleigh Barty in her opening match in 2013 when a knee injury brought a tearful end to her tournament.
Such misfortune has been symptomatic of Petkovic’s career. She peaked at number nine in the world after a brilliant 2011, but injuries have impeded her progress since then.
Petkovic has had her injury problems, but the other ladies in this group have also got their issues. The former top-tenner, and Grand Slam semi-finalist is the most accomplished in this group, and she will back herself to nick a win or two in Perth.
Petkovic is joined by one of the brightest youngsters on the ATP Tour- Alexander Zverev, who is fresh from a career-best season.
Zverev won just one of his three singles matches in his debut appearance at the start of 2016, but he is a much better player these days. Between then and now, he has beaten Federer in Halle; and has beaten Stan Wawrinka to win his maiden tour title at St. Petersburg. He will not be fazed.
France lost all three group matches in the 2016 Hopman Cup, when they had Caroline Garcia and Kenny de Schepper (who came in for the injured Gael Monfils) as their representatives. Garcia actually won all her three singles’ matches, but de Schepper lost all of his, and the pair combined to lose all three ties in the mixed doubles.
Now, take out de Schepper, and bring in Richard Gasquet, who returns after helping France to the final in 2012, and all of a sudden, they are a much better team. They will certainly make a better feast of it this time around.
Kristina Mladenovic replacing Garcia isn’t much of a difference; there is not a lot to choose between those two.
GROUP B: AUSTRALIA, CZECH REPUBLIC, USA, SPAIN
Nick Kyrgios and Daria Gavrilova return to the scene of their triumph twelve months ago attempting to become the first pair to defend the Hopman Cup title.
The United States successfully defended the title in 2004, but they did so with a different line-up. Lindsay Davenport represented the US in the 2004 tournament, Serena Williams played the previous year.
The hosts have got arguably the best combination in the 2017 Hopman Cup. Kyrgios is the highest-ranked male at number 13, while world number 25, Gavrilova is the second highest-ranked female in the tournament.
Both have done reasonably well this year years, with Kyrgios, despite all his antics, winning titles in Marseille, Atlanta and Tokyo- his first tour titles.
The dogged Gavrilova couldn’t get her hands on any titles (she’s yet to win a WTA title), but she ended the season strongly with a quarter-final in Beijing, semi-final in Hong Kong, and her only final of the season in her final tournament of the year in Moscow.
She will hope to continue that upward trend in Perth.
Petra Kvitova is a superb tennis player, but she takes it to an even higher level when she represents her country in team events.
The left-hander helped the Czech Republic to Hopman Cup triumph in 2012, to go along with the five Fed Cup titles in her collection.
Kvitova formed a world-class union with Tomas Berdych in that 2012 team, but her 2017 partner isn’t quite as high-profile.
The two-time Wimbledon champion is joined by 22-year-old Adam Pavlasek, who won two Challenger titles in 2016, but barely figured on the ATP Tour.
Pavlasek can at least draw from his experience in 2015, when he was drafted in as replacement for the injured Radek Stepanek, but given the quality of opposition he will be u against, the young Czech will struggle to make an impact.
No country has won the Hopman Cup more times than the United States, and Jack Sock and Coco Vandeweghe have been tasked with delivering a seventh title to the country.
This is a powerful unit. Sock might not have won a title in 2016, but he was particularly strong towards the end of the year, reaching the fourth round at the US Open; quarter finals in Shanghai and final in Stockholm. Sock is your typical American, with the huge serve and massive forehand, and when those shots are on, he can be unplayable.
Vandeweghe is not dissimilar in style with the serve and forehands, but she has often flattered to deceive. Her best results came on grass, but she did basically nothing either side of the grass court season, and tapered badly towards the end of the season with four straight losses.
The Americans will hope the more relaxed ambience in Perth brings out the best in her. If she fires, she can be very hard to stop.
Four-time champions, Spain will be represented by two debutants- Feliciano Lopez and Lara Arruabarrena.
It is not the most intimidating Spanish line-up you would ever see, but Lopez, with his big serve and old school forays to the net will be an irritant to many in Perth. Lopez’s 2016 scorecard doesn’t exactly jump at you, but he did manage to sneak in a title on the clay of Gstaad.
The same can be said of Arruabarrena- unspectacular year, but a title on the hard courts in Seoul shows the threat she carries.
Lopez and Arruabarrena have the lowest combined ranking in the group, and it will be a big surprise if they advance to the final ahead of the hosts, Australia, a powerful American team, and a Czech side with the dangerous Petra Kvitova. (With data from Livetennis)
SEASON OPENER. Swiss former world no. 1 Roger Federer will begin his 2017 season in Perth.