The ATP’s new international competition debuted on Friday with Bulgaria saving match points to defeat Great Britain in a decisive doubles rubber.
The first day of the new ATP Cup also saw organizers left red-faced after the wrong anthem was played for Moldova, while the USA was shocked by underdogs Norway.
Bulgaria 2-1 Great Britain
Great Britain held two points to win the tie but were denied by Bulgaria, who came from behind to snatch victory.
Cameron Norrie defeated Dimitar Kuzmanov in the first rubber and when Dan Evans won the first set against Bulgaria’s player-captain Grigor Dimitrov, Great Britain – captained by Tim Henman – were briefly in a commanding position.
But world no. 20 Dimitrov, who has been ranked as high as world no. 3 and is a former ATP Finals champion, ended the 2019 season strongly after semifinal runs at the US Open and the Paris Masters, and turned the tables on Evans to claim the second and third sets.
By that time, it was already past midnight in Sydney and with Dimitrov electing to play the doubles alongside Alexander Lazarov, a 22-year-old ranked world no. 517, the rules demanded a 45-minute wait. It was not until around 1am that Dimitrov and Lazarov took to the court to face Jamie Murray and Joe Salisbury.
The British pair, playing together for the first time as Great Britain’s highest-ranked doubles players, held two match points in the match tie-break but it was the lower-ranked Lazarov who closed out the victory for Bulgaria, landing a perfect volley then surprising the Brits with an inside-out forehand winner. The Bulgarian team, who are strangers to the higher echelons of the Davis Cup, flooded on to court in delight after a huge victory.
‘We missed our flights. We couldn’t get here in time. We practiced like two or three times. So coming up to this match, I was extremely nervous and I didn’t know what to expect,’ Lazarov said.
‘But the energy [Grigor] brings to the court is just unbelievable. Right away, right from the start, I felt calm. I felt confident playing alongside with him. And it finally paid off.’
Great Britain, who are missing Andy Murray due to injury, must now beat Belgium in their next match on Sunday if they are to have any hope of progressing to the elimination stages. Belgium themselves beat Moldova 3-0 to put themselves top of Group C.
Moldovan mishap for organizers
Tournament organizers never want to start off having to apologize on day one – particularly when the new event they are trying to promote and run is the sport’s second multi-team international competition in a six-week span, and lacks the name recognition of the first, the Davis Cup.
But that was precisely what they were forced to do after the national anthem of Romania was played instead of the national anthem of Moldova ahead of Moldova’s tie against Belgium in Sydney.
It didn’t get any better for Moldova as they lost 0-3 to Belgium. Their top player, world no. 46 Radu Albot, lost 4-6, 1-6 to David Goffin
Norway shock the USA
The ATP Cup, which qualifies nations on the basis of their top-ranked singles player, was always going to make for some strange match-ups and so far it also promises some unusual Cinderella stories as well.
Norway have one played ranked inside the top 100 – world no. 54 Casper Ruud, the 21-year-old who made his first ATP Tour final in Houston last year – and only one other player, world no. 332 Viktor Durasovic, ranked in the top 1,000.
They were up against the USA, who have eight players ranked inside the top 100 in singles. Nevertheless, it was Norway who managed to get the win. Taylor Fritz defeated Durasovic 6-2, 6-2, but Ruud saved two match points to beat world no. 19 John Isner in three sets before the pair teamed up for a decisive doubles victory over Rajeev Ram and Austin Krajicek.
‘I think I made a great effort today,’ Ruud said.
‘We were one point away from losing the tie, and even if I’d lost [against Isner] 7-6, 7-6, I wouldn’t have thought I’d done a lot wrong. We tried to play aggressively in the doubles, against two good doubles players, but we’re good singles players and tried to win our way, not coming to the net a lot. We’re very happy to beat Team United States.’
Norway face Italy next while the USA face the unenviable task of trying to beat Russia – who are led by world no. 5 Daniil Medvedev and world no. 17 Karen Khachanov, and who beat Italy 3-0 on Friday – in order to try to keep their chances of making it out of Group D alive.
Woe for top-10 players
While Medvedev came back from a set down to beat Fabio Fognini, other top-10 players in action on Friday didn’t fare so well.
World no. 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas ended 2019 on an incredible high after winning the Nitto ATP Finals but was brought down to earth abruptly by Denis Shapovalov, who defeated him 7-6(6), 7-6(4) as Canada swept Greece 3-0. Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime won all six sets in the tie, combining for a straight-sets win in the decisive doubles.
But the most painful defeat of the day no doubt belonged to Alexander Zverev. With Germany trailing 0-1 in the tie against hosts Australia after Nick Kyrgios beat Jan-Lennard Struff, Zverev took the court against Alex de Minaur and raced to a 5-2 lead before establishing a commanding 6-4, 4-2 foothold in the match. But the famously fleet-footed de Minaur, mentored by team captain Lleyton Hewitt, battled back as Zverev’s level plummeted. The German increasingly struggled on serve, double-faulting 14 times in the match – ten in the last two sets alone – while Kyrgios celebrated each double fault by doing push ups in the Australian team area. De Minaur pulled off a big comeback win, 4-6, 7-6(3), 6-2.
‘Obviously, I’m not feeling my serve. That’s no secret. But I think I just didn’t practise enough, to be honest,’ Zverev said.
All results from Friday 3 January
Coming up on Saturday 4 January
Saturday will see Groups A, B and E playing their first ATP Cup matches.
France vs Chile (A), 10am local/12am GMT
Serbia vs South Africa (A), 5.30pm local/7.30am GMT
Japan vs Uruguay (B), 10am local/2am GMT
Spain vs Georgia (B), 5.30pm local/9.30am GMT
Argentina vs Poland (E ), 10am local/11pm GMT
Germany vs Greece (E ), 5.30pm local/6.30am GMT