MELBOURNE • After a wildly successful debut last year, the ATP Cup begins in more subdued circumstances in Melbourne today, with Novak Djokovic looking to get champions Serbia off to a flying start against Canada in the truncated team event.
Last season's tournament featured 24 nations and played to packed houses across the country, but the upcoming event has been reduced to 12 teams and all the action will be confined to Melbourne Park due to Covid-19 bio-security measures.
Crowd capacity for this year has been capped at 25 per cent but the competition will nonetheless provide a form guide for next week's Australian Open, with most of the Grand Slam's top male contenders representing their nations after a mandatory 14 days in quarantine.
Djokovic, unbeaten in eight ties, was majestic in last year's tournament as he fired Serbia to a 2-1 victory over Spain in the final, including a straight-sets win over Rafael Nadal.
There will be no easing in for the world No. 1 as he faces Canada's rising talent Denis Shapovalov at Rod Laver Arena in their Group A clash, a mouthwatering rematch of last year's quarter-final.
The 21-year-old Shapovalov, tipped for future Slam success, pushed Djokovic to a third-set tiebreak last year and will be eager to see if he has closed the gap.
Nadal will headline the evening session at Rod Laver Arena when he takes on home hope Alex de Minaur, a year after overhauling the Australian 4-6, 7-5, 6-1 in the semi-finals. "(We will) try to give to the fans around the world and the fans here in Australia a good show," the world No. 2 said ahead of his Group B encounter.
US Open champion Dominic Thiem, who gave Djokovic a scare in last year's Australian Open final, tops the bill at the John Cain Arena, where the Austrian will play Italy's world No. 10 Matteo Berrettini in Group C.
World No. 4 and ATP Finals champion Daniil Medvedev leads a powerful Russian team with Andrey Rublev and will start his tournament against Argentina's Diego Schwartzman with a Group D match in the night session at John Cain. Germany, Greece, France and Japan join the fray tomorrow.
The big guns in women's tennis got their first taste of action yesterday as Wimbledon champion and world No. 2 Simona Halep, who received a first-round bye, advanced to the third round of the WTA 500 Gippsland Trophy event with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Anastasia Potapova.
In the Yarra Valley Classic, another WTA 500 event being held at Melbourne Park, 23-time Slam singles winner Serena Williams brushed aside Daria Gavrilova 6-1, 6-4 to book her place in the third round. The world No. 11 later admitted had the Open not been delayed by three weeks, she would have probably withdrawn due to a lack of fitness.
"I couldn't practise because of my Achilles," she said.
"I needed time. I don't think I would have been here if it was during the regular season."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
Day 2: Group stage - Singtel TV Ch115 & StarHub Ch209, tomorrow, 6.30am
Day 3: StarHub Ch201, 8am & 3.30pm; Ch202, 1pm