Djokovic inspires Serbia to ATP Cup glory & Australian Open Preview: Tennis Round up
Inspired by their talisman Novak Djokovic the nation of Serbia has become the first winners of the inaugural ATP Cup. Alex Grant reports.
New year, new tournament, same old Djokovic, that was the story from the ATP Cup final in Perth, Australia on Sunday as Serbia came from one match down to beat, the recently crowned Davis Cup champions, Spain and become the first winners of the newly formed ATP Cup.
The ATP Cup is a new team tournament held across three cities in Australia in the build-up to the Australian Open and consists of 24 nations. These nations are split into six groups of four teams with the ties made-up of two singles matches and a doubles match. Each tie opens up with a singles match contested between the number two ranked players from each nation, followed by a match-up between the number one ranked players, before the tie ends with a doubles match, which is played regardless of whether the tie is decided or not. The six group winners plus the two best runners-up progress to the quarter-finals.
The final started off in the ideal fashion for the Davis Cup champions as a confident looking Roberto Bautista-Agut beat the Serbian number two Dušan Lajović 7-5 6-1 to put the Spanish one win away from the title.
This time, however, when his country needed him most, world number one Rafael Nadal was unable to deliver the goods as he fell to a ninth straight hard-court defeat at the hands of great-rival Novak Djokovic. Playing like a man inspired by the largely pro-Serbian crowd Djokovic blew Nadal away in the opening set breaking the Spaniard in his opening service game before breaking again in the seventh game en route to a comfortable 6-2 score line.
Gritting his teeth and showing all the fighting spirits that have made him such a champion Nadal was not about to give this up and produced some top tennis of his own to keep touch with Djokovic in the second set. But having failed to capitalise on a 0-40 opening on the Serbian’s serve whilst leading at 3-2 the Spaniard was soon break points down himself at 5-5 but produced some clutch tennis to hold, with the second set destined for a tiebreak. The tiebreak continued to be a tight affair until 4-4 when Djokovic stepped it up to finish the match off, levelling the tie and ensuring that the maiden ATP Cup final went to a decisive doubles rubber.
Djokovic was no sooner off the court as he was back on it to partner Viktor Troicki in the doubles but to the surprise of many in the stadium and watching around the world he would not be facing off against Rafael Nadal once more as the world number one, despite being a mainstay in any decisive doubles the Spanish played throughout the 10 days, opted to sit this one out, citing exhaustion, instead allowing veteran Feliciano Lopez to partner Pablo Carreño Busta.
The match started well for the Spaniards as they broke to take an early 3-1 lead but it was all down hill from there as the Serbian pair soon rattled off seven straight games to take the opening set 6-3 and open up an early 2-0 lead in the second putting the fate of the ATP Cup in their hands.
The Spanish attempted to fight back but the Serbs, thanks in no small part to the big game experience of Djokovic, held firm to take the second set 6-4 and win the inaugural ATP Cup for Serbia.
Speaking after the match the world number two spoke of his joy at leading his country to victory:
“I’ll remember this experience for the rest of my life as definitely one of the nicest moments in my career,” Djokovic said. “I’ve been very fortunate and blessed to have an amazing career the last 15 years, but playing for the team, playing for the country with some of my best friends for a long long time, you can’t match that. That’s just too special.”
The first edition of this tournament, whilst largely viewed as a success, has not been without its critics, however, with many complaining about its scheduling as well as the physical toll it could take on its competitors just a week before the first grand slam of the season kicks off in Melbourne. In fact many pointed to Nadal’s seemingly strange decision to sit out the decisive doubles as proof of that concern with many viewing it as the Spaniard simply prioritising the Australian Open.
There have also been early calls for the ATP Cup to merge with the newly formatted Davis Cup given the clear similarities between the two events.
The timing also saw many players decide to sit out the tournament entirely with world number three Roger Federer instead deciding to arrive early in Melbourne as the Swiss seeks to win a record-extending 21st grand slam crown and what would be his first major title in two years (Australian Open 2018).
For Nadal and Djokovic they will look to recover quickly with both looking to write yet more history in the first slam of the season.
Victory for Nadal would see the world number one win only his second Australian Open crown and with it become the first man in the open era to have won every grand slam title at least twice. He would also draw level with Roger Federer as the most successful player in grand slam history with 20 major titles.
For Djokovic meanwhile, glory in Melbourne would see him win a record-extending eighth Australian Open crown and a 17th grand slam overall to close in on Nadal (19 slams) and Federer (20 slams).
Elsewhere the likes of Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Dominic Thiem will be hoping this can finally be the time that they end the grand slam dominance of the big three with Djokovic himself admitting that the three young stars pose a serious threat to himself, Nadal and Federer:
“You obviously have Federer, Nadal, myself because of the experience and the rankings and because of everything we get named the top three favourites. But then you have Medvedev, Tsitsipas, Thiem that are really showing some amazing tennis,” commented the Serb.
“They showed that they matured on the big stage, that they can challenge the best players in the world and win against them. So everybody keeps on talking about Next Gen player winning a slam. It seems like it’s getting closer. Hopefully not this year. We’ll see.”