“ATP Cup” is born: let the jousting begin

All righty then.

Two years in the works, the ATP Tour finally has unveiled the World Team Cup.

It’s already renamed the “ATP Cup”, with a logo that hopefully will … grow on us.

So now the fun can begin before it first sees the light of Aussie day in Jan. 2020.

Because, already, the general (though not unanimous) consensus is that the ATP Cup and the new Davis Cup will be challenged to both thrive within six weeks of each other.

(Should the ITF and Kosmos rename the Davis Cup the “ITF Cup”, just so we know exactly what the real battle is here and keep it simple? Just thinking out loud…).

The president of the Players Council, who also happens to be the new world No. 1, has already been clear about this. And Novak Djokovic’s voice matters, big time.

introduced

On the eve of the splashy presentation in a movie theater Thursday, the Serb was a bit of a buzzkill. But he was speaking the truth.

“I think in the next two years we’ll have both events happening in a very similar format if not the same, six weeks apart. … I honestly don’t think it’s good for the sport. More job opportunities for players, yes. But I think it’s not sustainable. It will happen that we will have two average events. So I think creating one event is an ideal scenario and I think outcome for everyone,” he said.

“From what I’ve heard from conversations with people from all of the sides, different sides in this sport, they all want to have one event because it’s over-saturated with different cups, different events.”

ATP vs. ITF – who will prevail?

Kosmos and the ITF would likely disagree.

Unless they were the ones to kill the ATP Cup, and have the field all to themselves, of course.

And since Kosmos frontman Gerard Piqué brought the idea to the ATP first only to be shot down by those on the board who represent the tournaments, there’s some “guy stuff” going on there as well (You ladies know what I mean).

“You have post US Open: Laver Cup, then Davis Cup, World Team Cup first week of the year. It’s really over-saturated. Within three, four months, it’s too many events,” Djokovic said. “We’ll have to work it out. But we have to start from somewhere.”

Not sold on the tournament logo. The new ATP logo is great. But the use of it here sort of summons up something Arantxa Sanchez would clip onto her pleated Reebok skirt.

That “somewhere” was a presentation of the new team event Thursday, although it lacked many of the basic, necessary details. 

There is no better time to do it, though.

The ATP Tour Finals are the final event of the season, with the best players on hand in a big media market.

An alternative would have been to unveil it at the Australian Open in January, given that’s where it is to be held. But the ATP probably is better off doing it before Kosmos and the ITF get the marketing machine rolling for the “new” Davis Cup next week at the final “old” Davis Cup final in Lille, France.

At the press conference, Kermode said representatives from the various groups had met in London on Tuesday. He said the discussions were “cordial”, according to the Daily Mail.

Two events “sustainable”

Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley said that having three team events within four months – the Laver Cup (in which Tennis Australia is an investor), the Davis Cup (in which it has no skin in the game) and the ATP Cup (in which the ATP and Tennis Australia will split the proceeds) is “sustainable”.

The Guardian’s Kevin Mitchell reports that an amicable meeting between the ATP and ITF Tuesday give hope that the two events could be merged to make one. But that’s down the line. 

The Kosmos Group, spurned by the ATP, now calls the shots on Davis Cup, not the ITF. And the “new” Davis Cup is only part of the group’s plan to take up more space in the game by making use of the two weeks on the schedule now freed up by the new format.

The ATP got everybody on board for the video.

24 teams, 10 days, $15 million

Djokovic, along with John Isner, made a quick appearance at the presentation Thursday, which outlined the basic format without providing many details – including the planned host cities, which will be announced “in due course”.

The prevailing thought is that three cities will be used for the preliminaries, with the finals in Sydney.

“We wanted to do a fresh new team event. We wanted to do something that was very vibrant, different, but equally we wanted to start the season off with a bang,” ATP CEO Chris Kermode said. “Our job is to get our star players, (whom) I truly believe are the best athletes in the world – we need to tell their story better to a wider audience and events like this can help telling that story.”

Click here to see a larger version of the potential rosters. Nations qualify on the ranking of their No. 1 player.

Here’s what we do know.

There will be six pools of four nations. The six pool winners, plus two wild cards (presumably the two nations with the next-best records) will advance to a knockout format that, in essence, begins at the quarterfinal phase.

Each nation can field up to five players. They’ll play two singles and a doubles.

The total prize money will be $15 million (compared to what, at this point, appears to be $18 million for Davis Cup, fo 18 teams).

But the bonus is that up to 750 ATP Tour ranking points will be available for the winners.

“To try to find a place in the calendar is very, very difficult. It has a knock-on effect. We didn’t want to do an event that was additive,” Kermode said. “And we wanted to be protective of our event. Week 1, historically, nine of the top 10 have played. Whatever the event is, they’re playing that week anyway. (It was about) calendar flow, and least damage to every other event.”

2020 calendar helpful, randomly

The beginning of any tennis season can range from Dec. 30 to as late as Jan. 6. It depends on where things fall that year – notably, Labour Day between week 35 and week 36 during the US Open. It’s a five- or six-year cycle that also changes slightly depending on when the leap years fall.

A Tennis.Life source had a look at the draft of the 2020 schedule. And, as expected, we’re told it will include the latest possible dates for the Australian Open. The fist major of the year will run from Jan. 20 – Feb. 2.

introduced

As a comparison, the 2019 Australian Open is almost as early as it can be: Jan. 14 – 27.

On its tentative 2020 schedule, the ATP has the ATP Cup pencilled in for 10 days, starting Friday, Jan. 3, 2020 and running through Jan. 12. So there will still be room the week before Melbourne.

The ATP plans to squeeze the 250-level Auckland event in there, as well as a second official ATP tournament to be determined. 

In subsequent years, though, it won’t be nearly as easy.

Christmas Down Under?

intoduced

In 2024, to keep that same extra week, the ATP Cup would have to start on Dec. 29. And that would mean that all those players would have to get down to Australia way before Christmas to acclimate and get over jet lag.

(It’s been fairly clearly stated by the tournament that it’s not practical to push the Australian Open back, as everyone returns to school/work the following week after the summer holiday).

Given the top players generally won’t play a tournament in that gap week, it poses an interesting conflict. The Australian Open would now be played in weeks 4-5 of the season, not weeks 3-4 as it currently is. And because the players might already have played as many as six matches (perhaps even doubles) during the ATP Cup, it’s not as though they’ll need much more match practice.

From the draft schedule, it appears the ATP also plans to keep the Doha tour event in January. But it will be held the same week as the ATP Cup. Evidently, that long-running tournament may have do without some of its more faithful attendees – notably No. 1 Djokovic.

They’ll have to handle all that as it comes. Who knows; the ATP schedule might have a very different look by then, without the four Davis Cup weeks that have limited flexibility all these years.

(All this might well affect the Abu Dhabi exhibition, since players who intend to play the ATP Cup will have to get Down Under too early some years. Therein lies the challenge in making any kind comprehensive overhaul of the schedule. You take out one domino, and others fall).

Pune, Sofia would move

The tournament in Pune, India (the former Chennai), currently played the first week of the season, looks as though it would be moved. It would be pushed back to the week currently occupied by Davis Cup – the first week of February.

Pune would compete with Montpellier and Cordoba (the former Quito tournament).

The preliminary round of Davis Cup in 2020 is pencilled in for the first week of March – between Acapulco and Indian Wells. That’s not ideal for players who come over from Europe or Asia to the U.S. ahead of Indian Wells to play Acapulco.

If their ties take place in Europe, it could affect their planning significantly.

Then again, no matter where that first Davis Cup week is positioned, it’s always inconvenient for someone.

Sofia (Bulgaria), currently played during that early February Montpellier week, looks to be moving to the end of September.

In that slot, it would compete with Zhuhai and Chengdu, China. That’s the week just prior to the two big Asia weeks (Beijing/Tokyo and then Shanghai) and is a good transition week in roughly the same time zone for the players ranked outside the top 20 who play them.

Players wanting to compete in Sofia would theoretically have to rush all the way to Asia afterwards, with little adjustment or acclimatization before those significant events.

Those are definitely not ideal conditions for either tournament.  But in the grand scheme of things, it’s relative minor collateral damage. 

First week on WTA Tour sets the stage

We’re not even three days into the WTA Tour’s 2018 season.

And already the women are bringing the great tennis and the drama.

With three events on the schedule – as well as the exhibition Hopman Cup – the talent is spread out a little thinly. For example, world No. 1 Simona Halep is the only top-30 player at the Shenzhen Open in China.

That event, though, does have Maria Sharapova. Which is a big get.

Unlike the men, there are been almost no 11th-hour withdrawals. So all the top guns with the exception of the Williams sisters are playing.

And, a few days in, there already is a battle for No. 1.

It would be more fun if the three contenders were all playing the same tournament – a knockout, as we saw in 2017.

But Halep is in Shenzhen. Garbiñe Muguruza (just 40 points behind in the rankings) is in Brisbane. And underdog Caroline Wozniacki is in Auckland. All are the No. 1 seeds in their respective tournaments.

Here’s the No. 1 ranking scenario, as outlined on the WTA Tour website:

Race for No. 1, in Week 1

Here’s how the scenarios shake out:

– Halep will remain at No.1 if she wins the title in Shenzhen. 

– Muguruza will need to reach the final in Brisbane in order to have a chance at returning to No.1. 

– If Muguruza wins the title in Brisbane, then Halep would need to win the title in Shenzhen in order to remain at No.1. 

– But if Muguruza finishes as runner-up in Brisbane, Halep would need to reach the semifinals in Shenzhen in order to stay at No.1.

– If Muguruza finishes as runner-up in Brisbane and Halep is a semifinalist in Shenzhen, they would both have the same ranking points. However, Halep holds the tie-breaker and would therefore remain at No.1, as she has more points among WTA Finals, Grand Slams, Premier Mandatory and Premier 5 events over the last 12 months (Halep: 5,636 vs. Muguruza: 5,396).

Already, there have been tremendous first-round matchups and a few shockers.

Here are the outlines of this week’s events – including what’s happened so far.

Premier Brisbane has quality field 

Brisbane International

Brisbane, Australia
Tier: Premier (joint event with the ATP Tour)
Prize money: $1,000,000
Surface: Outdoor / hard
Draws: S30 – D16

Singles seeds: [1] Garbiñe Muguruza (ESP), [2] Karolina Pliskova (CZE), [3] Elina Svitolina (UKR), [4] Caroline Garcia (FRA), [5] Johanna Konta (GBR), [6] Kristina Mladenovic (FRA), [7] Anastasija Sevastova (LAT), [8] Ashleigh Barty (AUS).

Top doubles seeds: [1] Latisha Chan/Andrea Sestini Hlavlackova , [2] Ashleigh Barty/Casey Dellaqua.

Americans in the singles draw: Madison Keys, Catherine Bellis, [Q] Jennifer Brady, 

Out too soon: Petra Kvitova began her 2018 season with a viral illness. She had to withdraw before the tournament began, but hopes to be able to play Sydney. Muguruza and Carla Suárez Navarro had entered the doubles. But they were forced out after Suárez Navarro suffered with blisters.

Matches to watch: Already, Caroline Garcia, the No. 4 seed, got off on the wrong foot when she was forced to retire after the second set of her match against countrywoman Alizé Cornet. Her lower back – which plagued her the first half of 2017 before she finished up the season in style – was the culprit.

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There was no way to know, before the match began, that this look on Caroline Garcia’s face would presage her premature retirement in the match. (WTATV.com)

Keys, Konjuh return

The American played just one match in the wake of her first Grand Slam final at the US Open. She lost in the first round of Wuhan in late September to countrywoman Varvara Lepchenko, and shut it down.

Keys had a tough opening round, against No. 5 seed Johanna Konta. She was beaten, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. But she was still pleased with the level of her tennis.

Also back is Ana Konjuh, who leaped into the top 20 at the end of July. But she hadn’t played since losing in the first round of the US Open. The Croat had elbow surgery a couple of weeks later; it was the same elbow she had surgery on after the 2014 Australian Open. But her return was a victory. Konjuh rolled over a quality opponent in Kiki Bertens, 6-1, 6-2.

Sharapova, Halep hit China 

Shenzhen Open

ShenzenlogoShenzhen, China
Tier: International
rize money: $626,750
Surface: Outdoor / hard
Draws: S32 – D16

Singles seeds: [1] Simona Halep (ROU), [2] Jelena Ostapenko (LAT), [3] Shuai Zhang (CHN), [4] Irina-Camelia Begu (ROU), [5] Qiang Wang (CHN), [6] Katerina Siniakova (CZE), [7] Maria Sakkari (GRE), [8] Timea Babos (HUN).

Top doubles seeds: [1] Barbora Krejcikova/Katerina Siniakova, [2] Raluca Olaru/Olga Savchuk

Americans in the singles draw: Nicole Gibbs, Alison Riske

Ostapenko has been very, very busy in her first big off-season. And she has already played two exhibitions this year before even officially starting her season (from Ostapenko’s Twitter)

Matches to watch:  French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, who had a coaching change during the season and appeared to spend a ton of time off court getting the rewards justly earned after her monumental victory in the spring, takes on Kristyna Pliskova in the first round.

The “other” Pliskova sister, a lefty, was playing the best tennis of her career last season until a freak accident involving an on-court fan on the Asian swing scuttled it. 

Maria Sharapova couldn’t have had an easier time in a 6-0, 6-3 first-round win over lefty Mihaela Buzarnescu. Buznarnescu, who has a PhD and spent most of the first decade of her pro career on the ITF circuit, finished the 2017 season on a major breakthrough roll.

Sharapova’s second-round opponent will be American Alison Riske.

The “Hey, where have you been” department: Camila Giorgi has reappeared. The Italian, who turned 26 last Saturday, also disappeared after losing in the first round of the US Open (to Magdalena Rybarikova). An elbow injury just added to the back woes she had for an extended period through 2016-17. Giorgi’s singles ranking is down to No. 80.

Her first opponent will be Ana Bogdan of Romania.

No. 3 Wozniacki aims for the top

ASB Classic

Auckland logoAuckland, New Zealand
Tier: International
Prize money: $226,750
Surface: Outdoor / hard
Draws: S32 – D16

Singles seeds: [1] Caroline Wozniacki (DEN), [2] Julie Goerges (GER), [3] Barbora Strycova (CZE), [4] Agnieszka Radwanska (POL), [5] Lauren Davis (USA), [6] Yulia Putintseva (KAZ), [7] Mona Barthel (GER), [8] Donna Vekic (CRO).

Top doubles seeds: [1] Eri Hozumi/Miyu Kato , [2] Nao Hibino/Darija Jurak.

Americans in the singles draw: Lauren Davis, Sachia Vickery, Madison Brengle, Sofia Kenin, Varvara Lepchenko, Christina Mchale, Taylor Townsend.

Matches to watch:  There are seven Americans in the 32-player draw. And one all-American matchup features Christina Mchale against Taylor Townsend. Townsend has squeezed back into the top 100 and has direct entry into the Australian Open.  Despite many lives already lived in pro tennis, she’s still just 21. McHale leads their head-to-head 1-0.

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Errani at the 2017 Australian Open, where she retired with a leg injury. She tested positive a few weeks later, and dropped as low as No. 280 in the rankings. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

The “Hey, where have you been” department: Barbora Strycova, the No. 3 seeds, squares off against wild card Sara Errani in the first round.

Errani, whose current ranking is No. 132, fought back hard as she played any tournament she could find in the late season. After serving a two-month doping suspension, the former world No. 5 had dropped down to No. 281 in early October (although the fall from rankings grace had begun long before the enforced two-month break around the US Open).

ATP Tour preview – week of Jan. 1, 2018

If it feels like the 2017 tennis season barely ended, that’s because it barely ended.

Maybe that’s partly why this first week of the 2018 season still feels like … the worst of 2017.

With three ATP Tour events going on, the hope that the new season would bring the return of so many of the injured top players already seems a lost hope.

After Wimbledon, the men’s tour lost Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic – to name just five.

But as Djokovic added to his team, as Murray played a charity fundraiser with Roger Federer, as evidence emerged that Wawrinka was back on the practice courts, the first Grand Slam of the season promised to be off the charts.

The reality has been completely different.

Add to that, world no. 1 Rafael Nadal’s knee woes towards the end of 2017 have persisted.  

So many already missing

Last week’s exhibition in Abu Dhabi – where Djokovic, Nadal, Raonic and Wawrinka were to headline – ended up being won by substitute Kevin Anderson and, on some level, saved by a late guest appearance by Serena Williams.

Murray showed up for some practice, and ended up stepping in to play an exhibition set against Roberto Bautista-Agut after Djokovic withdrew. Djokovic cited a recurrence of pain in his elbow. And that’s concerning.

What it also means is that the events in Brisbane and Doha (Pune, with a lesser field, has not been affected) are missing a number of marquee attractions.

Nadal is out of Brisbane, although he does plan to head to Australia and is signed on to play the Tie Break Tens event in Margaret Court Arena Jan. 10.

Murray jetted to Brisbane after the set in Abu Dhabi, during which he didn’t look anywhere near close to being able to play a best-of-five set match.

Wawrinka will play nothing but the Tie Break Tens.

Djokovic may be in the same boat, although the Auckland event has made overtures to him, and others, about taking a last-minute wild card.

It may end up that the exhibition Tie Break Tens may be the best of what we might see from all these top players, during the opening swing Down Under.

Here are the dates and deets for this week’s ATP Tour events.

No Nadal, but Brisbane still strong

 Brisbane International

Brisbane, Australia
Tier:
ATP Masters 250 (Joint event with the WTA Tour)
Draws: S28, D16 
Prize money: $528,910
Surface: Outdoors/hard

Singles seeds: [1] Grigor Dimitrov (BUL), [2] Andy Murray (GBR), [3] Nick Kyrgios (AUS), [4] Milos Raonic (CAN), [5] Gilles Muller (LUX), [6] Diego Schwartzman (ARG), [7] Damir Dzumhur (BIH), [8] Mischa Zverev (GER).

Top doubles seeds: [1] Henri Kontinen/John Peers, [2] Marcelo Demoliner/Michael Venus.

Americans in the singles draw: Frances Tiafoe (1R: Ebden), [Q] Ernesto Escobedo (Horacio Zeballos), [Q] Michael Mmoh (Federico Delbonis), Steve Johnson (lost 1st round to de Minaur)

Early matches to watch: Denis Shapovalov will face Great Britain’s Kyle Edmund for the fourth time in less than a year. To put that in perspective, the 18-year-old Canadian has played just 29 total ATP Tour matches. 

The first meeting came last February in Davis Cup. And that didn’t end well. The next came at Queen’s Club – an impressive win by Shapovalov. And the most recent was in the third round at the US Open, where Edmund retired early in the fourth set.

Shapovalov and Edmund will meet for the fourth time in less than a year – always under dramatic circumstances so far. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Murray has a first-round bye. He’ll play the winner of Ryan Harrison and Leonardo Mayer in the second round.

Raonic will play young Aussie Alex de Minaur, who was defeated by Raonic’s doubles partner Shapovalov in the 2016 Wimbledon junior boys’ final, but had an excellent win over American Steve Johnson in the first round of Brisbane Sunday.

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Ilija Bozoljac of Serbia is back and in the Brisbane doubles draw. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Fun doubles: Lleyton Hewitt is warming up for his Australian Open doubles appearance with Sam Groth by playing this one with Jordan Thompson. They will face a singles pick-up team of Grigor Dimitrov and Harrison in the first round.

Kygrios also is playing doubles (with Matt Reid; the two will also play the Australian Open together). Canadian duo Raonic and Shapovalov teamed up for the very first time. But they got a tough draw in the No. 1 seeds, and lost 7-6 (3), 6-4 on Sunday.

The “Hey, where have you been” department: Serbia’s Ilija Bozoljac, who is hardly a household name but has had some great moments in Davis Cup and has been around the top 100 in both singles and doubles, is in the doubles with Dzumhur on a protected ranking. Bozoljac played little in 2017: four Challengers in the spring, Wimbledon doubles (where he qualified and won a round with Flavio Cipolla), and two more Challengers in August.

No Djokovic in Doha

Qatar Exxon Mobil Open

Doha, Qatar
Tier:
ATP Masters 250 
Draws: S32, D16 
Prize money: $1,386,665
Surface: Outdoors/hard

The ATP event in Doha offers a fair bit of money for a 250. And it works hard to attract a couple of top players every year.

But it will have to survive without Djokovic, as the Serb pulled out Saturday, the day after his elbow took him out of the Abu Dhabi exhibition.  

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Not sure what Monfils had planned this week originally, but he took a late wild-card into Doha. Conversely, his pal Jo-Wilfried Tsonga withdrew.

Singles seeds: [1] Dominic Thiem (AUT), [2] Pablo Carreño Busta (ESP), [3] Tomas Berdych (CZE), [4] Albert Ramos-Viñolas (ESP), [5] Richard Gasquet (FRA), [6] Filip Krajinovic (SRB), [7] Fernando Verdasco (ESP), [8] Feliciano Lopez (ESP).

Top doubles seeds: [1] Jamie Murray/Bruno Soares, [2] Oliver Marach/Mate Pavic.

Americans in the singles draw: None

Late additions/scratches: Djokovic pulled out Saturday (replaced by alternate Victor Estrella-Burgos). Gaël Monfils, who hasn’t played since retiring in the second set of his third-round match against David Goffin at the US Open (right knee), took a late wild card. So that’s a good sign for the Frenchman.

Early matches to watch:  No. 2 seed Pablo Carreño-Busta vs. Borna Coric. Monfils vs. Paolo Lorenzi. 

The “Hey, where have you been?” department: Andreas Haider-Maurer of Austria is back, on a protected ranking.

First edition in Pune

Tata Open Maharashtra

Pune, India
Tier:
ATP Masters 250 
Draws: S28, D16 
Prize money: $561,345
Surface: Outdoors/hard

Now called the Tata Open, the ATP event in Pune (near Mumbai) is the relocated version of the tournament held in Chennai for 21 years.

Singles seeds: [1] Marin Cilic (CRO), [2] Kevin Anderson (RSA), [3] Roberto Bautista-Agut (ESP), [4-WC] Benoit Paire (FRA), [5] Robin Haase (NED), [6] Jiri Vesely (CZE), [7] Mikhail Kukushkin (KAZ), [8] Pierre-Hugue Herbert (FRA)

Top doubles seeds: [1] Robert Lindstedt/Franko Skugor, [2] Robin Haase/Matwe Middelkoop

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Pablo Andujar has struggled a lot with injuries in recent years. But the Spaniard seems a full go for the Australian summer. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

Americans in the singles draw: Tennys Sandgren (Gilles Simon)

Late additions/scratches: There were several relatively late withdrawals from this tournament: Jérémy Chardy, Ivo Karlovic, Rogerio Dutra Silva, Yen-Hsun Lu and Lukas Lacko. 

Early matches to watch:  Tough to find a standout, but Gilles Simon against Tennys Sandgren should be worth a look-in.

There will be quite a few Indian players trying to wrestle the double title, as well; a first-rounder pitting the legendary Leander Paes and Divij Sharan against defending champions Rohan Bopanna and Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan should have sparks. It’s almost a rematch of last year’s final, except Sharan was paired with Purav Raja a year ago.

The “Hey, where have you been?” department: The multilingual and erudite Pablo Andujar, who dropped off the face of the tennis earth, is back with a protected ranking of No. 105. He plays Nicolas Jarry of Chile in the first round.