Tthe triumphant announcement of an Australia-wide mixed team competition to kick off next summer’s tennis follows a crisis of conscience three years ago. Billed as the world’s first “demonstration of equality at the highest level of sport”, the United Cup will feature the world’s best men and women and is a positive step forward for tennis.
The 18-team, $23 million competition spanning three years promises to be a celebration of tennis at its best to whet the appetite for the Australian Open at Melbourne Park. In the fight against the onset of Covid-19, this is a competition that would have started at least a year ago, and for good reason, given the controversy that unfolded in Brisbane in January 2020.
For an organization that champions its commitment to equality, a point highlighted in the press release announcing the United Cup, Tennis That summer, Australia was on the defensive, trying to fend off accusations of sexism. The introduction of the lucrative ATP Cup, an event similar to the Davis Cup, led to a farce that sparked backlash from some of the biggest stars in women’s tennis.
Under a contractual agreement, the men’s team competition was to be played on the main stadium courts in Brisbane, Sydney and Perth, where it started on the back foot after being introduced at the expense of the long-running and popular Hopman Cup. This meant that in Brisbane, where there was an extremely strong WTA field, the women were neglected and relegated to second-hand competition.
Fifty years after Billie Jean King and the Original Nine defied the establishment by launching the women’s professional tour, the disparity in treatment and prize money offered between the sexes has sparked outrage.
Ash Barty returned to Australia as a Grand Slam champion and the highest-ranked woman in the world. But what should have been a triumphant homecoming party in Brisbane turned into a doubles match on an outdoor court with makeshift stands instead of the Pat Rafter Arena.
Grand Slam champions Maria Sharapova, Sloane Stephens and Sam Stosur were also forced out, but not world number 486 Mykhailo Pervolarakis, who had rare time at the stadium. Sharapova, a five-time champion returning from injury, called it an “amazing strategic move” and said “a lot of girls deserve that spot on center court.”
Stosur, who was raised on the Gold Coast, said the treatment was “a bit rough”, “not great” and confused fans. Stevens was particularly scathing when he said it was disappointing that women were “not even part of the conversation”. “It was what the ATP wanted,” she said. “They got what they wanted. [The] girls aside. It’s always like that.”
In a sport where unforced and unforced errors can decide the outcome of a match, this was an example of the latter, with Tennis Australia backed into a corner. With the men campaigning for more money and tour officials recognizing the ATP Cup as a fund-raiser, the event was moved to other international markets. Tennis Australia has made sacrifices, including the Hopman Cup, to protect its calendar territory and ensure the world’s top men don’t start their summer elsewhere.
The ATP Cup itself had some great moments. The atmosphere at Pat Rafter Arena as Alex de Minaur handed it to Alexander Zverev and Nick Kyrgios mocked the German from the sideline was tense. The final in Sydney showed brilliant tennis. Hopman Cup co-founder Paul McNamee believes the ATP Cup is reviving doubles.
But the potential for lasting reputational damage to Australian tennis and sport was clear and prompted TA chief executive Craig Tiley to describe it as a “transition year”. Barty had yet to play a singles match – organizers waited until the ATP Cup left town to schedule her at Pat Rafter Arena – when Tiley confirmed there would be a change. This included the prospect of a second stadium court in Brisbane. With the Olympics on the horizon in 2032, it could happen.
After years of negotiations, which included some fine-tuning over the last month to make sure all parties were happy, with the exception of Russian and Belarusian players on the sidelines, the United Cup is now alive and well, with lessons hopefully learned from the debacle in Brisbane .