The triumphant announcement of a mixed-teams event across Australia to launch the next summer of tennis stems from a crisis of conscience three years ago. Billed as a world first “showcasing equality at the highest level of the sport”, the United Cup will feature the world’s best men and women and is a positive step forward for tennis.
Three years in the making, the 18-team, $23m event promises to be a celebration of tennis at its best to whet the appetite leading into the Australian Open at Melbourne Park. Bar for the onset of Covid-19, it is a competition that would have started a year ago at the latest, and with good reason given the controversy that unfolded in Brisbane in January, 2020.
For an organisation that champions its commitment to equality, a point emphasised in the press release announcing the United Cup, Tennis Australia was on the defensive that summer as it attempted to fend off accusations of sexism. The introduction of the lucrative ATP Cup, an event similar to the Davis Cup, resulted in a farce that sparked a seething reaction from some of the biggest stars in women’s tennis.
As per a contractual agreement, the men’s team event had 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 cost of the long-running and popular Hopman Cup. This meant that in Brisbane, which had drawn an extremely strong WTA field, women were given the cold shoulder and sent to the back blocks for a “second-hand” event.
Just shy of 50 years after Billie Jean King and the Original Nine boldly took on the establishment when launching a women’s professional tour, the disparity in treatment and the gulf in prize money on offer between the sexes was galling.
Ash Barty had returned to Australia a grand slam champion and the world’s top-ranked woman. But what should have been a triumphant homecoming party in Brisbane unfolded in a doubles match on an outside court with makeshift stands instead of Pat Rafter Arena.
Grand slam champions Maria Sharapova, Sloane Stephens and Sam Stosur were all forced outside as well, but not world No 486 Michail Pervolarakis, who enjoyed rare stadium time. Sharapova, a five-time major champion returning from injury, described it as a “strange strategic move” and said “there’s a lot of girls that are deserving of that centre-court spot”.
The Gold Coast-raised Stosur said the treatment was a “bit rough” and “not great” and confusing for fans. Stephens was especially scathing when saying it was disappointing the women “were not even in the conversation to begin with”. “It was what the ATP wanted,” she said. “They got what they wanted. [The] girls to the side. That’s kind of how it always is.”
In a sport where unforced and forced errors can decide the outcome of a match, this was an example of the latter, with Tennis Australia backed into a corner. With men agitating for more money, and the ATP Cup arrived at by tour officials as the vehicle to raise finances, the event was being shopped to other international markets. Sacrifices, which included the Hopman Cup, were made by Tennis Australia to protect their calendar turf and ensure that the world’s best men did not start their summers elsewhere.
Of itself, the ATP Cup enjoyed some fine moments. The atmosphere inside Pat Rafter Arena as Alex de Minaur took it to Alexander Zverev, with Nick Kyrgios taunting the German from the sidelines, was electric. The finals in Sydney produced some brilliant tennis. Hopman Cup co-founder Paul McNamee credits the ATP Cup with reinvigorating doubles.
But the potential for lasting reputational damage to Tennis Australia and the sport was clear and prompted TA chief executive Craig Tiley to describe it as a “transitional year”. Barty was still to play her singles – organisers waited until the ATP Cup left town to schedule her on Pat Rafter Arena – when Tiley confirmed changes would occur. This included the prospect of a second stadium court in Brisbane. With the Olympics on the horizon in 2032, that may happen.
After years of negotiations, which included some fine-tuning over the past month to ensure all parties are happy, the exclusion of Russian and Belarusian players aside, the United Cup is now alive, with lessons hopefully learnt from the tumult of Brisbane .