By Max Kilham
In July 2018, former Association of Tennis Professionals executive chairman Chris Kermode announced plans to introduce the ‘ATP Cup.’ This year, the first ever champions were Serbia, defeating Spain 2-1 in the final across two singles matches and one doubles match, in a tournament that was held in Brisbane, Perth and Sydney. It all ended when Spain’s Carreño-Busta put a forehand return into the net, allowing for Novak Djokovic and Viktor Troicki to react with glee as they could celebrate Serbia’s inaugural crowning as ATP Cup champions.
There were a number of concerns surrounding the introduction of this tournament, one being its extreme similarity to the Davis Cup, as it was originally pledged to rival its fellow competition. However, first we must see as to how the tournament played out.
But how did we get here? Well, the first match of the tournament ended with Belgium’s Steve Darcis defeating Alexander Cozbinov of Moldova 6-4 6-7 (4) 7-5, as the Belgians kicked off their campaign with a hard-fought win against the impressive Cozbinov.
The tournaments rankings were based off of each countries’ highest ranked player, with each team must need 2 players with an ATP singles ranking and at least three ATP ranked players overall. The 24 teams competing, which contained heavyweights like Serbia, Spain and Russia, were split into 6 groups of four teams each.
After the group phase, Serbia, Argentina, Russia, Great Britain, Australia and Spain all topped their groups, landing them a spot in the knockout stages. Canada and Belgium also qualified as lucky losers. Despite some shocks, including David Goffin’s victory against Rafael Nadal, and Hurbert Hurkacz’s victory over Dominic Thiem, the expected countries ended up in the quarter-finals.
In the last 8, two teams that reached the knockout stages of the Davis Cup faced off, with Serbia and Canada going to battle. In the end, Serbia swept aside the Canadians in three close encounters. Russia similarly swatted aside the Argentinians 3-0, setting up an interesting encounter between two heavyweight nations.
On the other side of the draw, Australia edged Great Britain 2-1 in an extremely close encounter which saw Alex de Minaur and Nick Kyrgios defeat Jamie Murray and Joe Salisbury 18-16 in a final set tiebreak in the deciding doubles. Spain also came through a tight encounter with Belgium, winning 10-7 in a final set tiebreak in the deciding doubles.
This set up what seemed to be two nail-biters between 4 of the strongest nations currently in world tennis. However, the results were more the opposite. World no. 1 Rafael Nadal led Spain to a comprehensive win over Australia whilst fierce rival and World no. 2 Novak Djokovic led the Serbians past Russia, which included an impressive win for Djokovic in three sets against Russian hotshot Daniil Medvedev.
This set up a mouth-watering clash between Serbia and Spain, teams that included the two highest ranked singles players in the world. Spain were looking to add to last year’s Davis Cup crown, whilst Serbia were aiming to spoil that party and prove themselves as the best country in world tennis.
A convincing 7-5 6-1 victory for Roberto Bautista-Agut over Dusan Lajovic began the proceedings, as Spain took an early 1-0 lead in the tie.
Then came the clash of the titans. Rafael Nadal vs Novak Djokovic. Before this match, Djokovic led the head to head between the two 28 tp 26, and it was to be Djokovic who would extend this lead, with a 6-2 7-6 (4) win over the Spaniard.
At 1-1 in the tie, it came down to the final rubber: the doubles. Often an overlooked medium of the sport, the importance of doubles continues to show as it often is the deciding factor in these team competitions.
In the end, Novak Djokovic and Viktor Troicki banished their heatbreaking exit from the Davis Cup by beating Felciano Lopez and Pablo Carreño-Busta 6-3 6-4, to eliminate Spain and bring Serbia the ultimate prize of the ATP Cup.
Whilst we must celebrate the brilliance of the Serbians, we must also consider the success of the tournament as a whole. This tournament was supposed to rival the Davis Cup, as it provided a very similar format to the traditional global team competition.
One positive was that the Cup managed to draw a large number of the biggest names in world tennis, including Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem. Furthermore, the fact the event sold out its final, according to the ATP tour website, of 10,223 seats, highlighted an impressive point of the inaugural tournament.
However, the ATP Cup still has a long way to go before it can dislodge the Davis Cup, as any attempts to overtake or remove the Davis Cup will be met with fierce backlash from this generations’ fans, as well as more traditional fans of the sport.
There can be no doubt that this first run was an impressive and promising first step for the ATP Cup, but there is still plenty of work to be done.