New Tennis Season Commences With ATP Cup

ATP Cup (photo: Matt King/Getty Images for Tennis Australia)

SYDNEY/WASHINGTON, December 31, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

It’s been barely a month since Russia won the Davis Cup to put a lid on the 2021 tennis season. Now, the third edition of the ATP Cup, featuring 16 countries competing in four groups across two Sydney venues, begins Saturday.

The Russians are the defending champions of the ATP Cup, but with Andrey Rublev, Aslan Karatsev and Evgeny Donskoy all missing because of positive COVID-19 tests – Rublev disclosed earlier this week he tested positive for the coronavirus after playing earlier this month in an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi – don’t expect World No. 2 and US Open champion Daniil Medvedev to be able to shoulder the load alone.

Instead, arguably the strongest team – at least on paper before the first ball is played – is Italy, which has two Top-10 players in World No. 7 Matteo Berrettini and World No. 10 Jannik Sinner. Just call them Sinnetini. World No. 27 Lorenzo Sonego and doubles specialist Simone Bolelli (ranked 25th) round out the Italian team.

Although there are seven of the men’s Top 10 players in Sydney – Medvedev, No. 3 Alexander Zverev of Germany, No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, Berrettini, No. 8 Casper Ruud, No. 9 Hubert Hurkacz and Sinner – there’s no “Big Three” in Sydney this year. No. 16 Roger Federer of Switzerland is recovering from knee surgery and No. 6 Rafael Nadal, who arrived Friday night in Melbourne, is recovering from COVID-19, which he contracted after playing in Abu Dhabi earlier this month. Nadal is expected to compete in an ATP 250 event in Melbourne next week.

Meanwhile, World No. 1 Novak Djokovic of Serbia withdrew from the ATP Cup on Wednesday without giving a reason, which means that World No. 33 Dusan Lajovic will play No. 1 singles for the Serbians instead of No. 2.

“I guess that’s how it is going to be generally in [a] few years’ time, potentially maybe in three years’ time,” Tsitsipas said during Team Greece’s press conference Thursday, when asked about competing in events without the Big Three. “So, getting used to it earlier, it’s pretty much a new reality. Let’s see how tennis works out without the top three. I really want to see which players are going to prevail at this point.”

Although there are similarities between the Davis Cup and the ATP Cup – each tie consists of two singles and one doubles rubber – there are differences, too. Qualification for the ATP Cup is based upon the ATP ranking of each country’s top-ranked singles player. Plus, there’s rankings points up for grabs. For instance, a player who plays in and wins all possible singles matches can earn 750 ATP rankings points. The number of rankings points awarded depend upon the ranking of the opponent and the round of the result. There will also be doubles rankings points awarded.

Also, like in the Davis Cup, the singles rubbers are best-of-3 tie-break sets. However, the ATP Cup doubles rubbers will have no-ad scoring and a match tie-break instead of a third set.

Each team will compete in three group matches and the four group winners will advance to the semifinal round. The nine-day, $10 million event concludes on January 9, a week and a day before the start of the Australian Open.

Which group will be the toughest to win? Well, one could point to Group C, which features Great Britain, Germany, Canada and the United States. Each team counts a Top-25 player among their No. 1 singles ranks. Zverev and World No. 12 Cameron Norrie, Great Britain’s No. 1 player, will face off on Sunday, as will World No. 11 Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada against No. 23 Taylor Fritz of the United States.

“I think it’s going to be a really good week,” said American Brandon Nakashima, who is competing in Australia for the first time. His U.S. teammates include Fritz, John Isner and Rajeev Ram. “I feel very confident about our team here. I think it will be a great experience for me being able just to watch all these matches close up, being able to practice with all these guys.

“You know, I think just being here in Australia for the first time for me is going to be really cool this week.”

Saturday’s order of play

Saturday’s order of play begins at 10 a.m. in Sydney (midnight CET; 6 p.m. Friday New York) with Group A play between Chile and Spain at Ken Rosewall Arena and Group D play between Argentina and Georgia at Qudos Bank Arena. It continues at 5:30 p.m. local time (7:30 a.m. CET; 1:30 a.m. New York) with Group A play between Serbia and Norway at Ken Rosewall Arena and Group D play between Greece and Poland at Qudos Bank Arena.

Looking ahead to Sunday

Sunday’s order of play begins at 10 a.m. in Sydney with Group B play between Russia and France at Ken Rosewall Arena and Group C play between Canada and the United States at Qudos Bank Arena It continues at 5:30 p.m. local time with Group B play between Italy and Australia at Ken Rosewall Arena and Group C play between Germany and Great Britain at Qudos Bank Arena.

During Team Germany’s press conference, Zverev was asked if he liked the certainty of knowing who he’s playing in his first three matches of the season.

“Yeah, look, I mean, it’s not only about me here, but we’re here as a team, and we’re trying to win,” Zverev said. “Last year we made it to the semis, beating two very good teams in Canada and Serbia, beating the defending champions in Serbia. I think everybody has to play their part in this team whether we are on the court or outside the court.

“Yeah, to start the year off against No. 12 in the world (Norrie), it can only be in this event for me. It is a great challenge. I will know exactly where I am at after the first few matches.”

“Quotable …”

“I’ve spent this whole offseason knowing my first three matches of the year, which is pretty cool. Yeah, obviously three really tough matches but I’ve been playing really well. I’m looking forward to it.

“I’m really excited. I hope that there’s going to be a lot of people out there. It’s going to be a lot of fun to kind of play in front of a big crowd again.”

Taylor Fritz of the United States, who will play No. 1 singles for the Americans and face Alexander Zverev of Germany, Cameron Norrie of Great Britain and Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada in Group C play.

“Anytime you get to play a live match like that where it counts for the team is huge. We’re not just playing for ourselves now; you’re playing for the country. So, any time any one of us get the opportunity to get out there and play is huge for all of us. It’s a lot of fun.”

John Peers of Australia, who was asked about the spotlight that the ATP Cup places on doubles.

“I love this event. I love that they brought it back. There was a bit of uncertainty at some point with COVID and if they were going to keep doing it. I’m really happy they did. I think it’s good for the sport and it’s good for us players to start the year this way.”

Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada, who was asked to describe what it’s like to start the season playing with friends from his own country.