The controversy over the cricket Test has obscured another unfortunate happening in Australian sport.
Friday night saw the final of the Hopman Cup, the tournament that has put the sporting spotlight on Perth for the last twenty summers. The winning scoreline was anodyne enough: USA 2, Serbia 1. But what the scoreline doesn’t reveal is that only 2 of the 3 scheduled matches were played.
The Hopman Cup is promoted as unique for its focus on mixed doubles and for its ability to attract top male and female players looking for practice before the Australian Open. Every year the tournament has been graced by the presence of Mrs Lucy Hopman, and stunning trophies in the form of diamond-encrusted tennis balls.
The format is simple. Two groups of four teams from eight countries, each featuring a male and female player, play a women’s singles match and a men’s singles match, followed by mixed doubles. The round-robin format concludes with the leading teams from each group playing the final.
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This year’s final was a promoter’s dream, with the two top-ranked teams, the USA (Serena Williams and Mardy Fish) and Serbia (Jelena Jankovic and Novak Djokovic), facing off. However, a few hours before play was scheduled to start came the startling announcement that there would be no women’s singles.
Jankovic had injured her hamstring earlier in the week. As a result, she had forfeited her singles matches against Argentina and France. Only her partner’s efforts had secured Serbia a finals berth. When the tournament doctor deemed Jankovic incapable of playing two matches, Serbia should have withdrawn from the final or produced a substitute player, or been forced to do so by the tournament founder and director, Paul McNamee. Having the next-ranked team play three matches against the USA would have kept faith with the crowd, which had paid up to $152 each to attend the final, and ABC viewers.
McNamee took a gamble that Fish would not beat the more highly ranked Djokovic. This would have delivered the tie to the USA—and given the audience only one live match.
Athletes are routinely susceptible to injury, even more so after a break from the previous season. Nevertheless, it is difficult to avoid concluding that top players are taking the Hopman Cup lightly. In 2007 there were four forfeits due to injury and no final doubles match; in 2005 there were six forfeits, including the final doubles match. Williams herself played only one ‘normal’ tie before last Friday’s farcical final; Meghann Shaughnessy filled in for her in the first tie, and another of Williams’ doubles matches was aborted due to the retirement of the Czech team.
The Hopman Cup now offers prizemoney of $1 million, and has secured sponsorship for the next five years. But if the tournament is to have credibility on the tennis circuit and with fans, McNamee needs to ensure that most of the scheduled matches actually eventuate.