Spain and Japan put their perfect ATP Cup records on the line when they meet in Perth on Wednesday to decide the winners of Group B.
The winners will secure top spot and qualification into the last eight, but the losers could still go through as one of the best second placed teams. The six group winners and the two best second-placed teams will qualify for the quarter finals of the ATP Cup.
The Spaniards have unsurprisingly been untouchable at this tournament, given the quality they possess, and the relatively kind draw they got. Rafael Nadal and his men have won all six rubbers, blowing away Georgia and Uruguay to sit atop Group B.
The Japanese have been almost as perfect, with their only blemish being a doubles defeat against Georgia in their last group match. It was largely insignificant, as they had already done the business and sealed the tie after the two singles matches. What’s more impressive is that they have done all of these without their No. 1 player, Kei Nishikori, who pulled out of the ATP Cup with a lingering elbow problem.
Can they pull off the upset against the most formidable team in the tournament?
SPAIN: 1. Rafael Nadal 2. Roberto Bautista Agut 3. Pablo Carreno Busta 4. Albert Ramos-Vinolas 5. Feliciano Lopez. Captain: Francisco Roig.
JAPAN: Yoshihito Nishioka 2. Go Soeda 3. Ben McLachlan 4. Toshihide Matsui. Captain: Satoshi Iwabuchi
Rubber 1: Roberto Bautista-Agut vs Go Soeda, live from Perth from 10:00am local time/ 2:00am GMT
Roberto Bautista-Agut has hardly broken sweat in this tournament, dropping just three games across his two singles matches. The world No. 10 dismissed Aleksandre Metreveli 6-0 6-0 in his first match before easing to a 6-1 6-2 victory over another unheralded opponent, Franco Roncadelli.
Metreveli is ranked 678th in the world, while Roncadelli is currently unranked and has never been higher than No. 1657. Fair to say, Bautista-Agut will face much bigger tests through the course of the year.
The Spaniard, of course, is no stranger to big tests after facing and overcoming plenty of them last season. A fantastic year yielded a title in Doha and a maiden Grand Slam semi-final at Wimbledon, while he also broke into the top ten for the first time.
On a more personal note, he married his long-time girlfriend, but suffered major disappointment when his father passed away during Spain’s Davis Cup campaign. The Spanish No. 2 still managed to return to the squad to help his country secure the Davis Cup title in an admirable show of mental and emotional fortitude.
He will next attempt to give Spain the lead against Japan when he takes on Go Soeda on Wednesday.
Veteran Japanese, Soeda has also been in good form this week, beating Martin Cuevas 6-1 6-3 in his opening match before battling past Metreveli 4-6 6-3 6-2 in his second singles match.
The 35-year-old has a career-high ranking of 47th, which he reached in 2012, but he has been out of the world’s top-100 since July 2015, and has spent most of the last few years competing on the Challenger Tour.
Soeda was ranked outside the top-200 at the end of 2018, but he worked his way back up towards the top 100 in 2019. He reached a Challenger final in Jinan, while he made semi-finals in Taipei, Nottingham, Ilkley, and Vancouver. He also squeezed in a very notable tour-level victory in Tokyo, beating Jan-Lennard Struff to record his first ever victory at his home event at the 13th attempt. It was also his first tour-level win since 2015.
He’s already doubled that win tally in just the first week of 2020, but he will likely come unstuck on Wednesday when he faces Bautista-Agut for the first time. The Spaniard will drop a few more games than he did in his previous matches, but he should ease to a comfortable victory.
Rubber 2: Rafael Nadal vs Yoshihito Nishioka, live from Perth from 11:30am local time/ 3:30am GMT)
World No. 1, Rafael Nadal will likely get the chance to seal this tie for Spain when he faces fellow left-hander, Yoshihito Nishioka in the tie’s second rubber.
With Bautista-Agut crushing opponents with disdain, Nadal has been in the position to seal victory for Spain in the previous ties, and he’s delivered without much problems.
The 33-year-old overcame a late wobble to take out Nikoloz Basilashvili 6-3 7-5 in his first match, but he was a lot more convincing in his second match against Pablo Cuevas, dismissing the Uruguayan 6-2 6-1. Nadal dropped just three points on his first serve, and was all over Cuevas’ second serve, restricting his opponent to just three of 17 points.
The great Spaniard broke serve twice in each set, and saved the only break point he faced at 3-1 in the second set. Nadal is hoping to lead Spain to a second team title in just over a month, having propelled his country to Davis Cup triumph in Madrid last November.
A fantastic 2019 also featured Grand Slam successes at Roland Garros and the US Open, while he also regained the year-end world No. 1 ranking, ending a season at No. 1 for the fifth time in his career.
He’s made a solid start to 2020, and will look to keep that going when he faces fellow left hander, Yoshihito Nishioka on Wednesday.
Nishioka has been superb at the 2020 ATP Cup, dropping just six games across his two matches. His tore through Pablo Cuevas 6-0 6-1 in his opening match, before easing past Basilashvili 6-2 6-3 on Monday.
After missing most of the 2017 season due to a knee injury, Nishioka has done a fine job of rebuilding his ranking in the last couple of years. He fell as low as 380th in April 2018, but he was back inside the top 100 by the end of that season, and without being spectacular, he consolidated his position in 2019. The world No. 72 was a quarter finalist in Cincinnati, Stockholm and Sydney, while he also made the fourth round at Indian Wells.
He’s had a brilliant start to the season, but he faces the ultimate examination on Wednesday as he crashes into the great Rafael Nadal.
Nadal won their only previous meeting in Acapulco in 2017- a 7-6 6-2 victory- and while this one could also be fairly competitive, the world No. 1 should take care of business without too much alarm.
Rubber Three: Rafael Nadal/ Pablo Carreno Busta (ESP) vs Ben McLachlan/ Toshihide Matsui (JAP), to follow after suitable rest
It will be interesting to see if the Spaniards indeed bring in Rafael Nadal for the doubles rubber. Nadal’s doubles’ prowess was pivotal to Spain’s success at the Davis Cup Finals in November, and the great man may be needed at some point in the knockout rounds of the ATP Cup. So far, captain Francisco Roig has selected Pablo Carreno Busta and Feliciano Lopez, and the two have delivered two wins from two.
Japan went with Ben McLachlan and Toshihide Matsui in their first two matches, but they could draft in Nishioka into this contest, especially in the unlikely event that the tie is still alive going into the doubles rubber.