Sakkari, Tsitsipas drawing on fond memories in Perth for United Cup

2023 United Cup
Sapfo Sakellaridi, Despina Papamichail, Maria Sakkari, Valentini Grammatikopoulou - United Cup 2023

Trevor Collens/Tennis Australia

PERTH, Australia -- The last time Maria Sakkari and Stefanos Tsitsipas were in Perth, the Greek duo were causing a stir as the underdogs. At the 2019 Hopman Cup run, 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 are now the No.1 seeds -- the only squad in Perth featuring players ranked inside both the WTA and ATP Top 10s.

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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."

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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 all together."

The Greek squad features two pairs of siblings - Stefanos and younger brother Petros, who is also the team captain, as well as Sapfo Sakellaridi, 19, and Stefanos Sakellaridis, 18. Their tight bonds have influenced the whole team.

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"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 between each other."

Greece have 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.

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"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 for 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 Shinikova up with faith in his team.

"Each one has their own characteristic 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."

Team Bulgaria ahead of the 2023 United Cup (left to right: Gergana Topalova, Dimitar Kuzmanov, Viktoriya Tomova, Grigor Dimitrov, Isabella Shinikova, Adrian Andreev, Alexandar Lazarov).

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Lying in wait for both will be the Belgian squad, who face Bulgaria in the second group tie before taking on Greece in the third and final tie. Team Belgium also boast 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 more busy the last few weeks," said Flipkens. "It's a privilege to be captain of such a great team.  I just try to organise everything for the practices for the team and just take the 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 semifinalist 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!"

Meanwhilein Group F, Caroline Garcia and Alizé Cornet are feeling nothing but excitement as they return to Perth to spearhead Team France’s charge at the inaugural United Cup.

The pair were part of France's Billie Jean King Cup-winning team in 2019, a victory that was clinched with a final victory against Australia.

"Yesterday when we had our first hit on centre court with Caroline, we had a little moment of emotion coming back on this court," said Cornet of Perth's RAC Arena, where Team France will take on Team Croatia and Team Argentina in Group F. "It was very powerful, this team experience, and this joy of winning… So I hope this lucky charm is going to act on this team, because we have a really good team to go far in the tournament."

Captain Édouard Roger-Vasselin has a strong team at his disposal this week, when Top 50 ATP stars Arthur Rinderknech and Adrian Mannarino join Cornet and WTA World No.4 Caroline Garcia as their team's singles players. Garcia reached her maiden Grand Slam semifinal at the US Open before lifting the biggest title of her career at the WTA Finals Fort Worth, and the 29-year-old is keen to showcase more of that form to help her team to success this week in Perth.

"I think with the format, every match and every game is important," said Garcia. “If you cannot qualify as first one, it would be the second one, and so every match is very important for the team. But also as your personal goal, you want to keep improving, play the best you can when you're on court."

Team Croatia ahead of the 2023 United Cup (left to right: Tara Wurth, Borna Gojo, Donna Vekic, Borna Coric, Petra Martic, captain Iva Majoli, Petra Marcinko, Matija Pecotic).

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Another player who enjoyed the biggest win of his career last season was Borna Coric, who clinched his maiden ATP Masters 1000 title at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. The 26-year-old is the highest-ranked singles player on Team Croatia and believes the unique nature of the mixed-teams event is a motivating factor.

"I would like to see how the girls are going to be playing, how the men are going to be playing," said Coric. "If we win, it's going to be great… [The creation of this event] is very, very important. I'm sure we going to do great, that we going to have a very, very good time. I think that's the most important as well."

Like France, Team Croatia possesses considerable strength-in-depth. Former WTA Top 20 stars Petra Martic and Donna Vekic are both looking to build on resurgent showings in the 2022 season.

"You want to take the good times into the new season, build on that good feeling and good momentum," said Martic, who lifted her second WTA Tour title in Lausanne in July. "I'm feeling pretty good. I think I was progressing last year from beginning until the end. I was playing better and better. I hope I can keep doing that in 2023."

"I'm really happy to be in Perth, to be playing this event," said former WTA No.19 Vekic. "I think it's a great start of the year. We have two matches guaranteed, and hopefully we can play a couple more. Hopefully I can continue in good form from last year."

It is not just the United Cup experience that will be new for Team Argentina this week. Former WTA doubles No.1 and team captain Gisela Dulko admitted most of team had only recently met for the first time, but believes that could only improve their first United Cup experience.

"We don't know each other since very long," said Dulko. "So it's going to be our first experience. We are happy we are going to have this time to know each other, to talk, to help each other. It's going to be a good week for us."

Team Argentina’s lead WTA singles player is Nadia Podoroska, while ATP No.30 Francisco Cerundolo is the highest-ranked singles player in the group. Like many of his compatriots, Cerundolo admitted to being inspired by the exploits of Argentina's men's football team, which claimed World Cup victory in Qatar just 10 days ago.

"I think it was crazy the last 10 days and the whole month Argentina people went crazy when we started winning," said Cerundolo. "Of course when we won the finals, the city, Buenos Aires, was unreal, people went nuts.

"Of course it inspires me, and I think the other guys, but I think it inspires the whole country, because football there, I think it's everything. It was great, great news for the country, for us… Of course we can [also] bring the cup back home."

The ATP Tour contributed to this report. 

Team Argentina ahead of the 2023 United Cup (left to right: Maria Lourdes Carle, Federico Coria, Nadia Podoroska, Francisco Cerundolo, captain Gisela Dulko, Tomas Martin Etcheverry).

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