ATP Cup 2020: Novak Djokovic continues love affair with Australia as Serbia wins inaugural Cup

Djokovic beats Nadal in 55th meeting, goes 8-0 in matches through tournament

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

There have been questions and doubts about many aspects of this newest tournament in tennis, the team-based ATP Cup—not least that it followed hot on the heels of the very similar format of the Davis Cup.

That the event has been played out against the backdrop of the national disaster of the Australian bushfires, with smoke hanging over the principal venue in Sydney, only made circumstances harder for players, fans, and organisers.

So many must have thanked their lucky stars that the final showdown would be between Spain and Serbia, headed by the two best players in the world, two of the best ever to lift a racket, and who had exchanged the top ranking just three months ago: No1 Rafael Nadal and No2 Novak Djokovic. In this record-making rivalry, the most played in men’s tennis, they would meet for the 55th time.

The prospect for Nadal in particular was daunting, and threw up some of those questions about the tournament: Spain had travelled across three time zones from their round-robins in Perth, and also played back-to-back days—the most gruelling regime among the final four teams.

He had looked drained during his singles loss to David Goffin on a humid night in Sydney, but he still went on to play and win in doubles. Indeed he came into this final with a 4-1 singles record and 2-0 in doubles to help Spain to its second team final since his country won that Davis Cup in late November.

But if that was impressive, it did not match Djokovic, who had moved seamlessly from Brisbane to Sydney with a clean sheet of five singles wins and a doubles victory.

But what weighed most heavily against Nadal in this rivalry was his record against the Serb in Australia, on hard courts, and in recent years.

Nadal lost to Djokovic in three straight sets the last time they met in this part of the world—the final of the Australian Open 12 months ago. The Spaniard subsequently edged the win in the Rome final, in three sets, but that still left him trailing 28-26 in this rivalry.

Indeed Djokovic had been the dominant man almost since Nadal beat him to win the US Open title in 2013: The Serb had notched up 13-4 against the Spaniard since then. Even more damning for Nadal, in their hard-court meetings during that nine-year span, Djokovic was 8-0 in matches and 17-0 in sets.

And if there was anywhere that Djokovic felt entirely at home, it was in Australia. Seven times he was the Open’s champion, and Sydney boasted one of the biggest Serbian populations outside Serbia itself. The support at the Olympic Park in this iconic city had been unwavering behind Djokovic’s team.

Nadal summed up his prospects: “Physically, I guess he is a little ahead of me. Djokovic plays on a surface that is perhaps his favourite. I know I have a complicated game, but if I play at my best level I hope to have my chances.”

Djokovic, then, was the favourite to take the win against Nadal in this final tie, and he needed to do so. Spain’s No2, the resilient, super-fit world No10 Roberto Bautista Agut, continued his fine form to beat Dusan Lajovic, taking his results to 6-0 in singles, 12-0 in sets.

And this 55th meeting started as it would go on, where Djokovic had left off after their last meeting in Australia. Nadal was immediately feeling the heat of fast and accurate returning, and cracked on the third break point, 0-1. In contrast, when Djokovic faced deuce in his opening game, he found two big serves to hold, 2-0.

And that would be the pattern for the set: Djokovic’s serving would dominate, Nadal’s would waver and twice more he faced break points, giving way in the seventh game, 2-5. It was the work of a moment for Djokovic to serve it out, 6-2—and he looked the coolest, calmest man in the packed Ken Rosewall arena.

Djokovic had hammered down 11 winners to four from Nadal, and was serving at 80 percent. He dropped not a point on his second serve, while Nadal was losing three-quarters of his second-serve points.

The Spaniard was still under pressure in the second set, as Djokovic maintained his serving level. His forehand, on this low bouncing court, was penetrating the Spaniard’s defences, but Nadal’s serving level improved and he lived with his rival for the first few games. At 3-2 up, he caught a glimpse of a chance courtesy of a cross-court pass, 0-30, and an error from Djokovic worked three break points.

The Serb, though, evaded Nadal with his familiar pin-point accuracy, change of direction, ruthless and clean ball striking. It went back to deuce, and a fine serve snuffed out a fourth break chance. An ace then saved a fifth. He put away a short one-two strike to hold, and the huge Serbian crowd chanted its approval.

Nadal tried to change things up in the seventh game, seize the initiative, take a step inside the court. He at last managed to get his swinging leftie serve working. An ace held for 4-3, but serving at 5-5, the Spaniard came under the greatest pressure: two break points that could leave Djokovic serving for the match.

And now the bullish Nadal did not hold back, producing two of his best winners of the match. He fought through two deuces and held, 6-5. So almost inevitably, this battle would go to a tie-break. And almost inevitably, given that extraordinary dominance by Djokovic over Nadal on hard courts, the Spaniard simply could not resist.

He edged the lead only once, courtesy of a double fault, but at 4-4, Djokovic struck a signature backhand winner, and served it out, 7-6(4), in five minutes short of two hours.

The tie would, again almost inevitably, go to a doubles decider, and the stresses and fatigue that Nadal had endured at last took a price: He would not play the doubles as billed.

He explained: “I have been playing a lot of tennis the last couple of days. My level of energy is a little bit lower than usual because I played long yesterday, very long before yesterday, very long in Brisbane in the last day. This is a team decision and we believe in our team.”

His place would be taken by Feliciano Lopez with Pablo Carreno Busta, a pairing that had won three matches thus far—for what Spain boasts is depth in both singles and doubles. Lopez won the Queen’s doubles titles with Andy Murray just six months ago, and won the French Open with another partner in 2016. Carreno Busta had reached doubles finals at both Masters and Major level.

But make no mistake: Djokovic with friend Viktor Troicki was a formidable prospect. And while Troicki was tight at the start, in the face of a bombardment from the Spaniards, he soon came to the party, helped by his huge serve.

Djokovic was broken in the first game, and Lopez held for 2-0. A love hold took Spain to 3-1, but Djokovic’s all-court ability and tactical powers—not to mention his ability to draw on the vociferous crowd—brought a swift turn in fortunes. Five straight games, culminating in a love hold by Djokovic, sealed the first set, 6-3, and Serbia surged on with an immediate break, 2-0, as the Spanish defences crumbled, and their tactical vision blurred.

Too often they played to Djokovic, who fed off the occasion. Spain did stop the flow with a hold, 1-2, but there was only one fleeting chance to get that break back in the sixth game—a deciding point won by a big second serve from Djokovic. He would go on to serve out victory, to love, 6-4, and the arena erupted.

So history was made by Serbia in this most Serbian corner of the globe, by the player of the last decade, Djokovic, with the most resilient of support of Lajovic and Troicki. Djokovic summed it up:

“I will remember this night for the rest of my life.”

And having withdrawn from Adelaide, Djokovic will now head to Melbourne, as defending champion, as the big favourite to win an eighth Australian Open.

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