ATP Cup gives men’s tour a new, long-overdue, curtain-raising event

ATP Cup gives men’s tour a new, long-overdue, curtain-raising event

There is no shortage of story lines to track as it unfolds over the next 10 days across Australia.

If you’ve been following the lead-up to the ATP Cup on social media, you might be wondering if the whole thing was just a ploy to get the players to take their shirts off for the cameras. The Spanish team, the Bulgarian team, the Austrian team: They’ve all been photographed frolicking together, half-clothed, on an Australian beach.

There are worse ways of letting people know the tennis season is about to begin again, I guess. And there are worse ways to start a new season, and a new decade, than with a new event that features teams from 24 countries competing for $15 million in Brisbane, Perth, and Sydney. For years, many of us in the media have called for tennis to create a special curtain-raising event to kick off the season. The ATP Cup, which runs from January 3 to the 12th, features Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and virtually every other Top 20 player except Roger Federer, and comes with a healthy dose of patriotic team spirit, fits the bill nicely.

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Of course, this being tennis, you can’t make an omelette without smashing a few eggs. In this case, the smashed egg in question is the Hopman Cup, the ITF’s duel-gender exhibition in Perth that had served as a season-opener since 1989, and made headlines a year ago by putting the game’s resident GOATs, Roger Federer and Serena Williams, on a court together. After that feel-good moment went viral, the time seemed right for the sport to finally commit to developing a big dual-gender team event. Instead, it has gone the single-gender route again. In that sense, the ATP Cup feels like both a step forward, and a missed opportunity.

But with that downside come a number of upsides. Unlike the two other men’s team events, Davis Cup and Laver Cup, the ATP Cup comes with ranking points. It puts doubles on an equal plane with singles. It enlists several popular past champions—Boris Becker and Marat Safin among them—as team captains. And it guarantees the players a week’s worth of tune-up matches, along with a “participation fee.” The biggest question mark may be whether, with so many teams, locations, and rounds packed into 10 days, the whole thing can easily be followed. For that, we’ll just have to wait, and watch, and find out. Here are five things to track as the ATP Cup zooms along, and the 2020 season begins.

What will the event mean for Nadal and Djokovic as they restart their Grand Slam title race?

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With Federer absent, the star power will be provided by the world’s top two players, Nadal and Djokovic. They played in last year’s Australian Open final, split the four majors, and battled down to the wire for the year-end No. 1 ranking.

By all accounts, Nadal, who was slowed by injury at the end of 2019, is healthy and playing well, and ready for the challenge of getting Grand Slam No. 20 this year. Spain is in the eminently winnable Group B, with Uruguay, Japan, and Georgia. Nadal will start his season against Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia on January 4th, Pablo Cuevas of Uruguay on the 6th, and Yoshihito Nishioka of Japan on the 8th.

Djokovic, who will be defending his Australian Open crown in three weeks, may have more to gain and prove during the ATP Cup. He has voiced his disappointment in the way his 2019 ended, with a withdrawal at the US Open, a round-robin exit at the ATP Finals, and a crushingly close quarterfinal defeat in Davis Cup. I’m guessing he’ll want to put all of that behind him as quickly as possible when he faces Kevin Anderson of South Africa, Gael Monfils of France, and Cristian Garin of Chile in Brisbane.

There’s no Group of Death, but there is a Group of Youth

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There will be big names and good matches all over Australia next week, but Group F may pack the most fireworks into its six ties. It’s not a Group of Death, exactly, but, with Greece, Australia, Canada, and Germany facing off, it will be a Group of Youth—and youthful bravado. Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Nick Kyrgios, Alex De Minaur, Denis Shapovalov, and Felix Auger Aliassime will mix it up in Brisbane, and the presence of the Aussie team should guarantee good, loud crowds to see them.

Who might emerge with momentum heading into the Australian Open? This should be a perfect format for hometown heroes Kyrgios and De Minaur. But it also seems to me that Zverev is due to reassert himself in 2020. He likes Laver Cup; chances are he’ll like the ATP Cup, too.

Is Russia ready to explode, or implode?

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With Daniil Medvedev and Karen Khachanov leading the way, Russia may be the most intriguing of the 24 teams. They could win it all, or go down early, depending on how these two young and at times unpredictable stars are feeling and playing to start the season. Last year, Khachanov was the man seemingly on the rise, but he flat-lined in 2019.

This year, it’s the fifth-ranked Medvedev who will be feeling the weight of expectations after nearly running the ATP table from August to October. The ATP Cup should give us an early answer to one of the year’s major questions: Namely, is Medvedev for real? Russia will be in Group D, with the United States, Italy, and Norway. That sounds winnable.

Where does Canada go from here?

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Shapovalov, Auger Aliassime, Bianca Andreescu: Canadian tennis put itself on the world map in 2019. Andreescu won the country’s first major title, at the Australian Open, while Shapo and FAA nearly won its first Davis Cup. But within the men’s team, a surprising turnaround took place in the middle of 2019: As Auger Aliassime’s season sputtered, Shapovalov's suddenly took flight.

Will those two trajectories continue into 2020? Is Shapovalov a credible Grand Slam threat? Can Auger Aliassime switch into a higher gear and develop a go-to weapon? The Canadians are in the Group of Youth; how they perform in it could be a harbinger of the year to come for both players.

Can tennis help shine a needed light on the Australian wild fires?

As you may know, there’s a slightly more important story happening Down Under than the ATP Cup. New South Wales has been ravaged by wild fires for three months; 15 millions acres have been destroyed since September, and Sydney is permeated with thick smoke. Yet, as climate writer David Wallace-Wells points out in a New York magazine article entitled “Global Apathy Toward the Fires in Australia is a Scary Portent for the Future,” the rest of the world has yet to register the importance, and danger, of what’s happening there.

Tennis, with its international scope, would seem to be ideally positioned to help raise awareness around the world, and bring some relief to those affected, over the next month. Can this typically apolitical sport rise to the occasion? Kyrgios has pledged $200 for every ace he hits, and he’s been joined by several other players. Let’s hope that’s just the beginning of a concerted month-long effort. Australia has supported tennis like few other countries over the last century; tennis should do what it can to support it back.