The Hawks claimed the inaugural World Tennis League title in Dubai with a 32-25 win over The Kites on Christmas Eve.
First, reigning Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina upset World No 1 and 3-time Grand Slam champion Iga Swiatek in the opening women’s singles match, while Felix Auger-Alliassime defeated Alexander Zverer and Dominic Thiem & Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova dispatched Holger Rune & Sania Mirza, all in straight sets.
Swiatek had beaten all her 3 opponents in the round robin stage of the invitational team competition without dropping a set in the round-robin group, first seeing off The Eagles’ Caroline Garcia, Pavlyuchenkova of The Hawks, and the Falcon’s Aryna Sabalenka.
For the final, however, The Hawks chose to nominate Rybakina in favour of Pavlyuchenkova, and the gamble paid off as the Russian defeated the 21-year old Pole, 6-3 6-1.
It was an intriguing match-up between two superb practitioners of contemporary power tennis.
Swiatek has shown her brilliance all year, most notably by winning at Roland Garros and the US Open, while Rybakina’s triumph had come on tennis’ biggest stage, when she took the title at Wimbledon.
The Russian-born Kazakh started the match with an early break and, although she faced 3 break points in the first 3 games, she held on for a 3-0 lead.
Swiatek then broke back to win 3 games in a row and drew level at 3-3, but Rybakina scored another 3-game winning streak to close out the first set with an ace, sliced wide in the deuce court.
Rybakina struck 3 aces and broke Swiatek 3 times, while holding her serve every single time to seal the second together with the win after an hour and 2 minutes, putting The Hawks ahead, 12-4.
Kites’ Auger-Aliassime from Canada cruised past Germany’s Zverev, 6-4 6-3, in the following men’s singles rubber.
Wins earlier in this week over Novak Djokovic and Andreas Seppi demonstrated how far Zverev has come since tearing ligaments in his ankle at Roland Garros in May, but the challenge of an in-form Auger-Aliassime revealed how far he still needs to go.
The match began with several cracking rallies, each player smooth, powerful and able to dictate off both sides.
As matters progressed, Auger-Aliassime’s movement and precision, particularly off the forehand, put him in charge of more rallies.
With Zverev serving at 4-4, 40-30, the Canadian played a superb drop-shot to level the game and then, on the no-ad point, broke serve with a cracking volley.
Auger-Aliassime then played a solid game to finish the set and remained in control throughout the second.
The Canadian’s win made the team score closer, but the Hawks remained narrowly ahead, 19-16.
Unlike in the group stages, the WTL final featured the mixed doubles as the deciding rubber, a reminder of one of tennis’ most admirable assets in that no other sport features men and women competing alongside one another.
The Hawks looked to extend their lead fielding the solid veteran Pavlyuchenkova alongside Dominic Thiem, the sizzling shot-maker who over the last two years has grappled with everything from the emotional fallout of his 2020 US Open win to a wrist injury.
The Kites featured a mix of old and new with the long-standing excellence of former World No 1 doubles player Sania Mirza and the rapidly rising teenager, Holger Rune from Denmark.
As expected, the encounter sizzled with one sparkling shot after another.
Pavlyuchenkova revealed her magnificent touch and variety, rarely seen in her singles matches, while the ever-smiling Rune showed off his superb foot-speed slick volleying skills.
Mirza’s forehand and volleys had their moments, but for The Kites to have any chance of reversing their fortunes, Rune & Mirza had to secure the first set.
Both pairs traded breaks twice in the opener en route to the tiebreak, and when a highly-energised Thiem was serving at 4-5, 15-30, the Austrian chased down a lob, and hit a forehand crosscourt passing shot by Mirza, the stage was set for a great climax.
Soon the set went into the breaker, in which Thiem was also the commanding figure, and he and Pavlyuchenkova eventually captured it, 7-4, effectively blotting out any further hopes of a Kites revival.
The Hawks pair then earned themselves an early break in the second, and Thiem fired a service winner down the T-line when he was serving at 5-3, 40-15, to close out the match and secure an impressive 32-25 victory over The Kites.
The World Tennis League is a blend of formats – World Team Tennis and the Hopman Cup combined – and is a fast-paced, co-ed team competition, offering such departures from convention as no-ad scoring and an eye-straining goldenrod court.
As an invitational exhibition event, WTL provides a chance for a flock of world-class players to enjoy themselves over the 6 days by showcasing their skills with zero consequences on rankings or records, while also offering a rare opportunity to join forces with various peers.
The atmosphere was exemplified by the usually laser-focused Swiatek donning a Santa Claus hat to cheer on her Kite team-mates after her singles loss for the remaining two matches.
While exhibition events such as this can also provide a means of testing new ideas worth considering at other events, there is a danger that the essence of the traditional game can get lost.
The no-ad rule, in particular, and sudden death of the match tiebreak bely the possibility of a player to fight back, which is an integral plank of the sport.
That aside, the World Tennis League in Dubai has proven to be good warm-up event for top players eying another team competition due to start in Australia on Thursday, the United Cup, which is an official ATP/WTA event that carries the weight of both rankings and records.