Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal face off for the 55th time as Serbia and Spain clash for the title at the inaugural ATP Cup on Sunday.
Serbia vs Spain is live from Sydney on Sunday at 5.30pm local/6.30am GMT
It’s the final the organizers of the new ATP Cup have dreamed of: World no. 1 Nadal and world no. 2 Djokovic, two of the greatest players the sport has ever seen, leading their countries against each other for the title.
After claiming the Davis Cup title in Madrid at the end of 2019, Spain are looking to win their second international title in the space of six weeks. With Roberto Bautista Agut unbeaten in five singles ties including, most impressively, a victory over Nick Kyrgios in the semifinals, Serbia’s hopes will be pinned on Djokovic beating Nadal to level the tie and send it to a deciding doubles rubber – a rubber which might well feature Djokovic and Nadal in action again.
Serbia certainly have the advantage of rest, having had the day match against Russia and sweeping them 3-0, although Djokovic was pushed to a deciding set by Daniil Medvedev. But Spain have had two late nights in a row, both of which have involved hard work for Nadal. How much of a factor will that be in Sunday’s final?
Serbia vs Spain ATP Cup final: Tie details
Serbia: Novak Djokovic, Dusan Lajovic, Nikola Milojevic, Nikola Cacic, Viktor Troicki
Captain: Nenad Zimonjic
Spain: Rafael Nadal, Roberto Bautista Agut, Pablo Carreno Busta, Albert Ramos-Vinolas, Feliciano Lopez
Captain: Francisco Roig
Rubber 1: Dusan Lajovic (SRB) vs Roberto Bautista Agut (ESP), live from Sydney from 5.30pm local/6.30am GMT
After the sensational role he played in Spain’s victory at the Davis Cup Finals, when he had to leave the team mid-week following the sudden death of his father but returned to play in the final and beat Felix Auger-Aliassime to give Spain a 1-0 lead, Bautista Agut has once more been solid as a rock for his nation at the inaugural ATP Cup.
Bautista Agut has compiled a 5-0 record through the week and has yet to drop a set, and if some of his opponents have been less than impressive – the likes of world no. 678 Aleksandre Metreveli of Georgia and the unranked Franco Roncadelli of Uruguay spring to mind – he has also beaten some good players, most notably Nick Kyrgios of Australia. Bautista Agut beat Kyrgios 6-1, 6-4, and it was never really close: The Spaniard raced to a 5-0 lead in the first set and took the break lead in the fifth game of the second set, smothering his opponent with pressure for which Kyrgios had no answers, spraying 27 unforced errors.
In addition to going 5-0 at ATP Cup, Bautista Agut also has a 5-0 record against Lajovic, although Lajovic did push him to five sets at the Australian Open in 2016.
The Serb, who hit a career-high ranking of world no. 23 in April 2019 after a surprise run to the final of the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters saw him beat Medvedev and Dominic Thiem, has been playing the best tennis of his career in recent seasons and has also been on fine form at the ATP Cup, compiling a 4-1 record. Lajovic’s solitary loss at the ATP Cup so far came to Benoit Paire, and he’s beaten Felix Auger-Aliassime and Karen Khachanov – ranked world no. 17 and world no. 21 respectively – in straight sets during the elimination stages, however.
Rubber 2: Novak Djokovic (SRB) vs Rafael Nadal (ESP), to follow
This is, of course, the big one: The 55th instalment of the rivalry between Djokovic and Nadal, the top two players in the world, with 35 major titles between them.
Of the two, it’s Djokovic who has looked in the better form at the ATP Cup. The world no. 2 made a disappointing (by his phenomenal standards) end to 2019 when he failed to make it out of the group stages of the Nitto ATP Finals and was devastated, along with the rest of the Serbian team, to be eliminated in the round-robin stages of the Davis Cup Finals as well (although Djokovic did go unbeaten in singles).
But Djokovic has looked in very good form to start 2020, going 5-0 at the ATP Cup so far despite some tough opponents. He beat Cristian Garin, Kevin Anderson and Gael Monfils without dropping a set – and Anderson played absolutely brilliant tennis which belied his return from knee surgery – before coming back from a set down to beat Denis Shapovalov in the quarterfinals; in the semifinals, he avoided a third straight defeat to Medvedev, recovering from the loss of a tight second set in which he was broken three times and prevailing 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 to end a match Djokovic described as ‘exciting, exhausting, joyful, dreadful all at once’.
Djokovic will not have been happy with five double faults, outnumbering the four aces he served, and the match – as you would expect between such supremely gifted defensive players – was extremely grueling, lasting two hours and 49 minutes of lengthy rallies. But in a way, that’s excellent preparation for facing Nadal; and Djokovic does have a significant rest advantage, having played the day matches on both Friday and Saturday in Sydney. (Nadal has also played three doubles matches to Djokovic’s one.)
Things have felt decidedly more dicey and patchy for Nadal, especially in the knockout stages. He won his first six sets of the competition against Pablo Cuevas, Nikoloz Basilashvili and Yoshihito Nishioka, but suffered a shock 4-6, 6-7(3) defeat to David Goffin in the quarterfinals, which then had the knock-on effect of meaning he needed to play a deciding doubles rubber. Nadal won it, alongside Pablo Carreno Busta, but the match against the Belgians was very hard-fought, went to a match tie-break and finished extremely late.
Up against Alex de Minaur on Saturday night and looking to seal the tie, Nadal found himself rocked back on his heels by the determined ‘Demon’. In their two previous meetings, all six sets had gone Nadal’s way, with the Spaniard dropping an average of 2.3 games; but de Minaur, who has clearly been having the time of his life playing for Australia, came at Nadal with unaccustomed aggression on Saturday night, and really dominated the match for the first set and a half.
With the Australian not letting up, and Nadal struggling to dictate, the Spaniard had to adapt and did, adjusting his return position significantly to alter the dynamic of the match. It worked, with Nadal finally earning a break point at 6-4, 5-6 after 101 minutes of play and converting immediately in a rally full of mishits and net cords. The deciding set was all Nadal, and he ran out a winner 6-1 in the final set.
Nadal finished the match against de Minaur as strongly as he’s played all week, but he does seem to be a bit low energy (unsurprising after the very, very short off-season he’s had) and is not playing his best tennis.
Then there’s the fact that while Djokovic’s overall lead in the head-to-head is a relatively narrow 28-26, he has won seven of the last ten matches that he and Nadal have played, and has a 19-7 lead in hard-court meetings. In fact, Djokovic is not only on an eight-match winning streak against Nadal on hard courts, with the Spaniard’s last hard-court win coming at the US Open in 2013, but Djokovic has won 17 straight sets against Nadal on hard courts, and only three of those 17 sets have got as far as 4-4.
Nadal did finish world no. 1 above Djokovic in 2019, but it wasn’t because of playing and beating Djokovic; the two only faced off twice in 2019, and their solitary hard-court meeting, the Australian Open final, was a straight-sets win by Djokovic which was emphatic, to say the least.
Djokovic has never beaten Nadal when they are representing their countries – Nadal won their solitary Davis Cup meeting, and their solitary Olympics clash – but it’s a very slight ray of hope for Nadal, because they haven’t met at that level since 2009. All in all, the odds are very much in Djokovic’s favour coming into this clash.
Rubber 3: Novak Djokovic/Viktor Troicki (SRB) vs Rafael Nadal/Pablo Carreno Busta (ESP), to follow after suitable rest
Should the tie come down to a deciding doubles – which it may well, with Bautista Agut and Djokovic favoured to win their singles rubbers for Spain and Serbia respectively – then it would not be a surprise at all to see both Djokovic and Nadal returning to the court to face off for the title alongside partners Troicki and Carreno Busta.
Big-serving Troicki has been playing doubles all week, joined just once by Djokovic – for the deciding rubber against France, when the pair scored an excellent 6-3, 6-7(5), 10-3 victory over Nicolas Mahut and Edouard Roger-Vasselin. Nadal has played twice with Carreno Busta, and won both – a dead rubber victory over Ben McLachlan and Go Soeda of Japan; and the aforementioned decisive doubles victory over Belgium.
Nadal is the superior doubles player – one of the finest in the world, and combines well with Carreno Busta, and Spain should have the edge in this decisive rubber, and therefore in the tie.