SYDNEY, January 11, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)
Over the past nine days across three different cities Down Under, history’s first ATP Cup has competed with the Davis and Laver Cups for a sense of relevance on the men’s tennis tour while also showcasing national and individual talents from 24 different countries – all with their eyes on a big prize.
Sadly, the ATP Cup bounced the popular Hopman Cup off the tennis calendar and banished the WTA Premier matches to the outer courts at Brisbane to make it happen. While there’s been some growing pains for the ATP Cup’s first edition – some of the ties had trouble filling seats in Perth and far too many of the evening session ties ran well past midnight – overall, for many tennis-hungry fans tuned in around the world, it’s made for some very entertaining late night and early morning television. Always, the players will tell the story.
On Saturday inside Ken Rosewall Arena in Sydney, both Serbia’s Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal of Spain told their stories – and the ATP Cup gained its sense of relevance during the semifinal round ties that matched Team Serbia against Team Russia followed by Team Spain versus the home country Team Australia.
First, World No. 2 Djokovic and, later, the World No. 1 Nadal took turns carrying their teams on their respective backs. Each won tie-clinching rubbers in remarkable fashion. Djokovic stopped World No. 5 Daniil Medvedev of Russia 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 to lift Serbia, which downed the powerful Russians 3-0. Then, Nadal rebounded against No. 18 Alex de Minaur to win 4-6, 7-5, 6-1. It gave Spain an insurmountable 2-0 advantage against host country Australia. The Spaniards finished their sweep of the Aussies by winning a meaningless doubles rubber to complete their hard day’s night in Sydney.
Commenting on Nadal’s victory over de Minaur for Australian TV, Hall of Famer Jim Courier said: “It was a match that was so close for so long. Now, he’ll need to get some rest.”
Just a day earlier, the ATP Cup provided fans with two great early-season matches: the huge upset of Nadal by Belgium’s 11th-ranked David Goffin that happened mere hours after Djokovic came back from the brink of defeat to beat No. 14 Denis Shapovalov of Canada.
Following Djokovic’s triumph over Medvedev Saturday afternoon, he expressed a plethora of feelings. “Exciting, exhausting, joyful, dreadful all at once. At one point we both refused to miss from (the) baseline, so it was a lot of rallies and it was very exhausting. Very physical battle, but also mental battle,” he said. “… Definitely one of the most exciting matches I have played against him or any other top player (the) last few years.”
Dream matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 2
Now, with their semifinal victories secured, it sets up a dream matchup between last year’s Australian Open finalists and a showdown between the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world. The reaction from the players after both Djokovic and Nadal won their matches showed they’re all in. Their emotional investment in the ATP Cup is genuine.
Among many things we’ve learned from the inaugural ATP Cup, passionate crowds have been a part of the story. There is a very large Serbian population residing in and around Sydney – and they love coming out to support their Serbian heroes – Djokovic and Dusan Lajovic – by cheering for them and waving their proud country’s tri-colored flags accented with distinctive coats of arms. As we’ve witnessed, the players enjoy feeding off their fans’ energy.
Now, as Sunday evening’s final between Serbia and Spain approaches, the ATP Cup is finally down to two teams. It’s fair to ask: Do any of the players have anything left to give? After all, in the past two nights, Nadal has been on the court for an awfully long time for so early in the season: two hours and 23 minutes against Goffin on Friday, then two hours and 13 minutes against de Minaur. Both were grueling three-set matches coming just a week before the year’s first major begins, the Australian Open in Melbourne.
Bautista Agut improves to 5-0
One Spaniard who has quietly but effectively gone about his business – and seems to have something left to give – is Roberto Bautista Agut. All week, the World No. 10 has done nothing but win. He improved to 5-0 at the ATP Cup with his surprisingly easy 6-1, 6-4 win against Australia’s Nick Kyrgios, who came in undefeated and fully embraced the concept of being a part of a team. It set the table for Nadal.
“It’s never easy to go on court and play good tennis, said Bautista Agut, whose win gave Spain an early 1-0 lead against Spain Saturday night. “… I think it was a very good performance. Nick is a very good player, very talented player. To beat him in straight sets, you have to play very good tennis.”
It’s what Nadal did against de Minaur. He gave it his best. After going a set down and without seeing a break point opportunity come his way, Nadal converted his first one to win the second set. It leveled the rubber and energized the Spaniard. Then, he broke de Minaur three more times in the deciding set by capitalizing on every opportunity against the 20-year-old Aussie. Nadal endured, both mentally and physically, and won 4-6, 7-5, 6-1. His triumph figuratively saved the day for Spain. It was an emotional evening for the popular champion, competing in front of a passionate but respective crowd that favored the home team. Nadal has respect for the Australian fans and he played off the crowd’s enthusiasm; it pushed him to succeed.
“It was tough at the beginning of the match as Alex was playing at a very high level and my energy was a little lower than usual,” Nadal expressed during an on-court interview moments after he lifted Spain into the championship tie against Serbia. “Yesterday was a very long day in heavy conditions.”
Standing next to Nadal during the post-match interview was Spanish team captain Francisco Roig, who no doubt was appreciative of Nadal’s effort. “Rafa is a great champion and, sometimes, you don’t have to talk too much to him. He always finds the solutions. … At the end (against de Minaur) he played a great match,” Roig said.
The popular Nadal said it’s “always a pleasure” to play in Australia because of the respect the fans show for the sport – and for him, too. Before leaving the court, he was asked to predict his country’s chances in the final. In typical ”Rafa-speak,” Nadal said: “It’s going to be a super tough final against Serbia. Novak likes to play here and Serbia has a great team and is playing very well. But Roberto played an amazing match this afternoon and we have a good team.
“So, we are going to be ready for it.”
What a day at the #ATPCup!
Thank you to all our fans who walked through the gates including the 9️⃣5️⃣1️⃣0️⃣ who made Night 9 the biggest session in attendance for the tournament. pic.twitter.com/4nfl1hWZxV
— ATPCup (@ATPCup) January 11, 2020