DOHA—There’s an elephant in the room in Doha, and it’s the size of Australia. While many players are eager to start their 2020 season at the Qatar Open, the ATP Cup has stolen their thunder.
For context, the Qatar Open has been around since 1993, just won the ATP 250 Tournament of the Year for the third time in a row, and boasts past champions like Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
This year, the ATP Cup is being held across the same dates and has snagged 16 of the Top 20. The team event offers more points and prize money: two-time Doha champion Djokovic has already earned $356,875 in Brisbane, which is about $130,000 more than he would get for winning the title in Qatar.
Djokovic, as well as Nadal, Marin Cilic, Karen Khachanov, Daniil Medvedev and other highly ranked players, can earn up to 750 ATP rankings points if they win every singles match, through the final. The total point accumulations depends on the quality of opponents a player faces throughout the event. Most crucial of all, the ATP Cup points count as a 19th tournament, on top of rather than instead of one of the 18 tournaments that already go toward a player’s ranking.
The ATP Cup field is strong, but a few Top 40 names are noticeably absent, some because they had different priorities, and some because they are trapped in a no-man’s land.
“It’s not easy with the ATP Cup. I think maybe they need to change something because this is not fair,” Rublev said.
At No. 23, Rublev is the No. 3-ranked Russian, behind Medvedev and Khachanov.
“Some guys with ranking of No. 900 or No. 1,000, they are No. 2 and playing for the points,” Rublev said. “Points which are completely like a new tournament.
“I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks like that, so we’ll see how it’s going to be.”
Rublev’s right, though a bit exaggerated on the rankings, as the lowest No. 2 player is ranked No. 818. Opelka has taken to Twitter to express his frustration.
“I get 18 tournaments that count towards my ranking,” the world No. 36 tweeted. “Others get 19 tournaments that count towards their ranking.. seems fair to me.”
Like Rublev, Opelka is the third-best player in his country, and No. 1 John Isner and No. 2 Taylor Fritz opted to play the ATP Cup. Rublev and Opelka could have flown to Australia as alternates, but would risk missing out on matches, points and prize money with just two weeks until the Australian Open.
There are a few other notable No. 3’s in Doha, including Great Britain’s Kyle Edmund, Serbia’s Laslo Djere, France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Canada’s Milos Raonic.
“I wish I could be there to play, but today it’s like this,” world No. 30-ranked Tsonga said. “It’s a little bit unfair. I hope they will work on it and the ATP will find a solution.”
"In half of the countries I would be No. 1 and almost all other countries I would be No. 2," Rublev said. "In the end I cannot play because I am not in these main players."
Then there’s the case of world No. 15 Stan Wawrinka, who could have teamed with Federer and had a chance at the ATP Cup trophy. Instead, Wawrinka never committed to the ATP Cup due to his contract with Doha, and Federer would later withdraw to spend more time with his family.
"I didn't enter," Wawrinka said. “This year it's a little bit different because of the ATP Cup and a lot of players are already in Australia. I enjoy [playing] here. I think it's good preparation. I'm happy to be here.”
Wawrinka is the top seed this week. Though not seeded, another favorite in Qatar is Fernando Verdasco. The Spaniard has lived in Doha since 2016, and pledged his allegiance to the ATP 250 indefinitely.
“Actually for me it's a shame that they put it the same week as Doha because I will always choose Doha between this and the ATP Cup,” Verdasco said. “So I think if the week is the same that I will never play the ATP Cup.”
The Qatar Tennis Federation is in talks to move the Doha tournament in 2022, and increase the level to an ATP 500. But until then, the ATP Cup's no-man's land will continue to ensnare some of the world's best players.