Always a sunny event to start the season, the Hopman Cup will let real sunlight shine down upon its matches this year in the stylish Perth Arena.  We discuss the storylines surrounding the 25th edition of an event that technically ranks as an exhibition but often resembles a tournament.  Two by two, eight pairs of characters trickle into Western Australia for the start of the new year.

The prom king and queen (Serbia):  Two years ago, Djokovic preceded a spectacular run through the Australian Open draw by partnering childhood friend Ivanovic in Perth.  Attempting to repeat the feat, the three-time champion in Melbourne seeks to build on his momentum from last fall, when he gained consolation for a disappointing summer by winning the year-end championships.  For the perennially sunny Ivanovic, the event offers an ideal way to open the new season in an environment without pressure.  The Serbs charmed the Hopman Cup audience in 2011 with their playful interactions as much as with their stylish tennis.  Forced to withdraw from the final last year, they hold the top seeds again and will fancy their chances of claiming the golden ball.  Djokovic should win all of his singles matches comfortably, while Ivanovic should contribute enough to get them through their group undefeated.

The misfits (Italy):  More dangerous on clay than faster surfaces, the duo of Schiavone and Seppi provide a distinctly European flair.  Spectators will enjoy watching the graceful one-handed backhand of the former Roland Garros champion, which will make its debut against Ivanovic in an intriguing contrast of styles.  Not likely to have accomplished much on the indoor court of the Burswood Dome, the Italians will hope for slower conditions now that the event has shifted to the outdoor venue of the Perth Arena.  Seppi produced the best season of his career last year, including a near-upset over Djokovic at Roland Garros and a quarterfinal at his home Masters 1000 tournament in Rome, but he may find himself overmatched on hard courts against the Serb and the other heavier servers in this group.

Tales of two comebacks (Germany):  Rising from the ashes of a sub-200 ranking in 2012, Haas climbed more than 180 positions to well within the seeding cutoff for the Australian Open at #21.  The 34-year-old defied the march of time at the expense of opponents as notable as Federer, Berdych, and Tsonga during his season of resurgence.  Meanwhile, his teammate grappled with serious injuries all season that recalled his own extended periods away from Petkovic.  Able to generate considerable power from her brittle frame, the former Australian Open quarterfinalist and top-10 threat has sunk outside the top 100 after winning only a handful of matches last year.  Petkovic hopes to regain her rhythm in a less fiercely competitive environment, where her quirky humor and fondness for the whimsical should amuse audiences as much as the eccentricities of Bethanie Mattek-Sands have before.

Big bad Bernie—and Barty (Australia):  How different was the end of the season from the start of the season for the man who will define the next generation of Australian men’s tennis.  The toast of Melbourne when he rolled past Verdasco and Dolgopolov to the second week, Tomic has not recorded a victory over a top-20 opponent since then.  Concerns over his lack of effort mounted with listless losses at the US Open and in the Davis Cup, a flaw that hard-working Aussies usually find hard to forgive.  The prodigy turned prodigal son thus needs a strong season not only to fortify his courage for defending the Melbourne points but to recapture the hearts and minds of his adopted nation, a task that will not prove easy in a group with Djokovic and the much more experienced Haas.  Nor will his partner provide much support, for the developing Barty remains a work in progress well below the quality of everyone whom she will face here.

More blessed to give than receive (USA):  In the doubles format where the serve can play a massive role on a hard court, opponents will struggle to crack the deliveries of Isner and Venus Williams.  Since matches often come down to the doubles, that advantage could prove especially valuable.  Two of the tallest players on their respective Tours, the Americans will set up a virtually impregnable fortress in service games as long as they can maintain a strong percentage.  Even on second serve, in fact, Isner’s height allows him to create angles that test an ordinary returner’s tendons.  Less impressive is their prowess in return games, where the Americans cough up too many routine unforced errors to break consistently.  With that combination of strengths and weaknesses that they share, plenty of tiebreaks should arise in matches defined by short points. 

Turning back the clock (Spain):  In their second straight appearance at the Hopman Cup, Verdasco and Medina Garrigues will hope to repeat their doubles perfection from 2012.  Both Spaniards have declined with age as their physical games have exacted a toll.  Three years ago, though, Verdasco delivered the best performance of his career by charging within six points of the Australian Open final with victories over Murray and Tsonga before he succumbed to Nadal in an instant classic.  Unlike most of his compatriots, including Medina Garrigues, he has achieved some of his more impressive results on hard courts and can continue to draw gasps when he connects on his fearless forehands.  The two towering servers in his group may frustrate the easily flustered Verdasco, but his partner (a former Hopman Cup champion) should acquit herself creditably against opponents not named Venus.  Again, Spain need only split the singles to fancy their chances of victory.

The passive-aggressives (South Africa):  Even more divergent than the styles of Verdasco and Medina Garrigues are the games of Kevin Anderson and Chanelle Scheepers, the first South African team to appear at the Hopman Cup.  Whereas the lanky Anderson delivers overpowering serves from his Isner-like height, Scheepers relies on consistency to win extended baseline rallies from her opponents.  Breaking serve and dropping serve regularly, she should engage in unpredictable matches with Medina Garrigues and Johansson, who share her affinity for service breaks earned and donated.  Their mixed-doubles pairing should create an intriguing and perhaps effective hybrid style that will keep opponents off guard as long as Scheepers can keep ATP returners at bay.  But none of Anderson’s matches are easy to predict in view of his fluctuating form and the similar oscillations of every man in this draw, none of whom excelled for extended periods in 2012.  Who will begin 2013 on a brighter note?  Perth could offer the first clue.

The one-man show (France):  In his first full season with coach Roger Rasheed, Tsonga urgently needs to thrust a disastrous 2012 campaign behind him.  The flamboyant Frenchman won our Breakdown of the Year Award by a wide margin, going winless against top-eight opponents after having threatened them consistently over the previous few years.  A born showman and a crowd favorite wherever he goes, Tsonga never fails to provide considerable entertainment and sometimes amusement even to fans familiar with his explosive athleticism.  His playing style shines in the exhibition mode, where his pursuit of thrills at any moment and at any cost do not cost him anything significant, like meaningful victories.  For France to harbor aspirations of mounting a surprise charge towards the golden ball, however, he must shoulder the burden of a partner who probably cannot contribute anything notable to their joint efforts.  The unheralded Johansson has bounced around the lower rungs of the top 100 for most of her career without scoring any breakthroughs, so none seems likely now.

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Looking to read more about Hopman Cup?  My coverage continues on the Hopman Cup official website, where you can find previews of each day’s matches as well as match recaps by me and other writers that Tennis Australia has selected.