French pair Alize Cornet and Gilles Simon are tipped to end their country’s long and frustrating drought in the mixed-team Hopman Cup starting in Perth tomorrow.
The tournament was thrown wide open when double Hopman Cup winner Serena Williams last month withdrew from the top-seeded US team, replaced by 836th-ranked Meghann Shaughnessy, who will play alongside world No. 10 James Blake.
Williams, also a nine-time Grand Slam singles winner, teamed up with Mardy Fish to win the event last year and has never lost a match at the event.
Local bookmakers have installed the French pair as favorites among the eight nations competing.
Seeded third behind the US and Russia, their combined ranking of 23, with Simon ranked seventh and Cornet 16th, is the highest in the tournament.
The French have played in 15 Hopman Cups and the closest they have come to winning the event was in 1998, when Mary Pierce and Cedric Pioline were beaten in the final by Slovakia’s Karol Kucera and Karina Habsudova.
Cornet and Simon face the Asian Hopman Cup-winning pairing from Taiwan, Hsieh Su-wei and Lu Yen-hsun, in the opening tie tomorrow, and will be expected to start the round-robin phase of the tournament with a win.
However, Simon has a doubles ranking of 278 and admits both he and Cornet will be relying on wins in their singles matches against Lu and Hsieh.
“We are not counting on the doubles,” he said.
The Taiwanese pair beat hosts Kazakhstan at the Asian Hopman Cup in November to earn their place in Perth, having downed South Korea and India on the way to the final.
This followed their victory over hosts Thailand in the 2007 Asian Hopman Cup final.
Hsieh and Lu are competing in the Perth tournament for the second year in a row having beaten Argentina and lost to France and Serbia last year.
This year, the Taiwanese and French have been drawn together in Group B which also includes powerhouse Russian siblings and No. 2 seeds Marat Safin and Dinara Safina, and Italians Flavia Pennetta and Simone Bolelli.
The top team from the group will play in next Friday’s final.
Simon, 24, will be strongly fancied to win all his singles matches, having climbed to a career-high seventh in the rankings with a superb finish to last year.
He beat Roger Federer in Canada in July and again at the season-ending Masters Cup in Shanghai and also claimed the scalps of world No. 1 Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic during the year.
Simon won 51 of 78 singles matches last year, claiming three ATP titles.
Cornet, 18, is one of the rising stars of the women’s game, and is at a career-high singles ranking of 16.
She won her first singles and doubles titles last year in Hungary and notched wins over Svetlana Kuznetsova, Anna Chakvadatze, Nicole Vaidisova and Daniela Hantuchova during the year.
In Group A, the US pairing of Shaughnessy and Hopman Cup veteran Blake is up against local hopes Casey Dellacqua and Lleyton Hewitt, both returning from injury, Germans Sabine Lisicki and Nicolas Kiefer, and the Slovakian pairing of Dominik Hrbaty and Dominika Cibulkova.
The withdrawal of Williams with a hamstring injury has seen the Americans slip to fifth in the betting for the event, although Shaughnessy, who suffered a serious knee injury at the start of last year, has been ranked as high as 11.
The US have won the event five times, and Blake won it in 2003 and 2004, with Williams and Lindsay Davenport, but the Australians are favorites to top Group A.