2023 United Cup scheduled for December 29th, 2022Tim Strawn
The last time Maria Sakkari and Stefanos Tsitsipas were in Perth, the Greek duo was causing a stir as the underdogs. At the 2019 Hopman Cup, they pulled off separate mixed doubles wins over both Serena Williams (with Frances Tiafoe) and Roger Federer (with Belinda Bencic).
“Those are some of the best memories of my career,” Sakkari recalled on Media Day at the inaugural United Cup, where Team Greece is the No.1 seed, the only squad in Perth featuring players ranked inside both the WTA and ATP Top 10s.
Sakkari and Tsitsipas aren’t just fuelled by positive vibes, though. There’s a sense of unfinished business after they were pipped by eventual champions Switzerland in 2019.
“We didn’t make it to the finals, but we were very close to,” observed WTA No.6 Sakkari. “I would say a little bit unlucky with the scoring system. It wasn’t a regular scoring system.”
Tsitsipas concurred and said that Team Greece had set themselves lofty goals.
“We have our eyes on the prize,” said the ATP No. 4. “I have a lot of faith in the players that are currently in our squad. I feel like it can’t get any better than that right now. We’re really striving for excellence altogether.”
The Greek squad features two pairs of siblings – Stefanos and younger brother Petros Tsitsipas, the team captain, and Sapfo Sakellaridi, 19, and Stefanos Sakellaridis, 18. Their tight bonds have influenced the whole team.
“I think our spirit is one of the best among all of the teams,” said the elder Tsitsipas. “We have a family-oriented mentality in what we pursue. We are extremely collaborative with each other.”
Greece has been drawn in Group A in Perth alongside Bulgaria and Belgium and will kick off against the former. Despite the star power floating around the group, the first rubber of the competition will be an opportunity for lesser-known team members to shine as No.158-ranked Despina Papamichail faces No.381-ranked Isabella Shinikova.
“I feel a bit extra responsibility,” said Greek No.2 Papamichail, who enjoyed her most successful season to date in 2022. “But I’m really excited to be here with the team, with such good players. I’m really looking forward to helping to reach our goal.”
Shinikova was also excited about her upcoming big-stage moment.
“I prepare really well,” said the Bulgarian No.2. “Give all my heart.”
Bulgarian playing captain Grigor Dimitrov, the ATP No. 28, backed up Shinikova with faith in his team.
“Each one has their own character in the sense of what they can bring to the table,” he said. “It can be very interesting because after a couple of days of matches, it might come down to something that we didn’t really expect. Each one of them can bring something to the table on and off the court. That’s why it’s a team.”
Lying in wait for both will be the Belgian squad, which faces Bulgaria in the second group tie before taking on Greece in the third and final tie. Team Belgium also boasts a playing captain in Kirsten Flipkens; the 36-year-old ended her singles career at Wimbledon in July, but retirement hasn’t slowed her down. Since then, Flipkens has reached her first Grand Slam final at the US Open alongside Édouard Roger-Vasselin, won her sixth Hologic WTA Tour doubles title with Laura Siegemund in Cluj-Napoca, and is now in charge of a national team for the first time.
“It’s much busier the last few weeks,” said Flipkens. “It’s a privilege to be captain of such a great team. I try to organize everything for the team’s practices and take responsibility. So far, so good, I guess. Right, team?”
Flipkens’ squad features a wealth of talent: Elise Mertens, Alison Van Uytvanck, and David Goffin are all known for their frequent hot shots on their respective tours. Moreover, reigning WTA Finals doubles champion and former Australian Open singles semi-finalist Mertens could prove a crucial lynchpin of the team with her prowess in both disciplines.
“I’m ready to play both,” said Mertens. “And we have a good example. Captain has good volleys!”
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