ATP Cup 2020: Young stars Shapovalov, Augur-Aliassime, Khachanov, Medvedev, Ruud seize leads
GB lose tie against inspired Dimitrov; Nadal and Djokovic spearhead wins
Much of the glory in the opening round-robin action on the debut day of action in the ATP Cup was seized by the stars of tomorrow, though in truth, many of them were already buffing up their star status before heading to Perth, Sydney and Brisbane for this new 24-team tournament.
One of the most highly anticipated contests at this opening of the 2020 season was between two of the most charismatic young players to emerge in the last couple of years, 21-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas and 20-year-old Denis Shapovalov in what is shaping up nicely to become a key rivalry during this new decade.
Already these two energetic and flamboyant single-handers had played three times, with the younger Canadian Shapovalov holding a 2-1 lead. Yet it was the tall Greek Tsitsipas who made the break-out run in 2019—three titles from six finals—to earn a No6 ranking. He ended 2019 on a high with victory at the ATP Finals, having begun the season with his first Major semi-final in Australia. Indeed, he was the only player last year to beat all top five players: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Dominic Thiem, and Daniil Medvedev.
Shapovalov, though, finished strong to rise to a career-high No15 after winning his first title in Stockholm and reaching a first Masters final in Paris. Add into the equation that he and young compatriot Felix Auger-Aliassime, carried Canada to the final of the new-format, multi-team Davis Cup, and this duo was promising to go deep in the ATP Cup, too. For 19-year-old Auger-Aliassime also broke the top 20 in 2019, and may have advanced further were it not for an ankle injury.
Sure enough, the Canadians became the first team to win a tie in the tournament, after Shapovalov put on a fine display to beat Tsitsipas in two tie-break sets. And his compatriot rolled past Greek Michail Pervolarakis 6-1, 6-3, without facing a break point.
Pervolarakis, who was making his ATP Tour main draw debut, only turned pro last year, and his presence threw into sharp relief the challenge for nations with one star player. Greece qualified on the back of Tsitsipas’s ranking, but without a strong No2, it will be an uphill task to advance beyond the round-robin phase.
In contrast, Canada has good prospects, but as luck would have it, they are in the same group as two other nations with strong line-ups. Australia raced to a 3-0 win over a Germany via Alex de Minaur, ranked 18, and Nick Kyrgios, No30.
In fact, Brisbane, in the shape of Group F, featured the four youngest players in the top 20. The Shapovalov/Tsitsipas contest was matched by a see-sawing thriller between 22-year-old world No7 Alexander Zverev and 20-year-old No18 de Minaur.
The Australian, supported by perhaps the biggest crowds across the ATP Cup’s opening day, took time to warm up against a blistering opening by Zverev. Even so, the German could not serve out the opening set at the first time of asking, and despite then leading by a set and a break, de Minaur levelled the match 7-6, and Zverev’s tennis deteriorated, along with his smashed racket.
De Minaur took full advantage of a tally of 14 double faults from his opponent to break at the start of the third, and sealed the match, 4-6, 7-6(3), 6-2.
Group D in Perth also featured some stand-out performances by some impressive young players. Norway earned a shock win over the United States courtesy of 21-year-old Casper Ruud, who beat No19 John Isner, 6-7(3), 7-6(10), 7-5. He then teamed up with Viktor Durasovic to beat Rajeev Ram and Austin Krajicek for a 2-1 win.
In the same group, another powerful young pairing, Daniil Medvedev and Karen Khachanov, carried Russia to a 3-0 win over an Italy led by Fabio Fognini. Both 23-year-olds, No5 Medevedev and No17 Khachanov—each with a Masters title to their name—had to come back from a set down to seal singles wins before they teamed up to beat Italians Simone Bolelli and Paolo Lorenzi in doubles.
For a British team without Andy Murray, who withdrew to continue rehab on a pelvic injury, Bulgaria posed a tricky opener. For while the singles matches went roughly according to expectations, with a win to GB’s Cameron Norrie over No423 Dimitar Kuzmanov, and then victory to Grigor Dimitrov over Dan Evans, it would conclude with a surprise loss by quality doubles players, Jamie Murray and Joe Salisbury, to Dimitrov and Alexandar Lazarov in a deciding match tie-break.
The tie concluded at just minutes short of 3am in Sydney, with Dimitrov’s double duty proving the decisive performance. The popular Bulgarian, who is also captain of his team, bounced back from a lean year of results, blighted by loss of confidence and a shoulder injury, to reach the semis of the US Open and the Paris Masters to rise from 78 to No20 in the space of three months.
He was slow from the blocks against Evans, but upped his level to break for the second set, 6-4, and broke at the start of the third with some spectacular shot-making. Now with the lead, the Bulgarian played uninhibited tennis to power through the third set, 6-1. Less than an hour later, he was back to help take the tie in doubles, and this Group C battle may come down to the last tie against a Belgium led by David Goffin.
Meanwhile, GB must beat Belgium to stay in the competition, and that is not out of the question if the British doubles pair can gel quickly to grab the third point.
Day 2: Nadal, Djokovic lead tie victories; Croatia upsets Austria
Spain, already Davis Cup champions in the similarly formatted pre-Christmas tournament, is possibly the favourite to win the ATP Cup, too, so strong is the line-up. After all, Spain is the only nation to boast all five players ranked 62 or above in singles with the lowest-ranked of them, No62 Feliciano Lopez, also a Major doubles champion.
But of course, front and centre was No1 Nadal, ably backed by the resilient No9 Roberto Bautista Agut, who opened with a sweeping scoreline of 6-0, 6-0 over Georgian Aleksandre Metreveli.
Nadal took on No26 Nikoloz Basilashvili, who topped his career ranking at 15 last year, and while the Spaniard was broken at the start, he rarely looked in danger—even when the Georgian pounded back from 2-5 down to 5-5 in the second set. The world No1 confirmed his team’s win after an hour and 50 minutes, 6-3, 7-5.
It was a tough return to the tour for Kevin Anderson after more six months and knee surgery: South Africa drew Serbia in Group A in Brisbane, a team with considerable depth and topped by the inimitable Djokovic.
The good news for Anderson was that his fitness has clearly returned—it was tested to the limit in his first match back, a two and a quarter hour 7-6(5), 7-6(6) win for world No2 Djokovic. But after a slow start, Anderson began to show some of the big-hitting quality that has taken him as high as No5 and to two Major finals. It was not enough, and with Dusan Lajovic already scoring an opening Serbian win, Djokovic’s team advanced to take on France and Chile.
It was a happier return to competition for the long-injured Borna Coric, who followed his compatriot Marin Cilic’s win with a hard-fought and highly entertaining win over Austria’s Dominic Thiem.
Coric, still just 23 after making his first tour final almost four years ago, had found wins hard to come by late last year, but now apparently fully fit—and with a game, like Thiem, built on fitness and endurance—he got the better of one of the best players of 2019, 7-6(4), 2-6, 6-3.
Canada beat Greece, 3-0
Australia beat Germany, 3-0
France beat Chile, 2-1
Serbia beat South Africa, 2-0*
Russia beat Italy 3-0
Norway beat USA, 2-1
Japan beat Uruguay, 3-0
Spain beat Georgia, 2-0*
Belgium beat Moldova, 3-0
Bulgaria beat Great Britain, 2-1
Argentina beat Poland, 2-1
Croatia beat Austria, 2-0*
*doubles results TBD