Tennis Australia rectifies an unforced error with the advent of the mixed United Cup | Tennis | Tech Rasta

Jhe triumphant announcement of a mixed team event across Australia to kick off the next summer of tennis stems from a crisis of conscience three years ago. Billed as a world first “showing equality at the highest level of sport”, the United Cup will feature the best men and women in the world and is a positive step forward for tennis.

Three years in the making, the 18-team, $23 million event promises to be a celebration of tennis at its best to whet the appetite leading up to the Australian Open at Melbourne Park. Bar for the appearance of the Covid-19, it is a competition which would have started a year ago at the latest, and for good reason given the controversy which took place in Brisbane in January 2020.

For an organization that upholds its commitment to equality, a point made in the press release announcing the United Cup, Tennis Australia was on the defensive that summer as it tried to push back against 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 women’s tennis’ biggest stars.

Under a contractual agreement, the men’s team event was to take place on the main stadium grounds in Brisbane, Sydney and Perth, where it started on the back foot after being introduced at the price of the long and popular Hopman Cup. This meant that in Brisbane, which had attracted an extremely strong WTA field, the women were greeted coldly and sent to the back blocks for a ‘second hand’ event.

Just under 50 years after Billie Jean King and the Original Nine boldly took on the establishment by launching an all-female professional tour, the disparity in treatment and price gap offered between the sexes was maddening.

Ash Barty had returned to Australia as Grand Slam champion and the highest ranked woman in the world. But what should have been a triumphant comeback party in Brisbane unfolded in a doubles match on an outdoor pitch with makeshift stands instead of the Pat Rafter Arena.

Grand Slam champions Maria Sharapova, Sloane Stephens and Sam Stosur were all forced out as well, but not world number 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 are a lot of girls who deserve this place on center court”.

The Gold Coast-raised Stosur said the treatment was “a little rough” and “not great” and confusing to fans. Stephens was particularly scathing, saying it was disappointing that the women “didn’t even join in the conversation to begin with.” “It was what the ATP wanted,” she said. “They got what they wanted. [The] the girls next door. It’s a bit like that always.

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. As the men agitated for more money and the ATP Cup was offered by tour officials as a way to raise funds, the event was sold out in other international markets. Sacrifices, including the Hopman Cup, have been made by Tennis Australia to protect its calendar and ensure the best men in the world don’t start their summers elsewhere.

In itself, the ATP Cup has had some great moments. The atmosphere inside the Pat Rafter Arena as Alex de Minaur brought it to Alexander Zverev, with Nick Kyrgios taunting the German from the touchline, was electric. The finals in Sydney produced brilliant tennis. Hopman Cup co-founder Paul McNamee credits the ATP Cup with invigorating doubles.

But the potential for lasting damage to the reputation of Tennis Australia and the sport was clear and prompted TA chief executive Craig Tiley to describe it as a “year of transition”. Barty was yet to play his singles – organizers waited until the ATP Cup left town to schedule it at the Pat Rafter Arena – when Tiley confirmed changes would be coming. This included the prospect of a second stadium ground in Brisbane. With the Olympics on the horizon in 2032, it could happen.

After years of negotiations, which included some tweaks over the past month to ensure all parties are happy, apart from the exclusion of Russian and Belarusian players, the United Cup is now alive and well, with the lessons hopefully -the, drawn from the tumult of Brisbane.

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