At The ATP Cup, Every Day Seems Like A Championship Final Day

WASHINGTON, January 4, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Day Two at the ATP Cup is history and the second day featured the three highest ranked players who are competing in Australia whose name isn’t Roger Federer. World No. 1 Rafael Nadal began his 2020 season in Perth, World No. 2 Novak Djokovic started his year in Brisbane and last year’s Nitto ATP Finals runner-up Dominic Thiem held court in Ken Rosewall Arena in Sydney. Both Nadal and Djokovic celebrated straight-set victories while Thiem left in defeat.

Nadal carried Spain on his shoulders six weeks ago in winning the Davis Cup in Madrid that capped a remarkable season for the 33-year-old Spaniard. Now, in opening a new season against Georgia’s 26th-ranked Nikoloz Basilashvili, Nadal won in straight sets, 6-3, 7-5, and he has high hopes of garnering back-to-back team titles for his proud nation. His victory clinched Spain’s tie against Georgia.

“I love playing for my country, it’s always a big honor to play not just for me and my team – my personal team – but to play for the rest of my friends and the country,” Nadal said smiling, during an on-court interview following his match. “It’s an extra motivation.

“We had a great experience a few weeks ago winning the Davis Cup in Madrid and now here we are. So, we’re going to try our best.”

Meanwhile, the seven-time Australian Open champion Djokovic from Serbia beat Kevin Anderson of South Africa, whom he defeated 18 months ago in the 2018 Wimbledon final. This time, the margin of victory was slim with Djokovic winning a pair of tie-break sets, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (6). Djokovic came in having won eight of his previous 10 head-to-head matches against Anderson, whose injuries to his elbow and knee limited him to just five tournaments in 2019.

“What a way to start the year. I thought it was a fantastic opening match to the season,” said Djokovic, shortly after celebrating like he had won a Grand Slam by raising his arms to the sky, then, skipping about the court, leaping into the air, and, finally, pumping his first for good measure. To the fans, he said during his on-court interview, “It’s almost 11 o’clock at night and you stayed all the way through. You were patient, you showed a passion for the sport and it’s a pleasure to play in front of you. Thank you so much.”

Finally, World No. 4 Thiem renewed his rivalry with No. 28 Borna Coric of Croatia and this time it was the calm and cool Coric who prevailed – winning impressively, 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-3 – after losing three of their first four meetings. He saved six break points during the final two games and it was the Croatian’s first win after ending the 2019 season on a six-match losing streak. It was also his first Top 10 win since beating Federer in October 2018.

“(I’m) very happy,” Coric expressed after his upset victory. “I was not coming into this match with lots of confidence, playing great. I honestly didn’t know what to expect, if I’m going to play good or not. But I was playing really good tennis. Even though (I lost) the second set, I felt I was playing good tennis, honestly. It’s just that he was playing too good. And then in the third set, I just found that on important points I was playing really brave, and in the end it paid off.”

Thiem said during his press interview that he was disappointed with his outcome, but suggested it was a “typical first match” of the year. “I’m always a little bit struggling with the first match after a long while. It was the first one since London,” he said. “So many things were not working out that well yet. But it’s fine. It’s coming. I hope that it’s going to be much better on Monday already.”

Championship-caliber matchups like Nadal-Basilashvili, Djokovic-Anderson and Thiem-Coric usually come at the end of a tournament in the semifinal round or in the finals instead of during the first weekend. Like on Day One, Saturday provided fans with opportunities to see some quality, early-season blockbuster matches across the three ATP Cup sites, in Brisbane, Perth and Sydney. There will be plenty more.

It was especially encouraging to see Anderson healthy, again. Even though he trailed early against Djokovic in the first set, 4-1, he endured the Serbian’s attack. Then, the 6-foot-8-inch (203 cm) South African rallied behind his commanding service – producing 17 service aces – and won points with his solid forehand. Although Anderson saved seven of eight break points during the two hour and 19 minute match, Djokovic was the steadier player during each of the tie breaks.

Anderson found positives in his first competitive match since losing to Guido Pella of Argentina in the third round at Wimbledon last summer. “Coming first match back and straight away playing Novak’s obviously a little bit tough,” he said afterward. “Definitely got off to a little bit of a nervous start, but I am really pleased with the way I was able to turn it around and felt (like I) pretty much went to-to-toe from midway through the first set through the rest of the match.”

Next, the 91st-ranked Anderson will face No. 33 Cristian Garin of Chile, and later during group play will face No. 10 Gaël Monfils of France.

ATP Cup observations

Now that all 24 teams have played their open tie in group play, here’s a few observations:

• There has been a strong connection seen between the players on the court and their team zones. Having the support of their coaches and team captains – not to mention their teammates – and also having access to key in-match data is an innovative idea whose time has come.

• Although the doubles rubber always comes at the end of each competition, as we saw with both the U.S.-Norway and Bulgaria-Great Britain ties during the opening day of the ATP Cup, don’t discount the importance of a good doubles partnership. Grigor Dimitrov and Alexandar Lazarov, playing for the first time together, saved two match points and defeated former World No. 1 Jamie Murray and current No. 22 Joe Salisbury, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (2), 11-9, finishing at 2:47 a.m. local time in Sydney. It lifted Bulgaria to a 2-1 victory over Great Britain in Group C play.

• Speaking of Bulgaria, as London Guardian tennis writer Tumaini Carayol points out: “The one pleasant, different thing about ATP Cup is top players from small countries like Grigor Dimitrov playing in a top level team competition. Dimitrov has only played in Davis Cup zonal ties against low-ranked players. It must feel damn good to defeat a big tennis nation like Great Britain.”

• If Saturday night in Brisbane was any indication, during the Serbia-South Africa tie, it looked and sounded a lot like a Davis Cup atmosphere. Outside of Serbia – and thanks to the abundance of Serbian fans inside Pat Rafter Arena, many of them waving flags – it may have been one of the loudest pro-Djokovic crowds In recent memory. Djokovic was thrilled by it and it seemed to energize him, too.

Looking ahead

On Sunday morning in Brisbane, Canada and Australia square off in a pivotal Group F tie with first place at stake. Both countries were impressive in winning their openers 3-0 on Friday. No. 21 Felix Auger-Aliassime begins against No. 30 Nick Kyrgios followed by No. 15 Denis Shapovalov versus No. 18 Alex de Minaur at Pat Rafter Arena. This tie could easily come down to the deciding doubles rubber.

What they’re saying

• Rafael Nadal, after beginning his 2020 season on a winning note at RAC Arena in Perth with a straight-set victory over Nikolaz Basilashvili: “It feels like the 2019 season didn’t end yet, everything is too short. But I’m super, super happy to be here in Perth for the first time in my life. Amazing experience, one of the nicest arenas I ever played.”

• A tearful Nick Kyrgios, following his Friday night win over Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff on donating $200 for every ace he hits during the ATP Cup toward supporting and helping the victims of the Australian bush fires: “I don’t really care about the praise too much. We’ve got the ability and the platform to do something. My hometown is Canberra and we’ve got the most toxic air int he world at the moment, that’s pretty sad. It’s tough.”

What they’re tweeting

Ben Rothenberg, New York Times tennis correspondent: “Kevin Anderson is playing some flipping swell tennis in his first match in months. If he can keep up this form, he could be a real factor at the business end of big tournaments once more in 2020.”

• Stuart Fraser, The Times of London tennis correspondent: “Something we have learned from the two rival team events over the past six weeks: Cramming in two sessions of three matches on the same court on the same day is a recipe for disaster.”