Can one man’s brilliance have such a big say in the conclusion of a tournament that it makes you forget everything that happened earlier? That’s what it felt like at the end of the inaugural edition of the ATP Cup, as Novak Djokovic took centre-stage and put everything else in the shade.
Djokovic seemed to get better with each passing day of the tournament, and by the end, he had built up such a head of steam that even the World No 1 looked like an amateur in comparison. The Serb was unbeaten throughout (across six singles and two doubles matches), but his last three singles wins – over Denis Shapovalov, Daniil Medvedev and Rafael Nadal – were as good an exhibition of his otherworldly prowess as anything he has showcased in his career.
In the final tie against Spain, Djokovic showed up for doubles duty too, partnering Victor Troicki to beat the experienced duo of Feliciano Lopez and Pablo Carreno Busta. You could tell from his reaction while lifting the trophy with his teammates that this meant the world to him; Djokovic would’ve probably walked on a bed of hot coals if that was what it took to get the win for Serbia.
The good thing about the tournament – the newest team event to become part of the tennis world – is that you could’ve said the same thing about a dozen other players too. They may not have had Djokovic’s skills, but they certainly didn’t lack in desire; from Karen Khachanov down to John Millman, every player contested every match like their life depended on it.
That approach resulted in a string of captivating matches that could rival even the Slams for intensity and shot-making quality. Djokovic’s matches against Shapovalov and Medvedev were ridiculously entertaining, but there were several other barn-burners too. Nick Kyrgios vs Stefanos Tsitsipas was a low-key magic show, and it will be hard for any match this year to top the drama of the doubles thriller between Great Britain and Australia.
Australia, of course, monopolized a lion’s share of the noise in the early stages, by virtue of being the host nation. Both Kyrgios and Alex de Minaur know how to whip the crowd into a frenzy, and the atmosphere during their matches reminded many of the old Davis Cup.
But while that wasn’t entirely surprising, not many would have anticipated Serbia’s matches having just as much electricity. There was an unnaturally large contingent of Serbian fans at every match that Djokovic & Co played, and at one point their heckling from the stands got so intense that the normally-calm Shapovalov launched an expletive-filled rant in their direction.
The crowd being on his side for once must have been a radical change for Djokovic, but he didn’t let that show in his play. He was just as invincible as ever, giving his fans even more reason to bring the roof down.
The enthusiasm of the crowd and the performance of the top stars seemed to suggest that the ATP Cup is here to stay. But it wasn’t all hunky-dory from start to finish; there were a few teething problems, and a couple of deep-rooted issues, that will need addressing if the tournament hopes to become a long-term success.
For one thing, there is the whole ranking conundrum. Ever since the format of the ATP Cup was announced, the likes of Reilly Opelka and John Millman have repeatedly pointed out the inherent unfairness in the way players would earn ranking points from the tournament.
Up until 2019, an ATP player’s ranking points total was comprised of his 18 best tournament results during the preceding 52 weeks. But from this year, players participating in the ATP Cup will have 19 tournaments that count towards their ranking – the 18 best ones, plus the ATP Cup. That sounds patently unjust when you consider that not everyone has the chance to participate in the ATP Cup; only those who occupy the top two ranking spots among their countrymen get direct entry.
In other words, a player from a country that has several high-ranking players would always have one fewer countable tournament than a player from a country that has just one or two high-ranking players.
That’s not to mention how the concept of earning individual ranking points from a team event is dodgy by its very definition. A player could win all of his matches but have a weak teammate, leading to his team getting knocked out in the group stage. That would essentially mean a ‘perfect’ player is deprived of the chance to earn ranking points, for no fault of his own.
Having team events in a lone wolf kind of sport like tennis is always a welcome change of pace for the fans. But when the team event unjustly interferes with the lone wolf’s ranking points, there is bound to be some howling.
And since we are on the subject of the freshness of team events, is it possible that tennis is currently blessed with too much of a good thing? The Davis Cup has just been revamped and squeezed into a compact November slot, with the new format being confusingly similar to that of the ATP Cup. Add to that the already flourishing Laver Cup in September, and you have three team events in the space of five months. Did someone say overkill?
Moreover, the fact that the ATP Cup now occupies the premium first-week spot on the tennis calendar means the lower-ranked players have fewer opportunities to get match practice in the lead-up to the Australian Open. The creation of the ATP Cup has led to the termination of the tournaments in Sydney and Brisbane, and as of this year only one tournament – the Adelaide Open – has come up as a replacement.
Perhaps the most jarring downside of the tournament, however, was the scheduling controversy in Brisbane. The ATP Cup is held across three cities, and the venue for the Brisbane leg is the same as the one used for the simultaneously running Brisbane International – a Premier-level WTA event. So with two high-profile tournaments taking place at the same time, how did the organizers resolve the conflict? The only way a sexist administration would: by putting the men in the main stadium, and ostracizing the women to the outside courts.
And this wasn’t just any Premier-level tournament either; six of the world’s top 10 women’s players were in action, including World No 1 and home favourite Ashleigh Barty. The astoundingly tactless decision to ignore all that and give the ATP Cup preferential treatment was sharply criticized by Maria Sharapova, Sloane Stephens and Sam Stosur, but the damage had already been done.
Tennis Australia chief Craig Tiley, fortunately, took notice of the blunder and tried to douse the fire by revealing plans to create a ‘WTA Cup’ modelled on similar lines as the ATP Cup – with additional courts to be built to accommodate both the tournaments. That would certainly go a long way towards giving WTA players an equal footing, which is just as well; another situation like this year’s Brisbane fiasco could permanently damage the image of the ATP Cup.
At the moment, that image is still positive. The first edition of the tournament was largely well-received by the fans, and the quality of tennis was high enough to negate the teething problems. And the organizers have Djokovic, in particular, to thank for that.
The skill and fire that the Serb displayed would attract spectator interest no matter what the format or ranking rules. But Djokovic won’t always be on hand to save the day; the ATP Cup needs to fix its problems, and fast.
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Updated Date: Jan 13, 2020 08:09:22 IST