By Seth Gellman
As controversy surrounded quarantine and the upcoming Australian Open, the ATP Cup was a breath of fresh air for many top tennis players. Looking for early practice, thirteen of the top fourteen players in the world were set to compete, with the lone exception of World No. 5 Roger Federer, who was recovering from knee surgery.
The first ATP Cup took place in January of last year, and it was an instant hit for many. Players competed for their country and teammates, similar to Davis Cup. Twelve countries would be participating in the 2021 ATP Cup, being decided by the singles ranking of the nation’s top player. Australia, the host country, was granted a wild card. There were to be four players per team this year, with one team captain. The ties were played as a best of three matches, with the second singles preceding the first singles. After both singles are played, the team captain will choose who will compete in the doubles. The doubles featured no-ad scoring and a 10 point match tiebreak in lieu of a third set.
There were four groups, named Groups A, B, C, and D. The teams in Group A were Serbia, the defending champions led by World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, Germany, led by World No. 7 Alexander Zverev, and Canada, led by young Canadian and World No. 12 Denis Shapovalov. Group B had Spain, led by World No. 2 Rafael Nadal, Greece, led by World No. 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Australia, led by World No. 23 Alex de Minaur. The teams in Group C were Austria, led by World No. 3 and reigning US Open champion Dominic Thiem, Italy, led by World No. 10 Matteo Berrettini, and France, led by showman and World No. 11 Gael Monfils. Group D had the ever so dangerous Russia with two top ten singles players in World No. 4 Daniil Medvedev and World No. 8 Andrey Rublev, Argentina, led by World No. 9 Diego Schwartzman, and Japan, led by former US Open finalist Kei Nishikori.
Group A was a classic clash of the new generation going up against old talent, with Alexander Zverev and Denis Shapovalov looking to make their mark in ATP Cup history against Novak Djokovic, who first entered the top ten in 2007. In the first tie of the group, Canada’s Milos Raonic started off with a win against Serbian Dusan Lajovic 6-3 6-4. It was a dominant performance from the Canadian, with the 6’5” right hander not even facing a break point. The second match featured a highly anticipated clash between Denis Shapovalov and Novak Djokovic. Shapovalov, who made his top ten debut last year, wanted to avenge his 4-6 6-1 7-6 (4) loss to Djokovic the year prior. Shapovalov came out with strong serving, but could not take down the Serbian, losing 7-5 7-5. Djokovic extended his perfect singles record to 7-0 at the ATP Cup, having won all six of his singles matches last year to lead his team to victory. The tie came down to the doubles match. Victor Troicki, Serbia’s captain, put Novak Djokovic and Filip Krajinovic in and Canadian captain Peter Polansky chose Denis Shapovalov and Milos Raonic. After two tight sets, the Serbian duo came out on top 7-5 7-6 (4).
The second tie was between Canada and Germany. The first match was between Jan-Lennard Struff and Milos Raonic, two big servers. Both were broken once, and each set went to a tiebreak. In the end, Struff prevailed 7-6 (4) 7-6 (2). The second match was a clash between two young stars in Alexander Zverev and Denis Shapovalov, another matchup of big servers. After almost three hours of play, Alexander Zverev won 6-7 (5) 6-3 7-6 (4) to block Canada from being able to reach the semi-finals. Canada won the doubles in a match tiebreak.
The final tie, and one that would decide the team that goes to the semi-finals, was between Germany and Serbia. The first match was between Struff and Lajovic. After some grueling rallies, Struff prevailed 3-6 6-3 6-4 in just over two hours. The second match of the night, and possibly most highly anticipated match of the week, was Zverev vs. Djokovic. The pair had met six previous times, most recently at the Nitto ATP Finals, where Djokovic won 6-3 7-6 (3). After a clutch tiebreak, Zverev claimed the first set 7-6 (3). Djokovic fired back, breaking the Zverev serve twice to win the second set 6-2. The third set was riddled with nerves, as they traded breaks toward the end of the match. Djokovic, however, proved more decisive and took it 7-5. His win forced the tie to be decided by the doubles match. For Germany, both singles players Zverev and Struff played while Nicola Cacic and Novak Djokovic played for Serbia. After a long match, the German pair produced a victory, winning 7-6 (4) 5-7 10-7 and sending their team to the semi-final.
Group B had multiple enticing matchups between top players, however one disappointment was Rafael Nadal’s decision to pull out of his first match, citing a lower back problem. Nadal was sidelined for the entire tournament, saying he didn’t want to risk injury. Roberto Bautista Agut was moved up to take his place as the top singles player, and Pablo Carreno Busta would take Bautista Agut’s place as the second singles player.
The first tie was between Spain and Australia. Pablo Carreno Busta, who enjoyed a resurgence into the top 15 in 2020, was set to play against Australia’s John Millman, who won his first ATP title in Nur Sultan in 2020. After solid tennis and good serving from the Spaniard, Busta prevailed 6-2 6-4 in one hour and seventeen minutes. The second matchup was between Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut, who has a reputation for being steady and reliable, versus Australia’s lightning quick Alex de Minaur. De Minaur, who many attribute as being the fastest player on tour, wanted to avenge Australia’s loss to Spain in the semi-finals of last year’s ATP Cup. Nadal prevailed 4-6 7-5 6-1 just over a year ago. As de Minaur’s quickness frustrated Bautista Agut, he won the first set 6-4. However, Bautista Agut stayed steady and won the second and third set by the same score as the first. Marcel Granollers and Pablo Carreno Busta battled John Peers and Luke Saville in the doubles, with the Spaniard coming out on top 6-4 7-5.
After going 1-2 in last year’s ATP Cup, Stefanos Tsitsipas wanted to improve that record and help his team secure their first ATP Cup. The second tie was between Greece and Australia. The first match was between Michail Pervolarakis and John Millman. Many expected the match to be lopsided, as Millman’s ranking was over 400 spots higher than his Greek opponent. Millman did not get broken once and won 6-2 6-3. The pressure was now on Stefanos Tsitsipas to keep his team in the tie. Tsitsipas was set to play Alex de Minaur. Tsitsipas won their previous three matches, and proved too much for the Australian to handle. Tsitsipas won 70% of his first service points to beat de Minaur 6-3 7-5. John Peers and Luke Saville were selected by captain and former World No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt to play the doubles, while Tsitsipas and Pervolarakis were chosen by Apostolos Tsitsipas, the father of Stefanos Tsitsipas. Peers and Saville won 6-3 4-6 10-5 to keep their hopes of making the semi-finals alive.
For the third tie, all Spain needed was one match win to send their team to the semi-finals for the second time in as many years. If Pablo Carreno Busta wins his match against Pervolarakis, the final two matches would not have any pull on group standings. Busta did just that, and won 6-3 6-4 in an hour and ten minutes. Despite already qualifying for the semi-finals, Tsitsipas and Bautista Agut were both ready to give all that they had for their singles match. The only previous meeting between them was at the 2019 Australian Open, where Tsitsipas won 7-5 4-6 6-4 7-6 (2) in the quarterfinals. Tsitsipas won 80% of his first serve points and prevailed 7-5 7-5. The doubles only saw one game, as Spain retired after Greece won the first game.
Group C featured one of the most unpredictable groups, with top stars Dominic Thiem, Matteo Berrettini, Gael Monfils, and Fabio Fognini all competing.. Austria’s Dominic Thiem wanted to improve after losing two of his three matches in last season’s ATP Cup. Austria’s first test was against Italy, a dangerous team featuring two top 20 players. The opening match was between Fabio Fognini and World No. 100 Dennis Novak. Fognini was the heavy favorite, but only captured one victory since the tour resumed last year because of surgery on both ankles. Novak played some brilliant tennis against Fognini, shocking the Italian with a 6-3 6-2 win to put his team up 1-0 in the tie. The pressure was now on Berrettini to keep his team in the tie. Berrettini had a 7-4 record last year, skipping many tournaments due to a groin injury. Berrettini showed no sign of injury against Thiem, however, and dashed past the Austrian 6-2 6-4 in 81 minutes. All four singles players came back on court for the doubles, and the Italians won 6-1 6-4.
The second matchup was between France and Italy. The first match of the tie was a bizarre one. Fognini and Paire are both known for getting frustrated at themselves and letting it affect their tennis, and it produced a wild match. Fognini cruised to a 6-1 3-0 lead before Paire found his rhythm and fought back to serve for the set. Fognini broke back and the set went to a tiebreak. Fognini decisively won the tiebreak to claim a 6-1 7-6 (2) win over Paire, who he last played at the 2017 Australian Open. The second match was one of two players working their way back into form. Berrettini had a rather poor 2020, and Monfils was yet to win a match since the resume in August. Berrettini was closer to form, and decisively won 6-4 6-2. By doing so, Italy qualified for the semi-finals. In doubles, Nicolas Mahut and Edouard Roger-Vasselin beat Simon Bolelli and Andrea Vavassori 6-3 6-4 to clinch one match win for France.
With Italy already into the semi-finals, France and Austria were left to battle for their own pride. Gael Monfils pulled out of the competition so Benoit Paire was moved to first singles and Nicolas Mahut was to play second singles. Nicolas Mahut won 6-2 7-6 (2) to record his first singles victory since beating Stan Wawrinka at Queens in 2019. Thiem went up 6-1 in the first set vs Paire before Paire retired in the second singles match. Mahut and Roger-Vasselin paired together to beat Philipp Oswald and Tristan-Samuel Weissborn 6-3 6-3.
Group D featured the team that many called the favorite to win the tournament: Russia. With two top ten singles players, Russia was instantly a threat. Rublev had a breakout 2020 season, winning five tournaments and Medvedev was on a ten match winning streak. That streak continued, with neither Russian dropping a set in their two ties, securing a place in the semi-finals. Argentina beat Japan in the final tie 3-0. Argentina’s Guido Pella beat Yoshihito Nishioka 6-3 7-6 (4). Diego Schwartzman, who reached his first major semi-final at Roland Garros last year, beat former US Open finalist Kei Nishikori 6-1 6-7 (4) 6-0. Maximo Gonzalez and Horacio Zeballos beat Ben McLachlan and Toshihide Matsui 6-2 6-2.
The semi-finals were set. Germany was to play Russia, and Spain was to play Italy. In the semi-final between Germany and Russia, all eyes were on the clash between Medvedev and Zverev. However, Struff and Rublev faced off first. Rublev dropped his first set all week to Struff, with the German coming out on top 6-3. Rublev was determined to keep his perfect singles record all week alive, though. The Russian fought back to win the next two sets 6-1 6-2 and claim the first match of the tie. The second match was dramatic. Zverev claimed the first set without being broken. Medvedev fought back to earn his break in the second set and held to send it to a third. The match was on serve until 5-5, when Medvedev broke Zverev. Zverev smashed his racket after double faulting to lose the game. Medvedev had to save five break points and it took him to his fourth try to finally secure the victory, capping off a 3-6 6-3 7-5 victory. Medvedev’s victory sent Russia to the final. In the doubles, Kevin Krawietz and Jan-Lennard Struff defeated Evgeny Donskoy and Aslan Karatsev 6-3 7-6 (2).
The other semi-final tie of the day featured four top 20 singles players. The second singles for both teams, Fabio Fognini for Italy and Pablo Carreno Busta for Spain, both sought glory for their team. Busta won all seven of their previous matches, three of which on hard courts. However, that did not deter the Italian. Fognini used his powerful groundstrokes to overpower the Spaniard, winning 6-2 1-6 6-4 in two hours and twenty minutes. The second match was between red hot Matteo Berrettini and Roberto Bautista Agut. Berrettini was yet to drop a set to either of his top 15 opponents, and wanted to continue that trend. Berrettini’s massive serve and forehand combination did him wonders as he powered past the Spanish veteran 6-3 7-5 in under 90 minutes. The Italians won the doubles match by default.
Russia was the heavy favorite to defeat Italy in the final, but there were some interesting matchups. Fognini beat Rublev in five of their six previous matches. Medvedev won his only match against Berrettini at Indian Wells 2018 in three sets. In the first match of the tie, Rublev showed no fear. He faced no break points and won 6-1 6-2 in just over an hour. In the second singles match, Medvedev showed no mercy either in his match against Berrettini. He neutralized Berrettini’s massive serve and forehand to earn himself three breaks and a 6-4 6-2 win. Medvedev smirked after his match, a change from his trademark emotionless celebrations.
ATP Cup had some upsets and great clashes between some of the world’s top players. Russia and it’s “Two Headed Monster” in Medvedev and Rublev were too much for the rest of the field. Berrettini played well after a long injury and Fognini was playing his best since before the quarantine. These results may serve as indicators of who is going to have a big Australian Open and it will be interesting to see if the Russians can continue their form.