ATP Cup 2021: Medvedev, Rublev give Russia flying start; Djokovic continues winning streak

Defending champs Serbia edge Canada, and Spain is undaunted by Nadal absence

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic (Photo: Tennis Australia / Handout)

The ATP Cup may be a smaller affair after its debut playing in three Australian cities last year—now down to 12 teams and focused entirely on Melbourne—but the quality is unquestioned.

Twelve of the top 13 men’s players—only Roger Federer is absent from Australia as he continues to rehab from knee surgery—make up the draw, led by world No1 Novak Djokovic, who led Serbia from the front last year with six singles and two doubles wins.

He extended that 8-0 streak with both a singles and doubles win to take Serbia past Canada in their first ties this year, though it was far from easy. Just like their quarter-final match in the ATP Cup last year, Denis Shapovalov gave the Serb a real test. Back in 2020, Djokovic edged their third set in a tie-break, but this time he managed the required break in each of two sets to win 7-5, 7-5 after almost two hours.

With world No15 Milos Raonic beating Dusan Lajovic in the first match, it came down to the doubles, and while Raonic and Shapovalov joined forces on one side, Djokovic was able to draw on another strong Serb player in Filip Krajinovic, and together they took a narrow win 7-5, 7-6(4).

For Spain, though, who were runners-up to Serbia last year, there was an early blow ahead of their tie against home-side Australia. Rafael Nadal announced on Twitter that he was not able to play in Spain’s opening tie due to a stiff lower back. He added:

“Hopefully I’ll be better for Thursday. We have a strong team.”

Fortunately for Spain, he was not wrong there. First their third string, No16-ranked Pablo Carreno Busta, beat John Millman, 6-2, 6-4, leaving Roberto Bautista Agut to take on Nadal’s duties against Alex de Minaur.

Like Djokovic, Bautista Agut kept a clean sheet in last year’s ATP Cup, 6-0 in singles, and he took the first lead in his opener on a chilly Melbourne evening. But de Minaur quickly warmed up to level and then broke again for the first set, 6-4.

The Spaniard, a full 11 years older than his 21-year-old opponent, is an intelligent player with few weaknesses, and he did not make the same mistake in the second set, levelling at 6-4, and again broke early in the third. It took him 2hrs 21mins, but he held off the challenge of the popular young Aussie to give Spain a tie-winning victory, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4.

But another strong contender for the ATP Cup title, Russia, offered up one of the more intriguing matches of the opening day.

Last year Daniil Medvedev and Karen Khachanov reached the semis, each scoring five singles wins, but while Khachanov is still a top-20 player, he has been overtaken by Andrey Rublev. This year, indeed, Russia is the only team comprising two top-10 players, with Medvedev now No4 and Rublev, courtesy of storming five titles through 2020, up to No8. That makes formidable reading for the other teams, especially the second-ranked players.

Rublev powered past Argentina’s Guido Pella, ranked 44, in just an hour, 6-1, 6-2, afterwards admitting:

“It was my first match of the season, my first match after a long break. For the first match, I was playing really well and I’m really happy with my performance… I was hitting the ball hard from the beginning.”

And so to Medvedev against Diego Schwartzman, where the contrasts in physical stature and style of play could not be greater. The Russian, on a 10-match winning streak after taking the titles at the Paris Masters and ATP Finals at the end of 2020, also had a 5-0 success rate over the man standing almost a foot shorter—Schwartzman is just 5ft7ins. Three of those five wins were in the truncated 2020 season, too, including both the Paris Masters and ATP Cup, plus the ATP Cup a year ago.

Initially, world No4 Medvedev raced to a lead, 3-0, only for Schwartzman to level. They exchanged breaks again, but the Russian at last took advantage of his big, flat hitting to take the set, 7-5. However, the Argentine was making life very difficult, taking up an attacking position to close on the net for some nice touch volleys.

Another exchange of breaks in the second set left Schwartzman serving at 4-3, but Medvedev knuckled down on defence to force the key error and the break. Three aces brought up match points, and a winning serve sealed victory for Russia, 6-3.

It was, then, a really impressive start for the young Russian team, and in the fourth tie of the day, that kind of strength in depth also helped.

Italy is one of the four teams to boast two top-20 players, though they both upset the rankings in their singles matches.

No17 Fabio Fognini should have beaten No100 Dennis Novak, but instead played a shocker to lose 6-3, 6-2. But No10 Matteo Berrettini pulled out the stops to beat world No3 Dominic Thiem with relative ease to steady the Italian ship. And when the two Italians combined forces for the doubles decider, it was cruise control, a 6-1, 6-4 win and the tie.

Australia and Canada will have a chance to turn their fortunes around come Wednesday, when they return to take on Greece and Germany respectively. Meanwhile, Italy will face France and Russia will meet Japan to try and seal their places in the semi-finals.

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