‘Watch Australia’s Lleyton Hewitt take on China’s finest, tonight at the Hopman Cup!’ implored my television, via a promo pregnant with subtext. The subtext read that Hewitt is no longer Australia’s finest, and that China’s finest – Wu Di – is ranked 421, and that the tournament’s field is pretty weak this year.
The Hopman Cup is a strange affair, one that excels in spite of its format, although it is helped by its scheduling. As an actual tournament, it is almost entirely pointless. (Even after a decade of watching, I only ever know who the qualifying finalists are when the commentators tell me. Apparently France has now qualified.) I am not convinced the participants have much riding on the outcome either way. They’re here for match play in singles, and tend to treat even live mixed doubles rubbers with a practiced and professional levity. Each tie thus devolves from semi-seriousness into semi-‘entertainment’. No opportunity is missed to ask the players how many times they’ve played mixed doubles before. We at home are then invited to gasp and titter when they answer ‘never’. Believe me, this never ever gets old. It’s something to ruminate on as we then watch totally inexperienced mixed doubles players play mixed doubles.
So far this week, across all four tournaments presently underway, the strongest impression has been of rust. It is ever thus in the first week of the year, notwithstanding the lamented brevity of the off-season (otherwise known as ‘December’). The Hopman Cup celebrates this rustiness, and gussies it up with an insistently charming informality. So if it’s meaningless, it is at least engagingly so, and if the standard is invariably deflated, at least it’s all in good fun.
Some stray observations from the week so far:
- The adidas and Yonex kits are vastly improved from last year.
- Grigor Dimitrov has gained muscle, confidence, a deeper scowl and greater weight on his first serve. His movement has improved, but his backhand remains weak until he attempts a winner, and thereafter becomes erratic. His passing shots are also inadequate, as is his return of serve.
- Fernando Verdasco maintained a position in the top ten for two years courtesy of a monster forehand and a magnificently rigid faux-mo. He shaved his head last year, and now his forehand cannot find the court. Coincidence?
- Paul McNamee maintains an affable presence in the commentary booth, generally throwing in enough factual inaccuracy to keep things entertaining (Memphis and San Jose are not played directly before the US Open). He is not above casual racism, either: ‘I’m sure being Chinese he knows all about gambling.’
- The Hyundai Hopman Cup is proudly supported by Hyundai, among about five hundred other sponsors (not to mention Hyundai). No opportunity is avoided to list them all (Hyundai). Each nation’s team even has its own sponsor. The Australian team is sponsored by KFC, which perhaps explains why Jarmila Gajdosova now has the top speed and turning circle of a vintage steam roller. In the process of being double-bagelled by Marion Bartoli, she frequently gave up on pursuing her opponent’s shots, and instead commenced her usual routine of whining soulfully at her box before the ball even landed.
As for China’s finest, he was eventually ground away by Australia’s Lleyton Hewitt, as you would expect when the world No.421 encounters the No.188. They looked to be hitting the ball well at times, but appearances are of course deceiving, especially lacking perspective. I switched over to Brisbane, where Radek Stepanek and Alexandr Dolgopolov were duking it out, mano-a-weirdo. The Hopman Cup might insist with all its heart that a tennis event can be tremendous fun, but over in Brisbane they were demonstrating that when the tennis is sufficiently fun on its own, the event itself doesn’t have to be.