Russia, Canada Secure ATP Cup Semifinal Berths

Daniil Medvedev and Roman Safiullin (photo: ATP Tour video)

SYDNEY/WASHINGTON, January 6, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

Daniil Medvedev and Roman Safiullin have played like a formidable pair of Russian bears this week during the ATP Cup in Sydney. It was somewhat expected from the World No. 2 Medvedev. But the 167th-ranked Safiullin has been a pleasant surprise, both in singles and especially doubles, filling in for World No. 5 Andrey Rublev, who dropped out of the competition before it started after testing positive for COVID-19.

Thursday at Ken Rosewall Arena against Italy, after splitting the two singles rubbers, Medvedev and Safiullin came up big for Russia. They won the decisive doubles rubber against Jannik Sinner and Matteo Berrettini, 7-5, 4-6, 10-5, in a one-hour and 43-minute decider among all four players who competed in the first two matches of the tie to finish Group B with a 3-0 win-loss record.

The reigning champions from Russia will face Team Canada in the semifinal round on Saturday after Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime swept to a pair of victories against Germany in both singles rubbers, which clinched first place in Group C with a 2-1 record.

As the Russia-Italy tie developed, Sinner survived a spirited challenge by Safiullin and won the No. 2 singles rubber, 7-6 (6), 6-3. Sinner fought off three set points in the opening set and five break points against Safiullin in the first three service games of the second set before the World No. 10 pulled away. He hit 10 aces and 24 winners, and saved 10 of the 11 break points he faced. Sinner outpointed his opponent 83-77. It was the first time Russia had lost at No. 2 singles in their three group ties.

“I love to play for Italy and am very early happy to be up 1-0 and now we’ll see how Matteo can do against the No. 2 player in the world,” Sinner said during his on-court interview. “It will be a tough challenge for him.

“Every match is tough to win at this level. [Roman] played incredible. I had to play my best tennis in the important moments. I got a little lucky in the first set but that is part of the game.”

Soon, Medvedev and Berrettini settled in for their early-season battle. For the next two hours and 37 minutes, the two Top 10 stars put on quite a show. They combined to hit 14 service aces. Eventually, Medvedev rallied against Berrettini and came away with a 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-4 win at No. 1 singles to level the tie at 1-1.

“The first set I was in control and it’s tricky because you think that things will continue to go your way but that’s not the case when you’re up against a Top 10 player,” Medvedev said after his win over the World No. 7 Berrettini. “I made some bad decisions in it he second set so I tried to learn from that in the third. I served well throughout the match and that helped me.”

Medvedev broke Berrettini twice in the opening set and by positioning himself as near to the back wall as he could, he limited the Italian No. 1 to winning just 61 percent (14 of 23) of his first-serve points. Berrettini turned around his fortune in the second set by winning 96 percent (27 of 28) of his first-serve points, but Medvedev remained tough as nails. He broke Berrettini in the third game and it proved to be a difference maker. By the conclusion, Medvedev had improved his ATP Cup singles record to 10-2.

“It was just a bad day,” Berrettini admitted during Team Italy’s press conference, “but like in a way we just lost, we gave everything and we have to just keep playing and keep improving.”

Meanwhile, the mood was more upbeat during Team Russia’s press conference. “Here, you feel that the team is behind you,” Medvedev said. “There are two tournaments in the year where you feel that they are really for you [the Davis Cup is the other]. Because even, let’s say, I watch Andrey or any Russian player on the tour, you want them to win but you’re not going to be in front of your TV or standing up every point screaming, ‘Come on.’ Here you do. That’s what’s fun. That’s why I had a lot of fun on the court, for sure.”

Auger-Aliassime fires up Canada with first Top-5 triumph

With the pressure on following Great Britain’s 2-1 victory against the United States earlier in the day at Qudos Bank Arena, Canada came into its tie with Germany knowing that if they could win, a semifinal berth against Russia would be all theirs.

The Canadians did just that by winning both singles rubbers to clinch advancement. After Denis Shapovalov put Canada on the scoreboard first with a 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-3 win over No. 51 Jan-Lennard Struff, in which the World No. 14 fired 41 winners during his two-hour and 34-victory skirmish, World No. 11 Felix Auger-Aliassime backed up his Next-Gen teammate’s win with one of his own against World No. 3 Alexander Zverev, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, that lasted two hours and 32 minutes. It provided Auger-Aliassime with his first Top 5 win of his career.

“It feels good to beat Zverev,” Auger-Aliassime said during his on-court interview, after he had clinched advancement for Canada with his second win in six career meetings against the German No. 1. “I played a great match. He is a great player and he has beaten me a couple of times before, so I am happy I was able to get the job done today, especially for the team.

“We started off on a tough day a couple of days ago [losing to the United States 3-0]. So, to finish off strong and be through to the semis is special. The atmosphere was great at the end, that is what we play for.”

Meanwhile, Shapovalov praised his teammate’s efforts during Team Canada’s press conference. He said: “It was a great effort from both him and I to come out and beat two really tough players and also with Brayden (Schnur) and Steve (Diez), I mean, they’re giving it all on the bench and it’s actually, I think, sometimes tougher to be on the bench than on the court. So, huge shout-outs to the whole team.”

It marked the first time Canada has reached the semifinal round in the three-year history of the 16-team ATP Cup event. The other semifinal will match Poland against Spain on Friday.

By the time Germany took the court to face Canada, they had been eliminated following Great Britain’s afternoon win over the United States. The Germans needed an American victory over the British coupled with a defeat of Canada. Neither went in their favor. After losing both singles rubbers, Kevin Krawietz and Tim Puetz salvaged a 6-3, 6-4 win over Steve Diez and Brayden Schnur for Germany’s only point of the match.

“It’s tough. We had all the aim to go for sure to the semis and even further, so it’s tough to go out at the group stage,” Struff said during his team’s press conference. “So, so very tough.

“I think we’re all very disappointed, but that’s the way it is and today it was kind of tough. We knew were going to be out. We tried to win the matches. … It was a tough day.”

Great Britain 2, United States 1

Great Britain clinched a 2-1 win over the United States at Qudos Bank Arena after Dan Evans and Jamie Murray rallied from a set-and-a-break down to beat Taylor Fritz and John Isner, 6-7 (3), 7-5, 10-8 in an hour and 50 minutes.

“We were just hustling. We just kept saying, ‘Just try to get the ball back in play, start the point,’ and tried to use our skills after that,” Murray said after Great Britain’s victory. “We played an amazing point to break back at 4-2, got a bit of momentum and played a great [match] tie-break, which is ultimately what it comes down to so many times.”

Evans gave props to Murray, who is a doubles specialist. “Jamie talked me through the whole match,” he said. “I don’t call anything, he calls everything. I just go with it. It makes my job a lot easier when I have him everywhere, so I just run around basically and hopefully he mops it up.”

While Great Britain kept their semifinal hopes alive in Group C after beating the United States, they needed a win by Germany over Canada to advance, which didn’t happen.

The deciding doubles came about following a split of the two singles rubbers earlier in the day. First, the No. 25 Evans won his third straight No. 2 singles match of the tournament with a 6-4, 7-6 (3) victory over Isner. He withstood 16 aces from the 24th-ranked American and won 88 percent (30 of 34) of his first-serve points while hitting 25 winners. Evans did not face a break point during his one-hour, 35-minute win. He won all six of his singles sets during group play.

Then, the 23rd-ranked Fritz leveled the tie with comeback a nearly-two-hour 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-1 win over Great Britain’s Cameron Norrie, his fifth win in nine tries against the World No. 12. He fired 15 aces and outpointed Norrie 93-86.

“Cam and I have played so many times, it’s actually pretty ridiculous. Every single time it’s just an absolute battle,” Fritz said of his rivalry against the British No. 1. “I know that he can go into these modes where he will just not miss a ball and he kind of did that in the second [set] and I was getting pretty frustrated with the shots he was coming up with.

“I had to just let it go in the third set, reset and try to serve a little better so he didn’t get so many chances to hit those unreal shots and I upped my level a lot in the third and played really well.”

Australia 2, France 1

Playing for pride, prize money and rankings in front of a supportive Ken Rosewall Arena audience, Australia’s John Peers and Luke Saville completed their tie against France with an 87-minute 6-2, 5-7, 11-9 comeback victory over Fabrice Martin and Edouard Roger-Vasselin, after being down 9-6 in the match tie-break and saving three match points to remain alive.

“You have to try and roll the dice,” Peers said during his on-court interview. “We played well in the first set, got a little unlucky in the second not to break and then they got the momentum. We snuck it at the end.”

Added Saville: “I wear my heart on my sleeve and I try to bring energy.”

The doubles win gave the Aussies a final 2-1 margin over the French.

Earlier, No. 34 Alex de Minaur provided a spark for Australia during his 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-2 victory over No. 35 Ugo Humbert after France’s Arthur Rinderknech, ranked 58th, hit 12 aces and began with a 6-4, 7-6 (6) win over No. 49 James Duckworth in the No. 2 singles match that lasted one hour and 54 minutes.

“This is home, this where I grew up,” de Minaur said during his on-court interview after beating Humbert in the No. 1 singles rubber. In their only other meeting Humbert beat de Minaur to win the 2020 Antwerp title. “It’s my home tennis center. Just playing here is electric, the atmosphere is always amazing every time I step out on court. I just tried to stay in there as Ugo was playing some unbelievable tennis. I kept pushing myself and got the crowd going. It’s a special event.”

Australia finished with a 2-1 record in Group B action while France went 0-3.

Looking back at Thursday

Looking ahead to the semifinals

By the numbers

• Six years after he won the Australian Open boys’ title, Russia’s Roman Safiullin has earned the biggest victories of his pro career this week at the ATP Cup, first over 58th-ranked Arthur Rinderknech of France, then No. 49 James Duckworth of Australia. The 167th-ranked Safiullin is also 3-0 in doubles alongside Daniil Medvedev. Neither Safiullin or Medvedev had played doubles together on tour until this week, although they were teammates during their junior days.

“Quotable …”

“My view on this situation is quite straightforward, I think. You know, there are rules. There are exemptions from rules. I cannot know exactly what happened in the papers, because what we know, I know the same as everybody. Two days ago, [Novak] posted a twee and an [Instagram] post, where he has an exemption. …

“If he had a fair exemption from the rule, well, he should be here; if he didn’t, he shouldn’t be here. To be honest, it sounds easy, but again, it seems very tough in real life, and I don’t know the insides of the story. So, that’s why I’m just focusing on myself.”

– World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev of Russia, who was asked during Team Russia’s press conference to speak about Novak Djokovic‘s vaccine exemption to compete in the Australian Open and subsequent visa cancellation by the Australian Border Force upon his arrival in Australia.