SYDNEY, Australia -- Team USA has reason to feel confident on the eve of the United Cup. The Americans have sent a team to Sydney that sees No.11 Madison Keys and No.19 Frances Tiafoe as their No.2 singles players behind No.3 Jessica Pegula and No.9 Taylor Fritz. In fact, the Americans are the only team in the entire 18-team competition to boast a total of four Top 20 players.
"I think we have a great team," Tiafoe told reporters on Media Day. "Hopefully we can win it. Hopefully Taylor, Jess and Madi can carry me. It's easy to compete when it's not about you."
The United States is the top seed in Group C, which also features a Petra Kvitova-led Czech Republic, and Germany.
"I think it's an interesting group, especially with the United States," said Germany's captain Mischa Zverev. "They have very strong male and female players who have performed well over the last months.
"I don't want to say we're not the favorites, because we have a very strong team, but I think it will be very important to use all our little tricks to win those games. I don't want to say winning ugly is important, but in a team, you have to use everything you can to distract the other player, in a fair manner of course, but use your strength and win those ties."
The Americans will open play on Day 1 against the Czech Republic. Coming off a short off-season after a run to the semifinals of the ATP Finals and representing the USA at Davis Cup, Fritz will take on 21-year-old Jiri Lehecka. Ranked No.84, Lehecka finished his 2022 season by making the final at the Next Gen Finals.
"It would have been nice to have more time to dive back into the new season but I'm ready to go," Fritz said. "It's always fun to start with a team competition. We have an extremely strong team."
The WTA match will feature the second meeting between Keys and No.24 Marie Bouzkova. Australia has been fertile ground for Keys, who made her first major semifinal in Melbourne in 2015 and repeated the feat last January. She also picked up her last title in Adelaide a year ago.
"I lost to Madison here three years ago in Brisbane," Bouzkova said. "It's a hard match to start the season but I think it's a great first test to get going here."
Day 2 will see the WTA No.1s go head-to-head, as Pegula takes on Kvitova. Having finished her season with her first WTA 1000 title in Guadalajara and qualifying for the WTA Finals in singles and doubles, Pegula shook off any concern of a fatigue-hangover to start the season.
"It's always a tough turnaround but I think the guys had even less time," Pegula said. "For me, it felt like it was enough.
"A lot of us had to fly over Christmas and that's not fun. But coming and starting the year with a team event it's a different energy, maybe more relaxed, more of a fun atmosphere, a little less stressful."
Petra Kvitova kicks off the 2023 press conference season in Sydney at #UnitedCup, where she leads the Czech Republic against the United States in the opening tie.— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) December 28, 2022
"I feel as I'm getting older the off-seasons are getting shorter and shorter. "
More from Group C on Media Day at the United Cup:
Kvitova: "We don't have an easy group. I think USA is one of the strongest that we see here. Playing Jessica, I lost the last time, but [I'm] still leading the head-to-head. I hope for a good revenge."
Niemeier: "Obviously it was a great year. I'm really looking forward to the next season. It will be the first season I can play all the bigger tournaments."
Siegemund: "After injury, [coming back is] always difficult. You have to groove yourself back into it. but I'm super happy to be here and competing in a team event like this. It's a nice start to the year. You see the guys and the girls throughout the year and it's nice to kick it off with a team bonding competition."
"I'm looking forward to playing more singles this month in Australia and then focusing into doubles down the road this year."
Lehecka: "To play here and have these kind of matches before the season it's a good help to test your performance and a good chance to get some point and gain good experience.
"Of course I wouldn't be the favorite against Taylor but I think I have a game that I can surprise good players. I think that if I play my game, I will concentrate on everything that I should. I know that I am capable of beating him but we will see. He's the more experienced guy. Anything can happen."
Australia and Great Britain try to stop a strong Spanish squad
World No.2 Rafael Nadal and No.14 Paula Badosa lead a strong Spanish side in Group D, along with home hopes Australia and Great Britain. Nadal enjoyed a record-breaking season last year, winning four titles, including the Australian Open and Roland Garros. The World No.2, who will play his opening match on Saturday, is relishing the chance to join forces with his countrymen and women.
“It's always different when you play [as a] team. We are used to playing Davis Cup or Fed Cup. It is nothing 100 percent new, but at the same time, it's the first time that we share forces between men and women. [It is] going to be exciting.
“I think we can create a good team atmosphere, and hopefully we can start well because we know we have a very tough group.”
Former No.2 Badosa will compete alongside Nadal in Australia. A champion in Sydney last year, Badosa feels the connection and camaraderie Team Spain has created will help them taste success at the event.
“I think it's very important to stick together when you play as a country,” Badosa said. “Making a good atmosphere. I think what we have in Spain is that we have very competitive players, fighters. I think we will show that from the beginning.”
With Spain bolstered by No.13 Pablo Carreno Busta and No.70 Nuria Parrizas Diaz in the No.2 singles slots, Australia and Great Britain face a tough task. The home hopes will be carried by an Australian team led by Alex de Minaur and Ajla Tomljanovic.
“I think everyone is excited to kick off the year here in Sydney,” vice-captain Sam Stosur said on Wednesday. “We've got amazing players on this team. Alex is one of the best players in the world. [Jason] Kubler has had an incredible year as well, qualifying for a couple of Slams."
Great Britain, led by Norrie and Harriet Dart, will also compete in Group D, with Tim Henman captaining his nation. He believes the move to integrate the ATP and WTA Tours at the United Cup is hugely beneficial for the sport.
“I think it's a massive attribute to our sport to have these combined events," Henman saiid. "There's so few sports that are able to do that. I'm very much looking forward to it. I think we've got a great team.”
The ATP Tour contributed to this report.