ATP Cup 2020: David Goffin dazzles against Nadal, but Spain edges doubles to reach SF

Djokovic tested by Shapovalov, but Serbia beats Canada

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

Sydney at last welcomed the two best players in the world to the all-or-nothing knock-out stages of the ATP Cup.

No2 Novak Djokovic had yet to lose a match during Serbia’s residency in Brisbane, and had even notched up a doubles point with Viktor Troicki in a must-win match against France. Through all four matches, he had not dropped a set, looking every inch the Player of the Decade and seven-time and reigning Australian Open champion.

He would be tested more rigorously in Serbia’s quarter-final showdown against the exciting young team from Canada in the shape of 20-year-old Denis Shapovalov, ranked 14, and 19-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime, ranked 21, a team that had taken Canada to the final of the similarly-structured Davis Cup just six weeks ago.

Djokovic was surely confident against Shapovalov, having played and beaten him four times last year, most recently in the final of the Paris Masters. He had conceded one set to the single-handed young star, at the Australian Open 12 months ago, but he would be taken to a higher level in Sydney by the Canadian who had already beaten top-10 players Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev during the tournament.

Shapovalov broke Djokovic in the ninth game of the first set, and served it out, 6-4, but Djokovic surged back in the second, 6-1, and went on to serve for the match in the third set. But after a delay in proceedings when a spectator was taken ill, Djokovic lost four straight points, and Shapovalov broke back.

It went to a tie-break, and although the Canadian saved four match points, Djokovic would not be denied, sealing the deal after two and three-quarter hours, 7-6(4). And that gave Serbia the tie, after Dusan Lajovic beat Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-4, 6-2, and a semi-final showdown with another young team, Russia.

No1 Rafael Nadal, like Djokovic, also arrived in Sydney from Perth with a clean sheet, but he was backed up by a flawless team, 9-0 in matches and 18-2 in sets against Georgia, Uruguay and Japan.

And he was certainly the favourite to carry Spain to the semis, after No9-ranked Roberto Bautista Agut beat Kimmer Coppejans—a late replacement for the injured Belgian captain, Steve Darcis—6-1, 6-4.

Nadal’s 2019 season had ended on a high note with reclamation of the No1 ranking, and a 24-1 record since Wimbledon. He ended the year with a sixth Davis Cup for Spain, and a 29-match win streak for his country. After the ATP Cup, that run was now even longer, but Goffin was ready to halt it.

The slight Belgian with the magical footwork had only beaten Nadal once, and that when the Spaniard was wrestling an injury at the ATP Finals. But Goffin had also taken a set off Nadal at the Australian Open a year ago as he fought back from persistent injury problems of his own in 2018. And he was by far the highest-ranked man that Nadal had faced in the tournament so far.

Added to the dramatic change in conditions for the Spanish squad, which had to move across time-zones from the bone-dry Perth to the heavy humidity of Sydney, this was a real test of Nadal’s form. And it soon became clear that the nimble, accurate and intelligent tennis of Goffin was sharpened for the occasion with some aggressive tactics. He stepped in, took the ball early, struck it down the lines, got a quick break, 3-2.

But Nadal, in familiar style, hit straight back, held to love, and then worked three more break chances. However, Goffin came up with some fine serving to hold and again turned the tables on Nadal for a break at the fourth time of asking, 5-4. He served out the set, 6-4, after exactly and hour of drenching tennis.

So heavily were the men perspiring that the court was spattered with sweat. And the usually hyper-cool Goffin, who does not even wear sweat-bands, had to change his shoes because they were so full of moisture.

But the cool Belgian did not back off, still going for his shots, beating Nadal for pace through the court, and breaking in the first game of the second set. And he held onto the lead until serving at 4-3. He staved off two break points with some bold one-two punches, but Nadal got the breakthrough to level, and they went to a tie-break.

The safe money was on Nadal to continue his surge back into contention, but after five points, he was trailing 2-3, and a double fault took it to 2-6. Goffin aced to take set and match, 7-6(3), with his 34th winner, and a good few ranking points.

Not that ranking was at the forefront of his mind right now. His compatriots had to face one of the best doubles teams in the competition to try and win the third match. Goffin would not play, but Nadal did, with Pablo Carreno Busta, who took on Sander Gille and Joran Vliegen for the chance to face host country Australia in the semis.

The duos headed to a tie-break after 45 minutes, and there, Belgium got the first point against serve, 3-2, but a double fault handed it back.

Belgium edged another courtesy of a smash from Gille, again wiped out, 5-5. Spain saved a set point, 6-6, then Belgium saved one, but some blistering net play from the Gille and Vliegen sealed the set, 7-6(7)—though each duo had won 38 points, faced no break points, and had notched up only five unforced errors between them.

Now one of the favourites for the title, Spain, had their backs against the wall.

They played 113 points before there was a break point—to Belgium: but Spain saved it. Now for the first deciding point… and Vliegen missed a forehand pass by millimetres: 4-4.

Now Spain seemed to get the wind in their sails, smashed two return-of-serve winners to work their first break points of the match—three of them—and a video review showed a Belgium volley was hit on the wrong side of the net. Spain had the break and Nadal would serve out the set, 7-5. It would go down to a match-tie-break, just as it had between Australia and Great Britain.

There was nothing between them for eight points, but once Spain got the first point against serve, 5-4, they pressed on to 9-5 and four match points. Belgium held off two, but not the third: Spain had victory, 10-7, and would face Australia in just 15 hours’ time.

And it is sure to be a still harder task. Spain will have to play back-to-back days in the quarters and semis, having also flown through three time zones from Perth to the very different conditions in Sydney.

Both Spain and Australia have great depth in their squads, and each has dropped just one match in four ties. But the support for the home side must surely give them the edge in that fire-ravaged country.

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