Sport in 2020 has been, not to put too fine a point on it, weird.
Tennis is undergoing a period of drastic change at the moment.
The first edition of the Laver Cup in 2017 set the new standard for men’s team events. The Davis Cup, played for 118 years, was radically transformed into a condensed week-long event held in Madrid in November for the first time just two months ago. Run by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) in conjunction with Kosmos, the event was in large part successful.
Yet the announcement of a new team competition run by a separate governing body, the ATP, in conjunction with Tennis Australia, left many fans and pundits puzzled. But after ten days of enthralling and gripping action, the first fortnight of the tennis season was undeniably better off because of the ATP Cup.
A fast start
While the 2019 edition of the ATP 250 Brisbane International saw the summer of tennis kick off with at best a relatively subdued Nick Kyrgios defeat lowly ranked Ryan Harrison and at worst an efficient Milos Raonic despatching of the mostly unknown Aljaz Bedene, the ATP Cup launched into existence with a NextGen match-up to die for between Stefanos Tsitsipas and Denis Shapovalov. This was followed by more pandemonium as Alex de Minaur roared past Alexander Zverev and Germany to give Australia an unassailable lead in front of a sold-out Brisbane crowd.
And if the battle of the NextGen superstars wasn’t enough, Day 2 saw three of the world’s top four players in action across three cities: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem.
Radio commentator Craig Gabriel commented that in 20 years of covering tennis at Sydney’s Ken Rosewell Arena he had never seen it as consistently full as it was at the ATP Cup.
Ranking points and prize money
While previously many of the sport’s top stars began their season with warm-up events oversees in tournaments such as the Qatar Open, the amount of ranking points on offer and the opportunity to represent their country meant most of the game’s elite began their season in Australia.
Novak Djokovic, who won all six of his singles matches, accumulated 750 ranking points in the ATP Cup. For comparison, reaching the semi-final of a grand slam gives a player 720 points. This provides a stark difference between the ATP Cup and Davis Cup – players cannot accumulate ranking points in the latter.
There was also $15 million prize money distributed at the event, which is invaluable for players in the lower echelon of the men’s rankings who scarcely earn big cheques throughout the year.
However, this also highlights one of the significant issues with the ATP Cup. Because only the top two singles players for each participating nation are selected, it affords players with lower rankings opportunities for prize money and ranking points that higher ranked players don’t have simply because of their birthplace.
For example, Australia’s Jordan Thompson, ranked 64th in the world and fourth in his nation, was rendered a first-round loser in qualifying at the Qatar Open, collecting zero ranking points and $12,380. Comparatively Michall Pervolarakis, ranked 483rd in the world, collected $15,000 from three losses at the ATP Cup and would have collected more had he won a match.
The other significant issue with the event is that supposedly it will be held in Australia every year. This is obviously a significant advantage to the Australian team. What other sport holds a world cup at the same location every year? The same issue exists with the Davis Cup, which for the foreseeable future will be held annually in Madrid.
There is no obvious solution to these problems, but what is clear is that the level of tennis and fan engagement in January is greater during the ATP Cup than it had been before the event.