ATP Cup preview: Mix of its star power is what the doctor ordered

ATP Cup preview: Mix of its star power is what the doctor ordered

From a reboot of the Djokovic-Nadal show to the strength of Russia's Medvedev-Rublev combination, here are five things to look for at next week's ATP team event.

Most of us would agree that the 2021 tennis season is off to a bit of a slow start. So far it has consisted mostly of Novak Djokovic sitting on a hotel balcony.

As a new month nears, though, we can begin to see light at the end of the quarantine tunnel. The players in Australia will be freed from their lockdowns soon, and the opening event of the men’s season, the ATP Cup, will begin on Tuesday, February 2. That’s 24 hours later than originally scheduled, to give the boys as much training time as possible. To tide fans over, the tour released the draw and daily schedules for its team competition last Friday.

When the ATP Cup debuted in 2020—two months before the pandemic lockdowns began—some of us asked whether the sport really needed another round-robin team event. This year, we probably won’t be complaining. We want to see tennis, and I doubt many of us care what format it happens to be in.

The ATP Cup, which divides 12 countries into four groups, should bring us a lot of good tennis, too. The players may be rusty, and some may be more ready than others, depending on how hard their quarantines were. But the event won’t lack for stakes or star power. The world’s Top 4 men, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Dominic Thiem, and Daniil Medvedev, are all here, along with Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, Matteo Berrettini, Denis Shapovalov, Gael Monfils, Kei Nishikori, Diego Schwartzman, Milos Raonic, and more.

With the Australian Open coming up fast—it starts February 8—all of these men will want to get in as much court time, and build as much confidence, as they can. Here’s a look at ahead at five of the topics we’ll likely be discussing when they finally take the court.

The Rafa and Nole Show Reboots

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The ATP won’t waste any time bringing its biggest stars to center stage. On Tuesday morning, a Serbian team led by Novak Djokovic will start things off in Rod Laver Arena against Canada. That evening, a Spanish team led by Rafael Nadal with take on Australia. Djokovic will play Denis Shapovalov; Nadal will play Alex De Minaur.

How much will the ATP Cup matter to the world’s No. 1 and 2? The Australian Open, where they’ll be favored to meet in the final for a third time, is obviously what they’re aiming toward, but this event could play a role in how they perform at the year’s first Slam. At the ATP Cup in 2020, Djokovic beat Nadal in straight sets and led Serbia to the title. That momentum seemed to carry over. Three weeks later, Djokovic won his 17th major.

Where’s Nick Kyrgios?

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When you think of Nadal and Djokovic in Australia, you naturally think of their chief antagonist from Down Under, right? An encounter between Rafa and Kyrgios would have been the ideal way to get people’s attention as a new season began.

So why is Nadal playing De Minaur instead, and why is Kyrgios not on the Australian team? ATP Cup rules state that the two highest-ranked players in each country have the opportunity to play singles for their teams. In Australia’s case, that’s the 23rd-ranked De Minaur and the 38th-ranked John Millman. Kyrgios, who skipped most of 2020, is ranked No. 46 right now.

Should we criticize the ATP for not finding a way to put Kyrgios on the team and facilitate the season-opening showdown many of us would like to see? Or should we credit the tour for sticking by its rules and rewarding De Minaur and Millman for their tour success last year? I’ll go with the latter. A match between Nadal and De Minaur, two of the most tenacious players in the game, is a good enough way to start the year for me.

Could the Russians be the team to beat at the ATP Cup, and the players to beat in 2021?

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Daniil Medvedev won four titles in 2019; his friend and countryman Andrey Rublev won five in 2020. With both of them now solidly established in the Top 10, the two Muscovites will make a formidable one-two combination when they play singles for Russia next week.

Medvedev in particular knows the value of getting off to a good start at this event. Last year, he came to Australia after a season in which he had skyrocketed in the rankings. That momentum still seemed to be with him in the early going at the ATP Cup, where he won his first four matches. But a close loss to Djokovic in the semifinals foreshadowed something of a sophomore slump ahead. Medvedev lost in the fourth round at the Australian Open and the first round at Roland Garros, and didn’t win a title until November. Then the 24-year-old gathered himself to win in Bercy and London, and to raise expectations once again for 2021.

Russia will start against Argentina on Tuesday. Medvedev will face Diego Schwartzman, while Rublev plays Guido Pella.

If you’re a fan of the U.S. team, you don’t have to worry about setting your alarm

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In this pandemic year, the number of countries entered in the ATP Cup has dropped from 18 to 12. Entries are based on the ranking of a nation’s No. 1 player, and his availability for the event; in both cases, that rules out the United States. The top-ranked American man right now is John Isner at No. 24. Even if Isner had been among the Top 12, he decided earlier this month not to make the trip to Melbourne. To a man, today’s U.S. players love to play for their country, but they’ll have to wait until 2022, and get someone ranked in the Top 18, before they can be part of this tournament again.

Let’s hope the ATP Cup is what we need

This month, Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley has taken on the thankless talk of bringing the tennis world to a mostly Covid-free nation. Even after a rocky start to that process, he sounds optimistic. Tiley says that the past two weeks have been the dark period, but that a new day will dawn once the players take the court.

Is he right? The ATP Cup, with its mix of star power and camaraderie, would seem to be exactly what the tennis doctor ordered, and a good way to reenergize fans before everyone settles in for the Australian Open. Last year I wondered about the usefulness of this event. I’m not wondering now.