Twelve countries are set to compete for the second edition of the ATP Cup from 2-6 Feb.
Tennis tipster Andy Schooler gives us a rundown of the upcoming action from Melbourne Park, including the new streamlined format, his favourites for the tournament, and a couple of dark horses for you to consider.
Dates: Tuesday February 2 to Saturday February 6
This event was originally due to take place across 10 days at the start of January with 24 teams. The COVID-19 pandemic has seen both the time period and teams halved.
The group stage will be held from Tuesday to Thursday with the semi-finals on Friday and the final on Saturday.
Venue: Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia
The original plan was to stage the event across three cities, Sydney, Perth and Brisbane, as happened in 2020. However, the entire tournament will now take place in Melbourne, keeping players in a bio-secure ‘bubble’ ahead of the forthcoming Australian Open.
Two of Melbourne Park’s three showcourts, the Rod Laver Arena and John Cain (previously Hisense) Arena, are expected to stage the ties.
Group A – Serbia, Germany, Canada
Group B – Spain, Greece, Australia
Group C – Austria, Italy, France
Group D – Russia, Argentina, Japan
The winner of each group will progress to the knockout semi-finals (A v D, C v B).
Format: Round-robin groups.
Each tie will consist of two singles matches (best of three tie-break sets) and one doubles (no-ad scoring, match tie-break acts as third set).
The teams’ second-ranked singles players will play the first rubber, the top-ranked singles players the second before the doubles concludes the tie.
Reigning champions: Serbia, who beat Spain 2-1 in the inaugural final last season. This year’s draw opens the possibility for another final between the pair.
In short, most of the top names on the ATP Tour, including Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem.
Of the world’s top 13, only the injured Roger Federer is absent, so we should see some mouthwatering matches over the course of the event.
For example, the group stage alone is due to give us Djokovic v Alex Zverev and Nadal v Stefanos Tsitsipas.
How motivated will players be?
This is up for discussion.
The inaugural staging of the ATP Cup was preceded by concerns that not every player would be busting a gut for their nation so close to a Grand Slam tournament.
Those concerns proved largely unfounded but the difference this time is the event is taking place the week before a Grand Slam – the final comes just two days before the Australian Open begins. Last year there was a full week between the two tournaments.
History provides plenty of evidence of players being cautious with any injury niggles in the week prior to a Grand Slam (withdrawals and retirements have often been high in such weeks) and there’s also the question about how much tennis a top name will want to play ahead of one of the most important tournaments of the year.
That said, this is the only match preparation most of these players are getting prior to the Australian Open, the majority having opted not to play in the opening ATP events of the season in Antalya and Delray Beach a few weeks ago.
What part will quarantine play?
A big one, you’d expect.
Basically, all players arrived in Australia on chartered flights and were immediately put into hotel quarantine for 14 days.
The majority of those players have been allowed five hours a day outside their room – two to practise, two for gym work and one to eat.
However, with COVID tests having found positive cases on three of the flights, a total of 72 players (men and women) have been forced to quarantine 24 hours a day in their hotel room.
The ‘hard quarantiners’ due to compete in the ATP Cup include Argentina’s Guido Pella, Japan’s Kei Nishikori and France’s Benoit Paire.
Due to this issue, organisers have pushed back the start of the ATP Cup 24 hours but clearly those who have been unable to practise (bar hitting balls at their mattress) are going to be disadvantaged. And that’s before you consider the mental effects those 14 days have taken.
Speaking about this last week, Dominic Thiem said: “I think it’s clear that there’s a complete inequality of opportunity.
“All players are fresh out of their pre-season, they are in really good shape and have top fitness. If you can’t leave your room for 14 days, it doesn’t matter how much fitness you do in the room, a lot of it just goes away.”
The other significant issue quarantine brings is the increased chance of injury, particularly for those who have been unable to practise. After such a lengthy period without their regular routine, the players involved will really need to ease their way back.
However, with only a handful of days prior to the tournament, that’s not really going to be possible.
Essentially, Argentina, Japan and France look handicapped in this field.
So which teams are the favourites?
While the market is yet to be published, it’s fair to say that last year’s finalists Serbia and Spain will be towards the top of the list once it is.
Holders Serbia boast world number one Djokovic among their number. He won every singles rubber he played in last season’s event and will be expected to do so again. He also contributed in doubles, a format is which he’s more than adept.
Dusan Lajovic (ranked 26) and Filip Krajinovic (31) are also part of the team so Serbia are not totally reliant on their star man.
Spain have arguably the best depth of any nation. Led by Nadal, they also boast two other top-20 singles players – Roberto Bautista Agut and Pablo Carreno Busta. And in Marcel Granollers, they also have the world number 11 in doubles.
Russia look the other team to watch – as long as their top two remain fit. They are the only team with two top-10 singles players at their disposal and if Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev are able to pick up where they left off in 2020, they will be a match for all-comers.
And who are the potential dark horses?
Canada won’t be fancied by the layers to progress out Group A given they are alongside the Serbs but they should not be discounted.
In Denis Shapovalov and Milos Raonic, they have two of the world’s top 15 in singles, while the former is also a strong doubles player, as he showed when helping his nation to the final of the 2019 Davis Cup.
There is little in the way of back-up though so anyone backing the Canadians will do so hoping their main men do not pick up any injury problems.
Italy are another team who could topple the seed in their group, namely Austria, who are very much reliant on their top man, Thiem.
The Italians are set to field Matteo Berrettini and Fabio Fognini in singles. Both are in the world’s top 20. They also have Simone Bolelli in their line-up – he and Fognini are Grand Slam champions in doubles having won the Australian Open title at this venue back in 2015 – so Italy could go well at a tasty price.