On A Festive January Night In Sydney, Pella And Schwartzman Seize Big Moment For Argentina

SYDNEY, January 8, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

As the sixth and final evening session in ATP Cup group play got underway across three Australian cities Wednesday, the top spot In Group E was up for grabs between Croatia (2-0) and Argentina (1-1) inside Ken Rosewall Arena in Sydney, where the Final Eight begins on Thursday.

Plus, France and South Africa (both 1-1), were locked in a battle for second place in Group A behind Serbia, each hoping to gain one of two berths awarded to the two best second-place teams regardless of group.

One thing was certain: Argentina came to play; they knew what they needed to do. Both Guido Pella and Diego Schwartzman seized their respective opportunities and each delivered a knockout blow to Croatia to advance to the Final Eight. Final score: Argentina 3, Croatia 0.

First, Pella fed off the Argentine chants of “Ole, ole, ole, Guido, Guido,” and it lifted his spirits and those of his country, too. The 25th-ranked Pella beat Marin Cilic 7-6 (1), 6-3 in one hour and 53 minutes. Pella’s strength against Cilic, once ranked World No. 3 but now fallen to an uncharacteristic 38th, was in garnering points on his second serve. He won 18 of 30 opportunities (60 percent) and it proved a difference maker.

“I think I played very solid from the baseline,” Pella said after he gave his country a 1-0 lead. “My service game was improving a lot after the first set. So, I started to feel much confident with my game, with my whole game.

“I think in the end, I was playing my best tennis with great shots, very good from the baseline. I also played good volleys. So, I think overall I did a very good match.”

Pella’s triumph set the stage for his 13th-ranked teammate Schwartzman to battle against No. 28 Borna Coric of Croatia. The 5-foot-7 (170 cm) Schwartzman stepped up big in the festive atmosphere that filled Ken Rosewall Arena with a cacophony of sounds: a mixture of drums, guitars, accordions and vuvuzelas. Although the head-to-head favored Coric 2-1, Schwartzman was not to be denied. He dominated points both on his second serve, winning 71 percent of his opportunities, and on his return where he won nearly half of his 49 chances.

“I was trying to be intense, focused, and playing strong,” said Schwartzman during his team’s post-match press conference, seated alongside team captain Gaston Gaudio. “I think in the end I took my chances and I think that’s what the difference was tonight.”

Gaudio said he was pleased with his team’s hustle and desire that lifted them into the quarterfinal round. “It’s always good to reach the quarterfinals in any event, and in this one in particular, it’s even better,” he said. “We are representing our country. We are, like, pretty good friends. We enjoy being together. And it’s always a fantastic sensation being in the Final Eight.”

At the start of Wednesday’s play, Croatia (2-0), Austria (1-1) and Argentina (1-1) were in contention to win Group E. Croatia knew it would claim the group by beating Argentina. However, if Argentina defeated Croatia, it would set into motion a lot of tie-break scenarios. What happened first was Poland’s surprising 2-1 upset of Austria during the day session meant that the Argentina-Croatia tie became a winner-take-all affair. Now, the Argentines simply needed to beat Croatia and they would advance. And they did just that with a sweep of the singles rubbers.

However, Croatia remained alive for one of the final two spots in the Final Eight provided they beat Argentina in doubles. It didn’t happen. Instead, Argentina wrapped up its 3-0 triumph as Maximo Gonzalez and Andres Molteni prevailed over Ivan Dodig and Nikola Mektic, 3-6, 6-3, 10-2. Thanks to Argentina’s shut out of Croatia, the last team to qualify for the Final Eight was Canada (2-1).

Next for Argentina is a showdown with undefeated Russia (3-0) Thursday evening in the quarterfinal round. Both Karen Khachanov and Daniil Medvedev are undefeated in singles.

“Tomorrow is going to be tough,” said Gaudio, “but the way (Diego) was playing today, I think it’s going be – I think we have a pretty good chance.”

Belgium in after France/South Africa split singles

When South Africa’s Kevin Anderson gutted out a come-from-behind 2-6, 7-6 (1), 7-6 (5) win over Benoit Paire of France, gaining a split of the two singles rubbers after French captain Gilles Simon beat Lloyd Harris 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 on his seventh match-point try in the opener, it meant both teams were eliminated from Final Eight contention and Belgium (2-1) was in as the team with the best second-place record.

Both South Africa and France, which played without No. 1 singles player Gaël Monfils, needed a 3-0 victory to advance. Instead, the final outcome, which favored South Africa 2-1 following a 6-3, 6-4 win by Raven Klaasen and Ruan Roelofse in the doubles rubber, punched Belgium’s ticket for Sydney.

Anderson hit 36 winners against the 24th-ranked Paire, who was elevated to No. 1 singles in Monfils’ absence, and fought off a match point at 3-5, 30-40 in the third set. Paire served for the match twice – at 6-2, 5-4 and a 5-4 in the third set – but was unsuccessful both times.

When it mattered most, the 147th-ranked Anderson, playing in his first competition since last year’s Wimbledon following a series of injuries, was the steadier player. He won 80 percent of his first serves in the deciding set. Despite being outpointed by Paire, 111-109 the 6-foot-8 (203 cm) South African showed the spirit to win – even the odds didn’t always favor him.

“It’s fantastic to get through and give ourselves a fighting chance here,” said Anderson during a post-match interview on court. “Sometimes, you get a little bit lucky and, obviously, Benoit played a great match and he was the better player for a lot of it.”

Later, during his team’s press conference, Anderson added: “It was a bit of a roller coaster. I think both of us will feel that we could have done a few things better, but I’m very pleased to get the win in the end.”

Anderson finished with a 2-1 singles record. His only loss during the ATP Cup was against Novak Djokovic in his opening match last Saturday.

Someone had to win between Georgia and Uruguay

Georgia and Uruguay (both 0-2) played for national pride during their final Group B tie. Looking back, it wasn’t a good week for either team in Perth. Coming in, Georgia’s only point came in doubles in a 2-1 loss to Japan, while Uruguay lost a pair of 3-0 shutouts to Japan and Spain, winning just one doubles set.

On Wednesday evening, the Georgians defeated the Uruguayans 2-1, thanks to a pair of singles wins by Aleksandre Metreveli and Nikoloz Basilashvili. The 678th-ranked Metreveli needed just 52 minutes to beat Franco Roncadelli 6-2, 6-1. Then, 26th-ranked Basilashvili pulled out a 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 win against 45th-ranked Pablo Cuevas in two hours and seven minutes. Finally, Cuevas and Ariel Behar won the doubles rubber for Uruguay over Metreveli and Aleksandre Bakshi, 6-2, 6-2, in a brisk 50 minutes to avoid a third straight shutout defeat.

Looking ahead to the Final Eight

On Thursday, Group C winner Great Britain (2-1) will face Group F winner Australia (3-0) at 10 a.m. It will be followed by Group D winner Russia (3-0) against Group E winner Argentina (2-1) at 5:30 p.m.

On Friday, Group A winner Serbia (3-0) will play No. 8 seed Canada (2-1) at 10 a.m., followed by Group B winner Spain (3-0) versus No. 7 seed Belgium (2-1) at 5:30 p.m.

All quarterfinal matches will be played in Ken Rosewall Arena in Sydney.