In this improvised start of the 2021 tennis season, nothing seems certain, until it happens.
But late on Dec. 24, the ATP finally confirmed the bones of its pared-down second edition of the ATP Cup to its players.
The event will take place from Feb. 1-5 at Melbourne Park.
The question now, of course, is … who will take part?
Among the many challenges are the limits the Victorian government have put on the number of tennis players and team members that can enter Australia in mid-January.
But the way it looks, the ATP Cup will go with the notion that if the No. 1 player from a country qualifies that nation to be among the 12 countries, they’re in.
Four groups of three teams
There will 12 countries, not 24, in this pandemic version of the ATP Cup.
That’s four round-robin groups of three teams. The winner of each group (which will play once against each of its group opponents – so two round-robin matches in all) will qualify for the semifinals.
Despite the early plans to have the event be as it was last January – a “750” event – the maximum amount of ranking points available per player will be 500 for singles, and 250 in doubles.
Each team will be allowed to have a maximum of four players. But, possibly, they might be able to add a fifth player.
They won’t know until after Jan. 2, when they have a better idea of the numbers relative to the Victorian government’s maximum of 1,000 (or whether they’re able to finagle a few more spots).
But there isn’t much time for the players to make a decision. Even though this is a holiday weekend in many parts of the world, the entry deadline is Monday at noon EST.
No qualies in Oz, but low-ranked players allowed?
If all the countries that are eligible play, the 12 teams would be as follows.
- Australia (wild card host team)
(The wild card in all this is Kei Nishikori using his protected ranking of No. 10 to jump the queue for Japan).
But the price to be paid for having players like Stefanos Tsitsipas, or Dominic Thiem – or even Stan Wawrinka without Roger Federer is fairly steep.
These are not deep tennis nations. And as was the case in January, notably with Greece, a host of players whose ranking is far below that of anyone else would be allowed to travel to Australia (even players barely outside the top 100 can’t do it; they have to go to Doha to play the qualifying).
In short, they would travel to Australia, train in the modified quarantine that requires them to sit in their hotel rooms 19 hours a day – and sit on the bench.
The ATP and Tennis Australia must REALLY want to hold this event, something fierce. Because it’s the outlier in an extremely strict quota being allowed into the country for the summer of tennis.
On the plus side, there are fewer of those types of players (Hi, Moldova!), because the number of participating countries is cut in half.
Switzerland depends on the Fed
You know everyone involved wants Switzerland, with Federer and Stan Wawrinka, to be on board.
They did not take part in the first edition.
But it’s pretty tough for Federer to firmly and irrevocably commit to making the Australia trip at all, since he’s barely begun training in Dubai.
You can say with fairly firm conviction that if the Swiss star doesn’t feel ready to play best-of-five sets at the Australian Open, he’s not going to travel all the way down there and quarantine for 14 days just to play … ATP Cup.
Even in normal times, it would be tough to put together a substitute team after a last-minute withdrawal. In the current circumstances, it would be all but impossible.
Next in would be Belgium. After that, Bulgaria.
Belgium does have a top-50 doubles team in Joran Vliegen and Sander Gille. Coppejans and Bemelmans will play the qualifying in Doha (de Greef, who also will be working with countrywoman Ysaline Bonaventure as a coach, is an alternate). Darcis hasn’t played since the Australian Open in January and is retired.
Austria’s squad already heading Down Under
Dominic Thiem and Dennis Novak, who is ranked No. 96, are already planned “cohorts” for quarantine training down under. And even if top-ranked doubles player Jürgen Melzer (whose retirement is imminent) is not entered in the Australian doubles, they have two other top-50 doubles players in Oliver Marach and Philipp Oswald who are.
As for Greece, well, it’s the same problem as in January.
There is Tsitsipas – and a supporting cast of much lower-ranked players.
Not that life is fair. But it’s fairly ludicrous that the rest of the Greek squad could get down to Australia, all expenses paid, and earn a nice bit of change sitting on the bench.
Meanwhile, top-150 players on both the men’s and women’s tours cannot – and will have no access to ATP or WTA Tour events from mid-January until the end of February.
Points breakdown tweaked
Here’s a comparison of the points available last January, and what they’re planning for the second edition
Less ATP Cup $$$$ on the table
Because of the pared-down event, as well as the pandemic-related reductions in prize money because of the crowd limits, the total available for the players this year will be reduced from a theoretical $7.5 million.
(That total amount for 2020 was $15 million)
With what is expected now – a 25 per cent capacity for the Australian Open – that amount would be reduced 40 per cent, to $4.5 million. If no fans are allowed, that would drop to 45 per cent. If they are able to increase the capacity to between 25 and 50 per cent, the reduction would be 35 per cent.
This is still – let’s be real – a lot of money.
But it is significantly less. A team’s No. 1 player, ranked in the top three, received $250,000 in January just for showing up. This time, it would be $114,000.
A No. 3 player on the team with a top-20 doubles ranking received $30,000, while a No. 3 player with a top-100 singles ranking received $20,000.
This time, those numbers are $12,000 and $7,500.
What those numbers do is definitely reduce the incentive for a singles player from a deep nation to take part. For example, the No. 3 Canadian player in a full field would be Félix Auger-Aliassime and the No. 4 would be Vasek Pospisil.
Little incentive for No. 3 and No. 4
For Russia, that No. 3 singles player would be Karen Khachanov. For Spain, Pablo Carreño Busta. For Italy, No. 3 would be Lorenzo Sonego and No. 4, Jannik Sinner. For France, No. 3 would be Ugo Humbert.
Here are the purses for each team win – note there are just two round-robin matches .
All of those players could potentially earn more money and ranking points playing one of the 250 events also going on for the men that week – but only if they do well in them.
In fact, Sinner and Humbert have already entered them.
But their biggest focus will be to match play, which is proving a luxury in this unusual season.
Sitting on the bench for ATP Cup might make them richer, but it won’t prepare them for the big event, the Australian Open, the following week.
Where will they play?
The round-robin matches will be played Feb. 1-3, with the semifinals on Thursday, Feb. 4 and the final Friday, Feb. 5.
Concurrently, at Melbourne Park, there will be TWO WTA Tour 500 events, with a total of 112 in the first rounds of the main draws.
How is that going to work?
At this point it appears they will be selling tickets at a 25 per cent capacity rate for the ATP Cup. But where will they put them?
The men might well go in the three stadiums – Rod Laver, John Cain and Margaret Court. If that’s the case, they likely would be in three separate COVID-safety zones as outlined last week when the Australian Open tickets went on sale.
If not – what about the women? Will they be shuffled off to the back courts the way they were in January in Brisbane?
Just about every player in the top 20 on the WTA is entered in one of the two 500s. That includes world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty of Australia. It also includes Serena Williams.
Memories of ATP Cup, Brisbane 2020
The Premier-level women’s tournament only moved into the main arena on Friday, after the men’s group stage matches involving Australia, Serbia, Germany, Canada, Greece and others concluded.
It meant that Maria Sharapova, in the penultimate match of her long and distringuished career, played an enthralling match against Jennifer Brady before barely 100 people – just a few hundred feet away from a full, loud stadium court.
There have been no announcements yet of how they’ll do this. They don’t even know which players will be taking part in the ATP Cup. So that’s a starting point.
Would they sell some sort of separate “grounds pass” for the women, who would theoretically have the 1473 Arena court and Show Court 3 as their biggest courts?
Room for everyone? A tight fit
The women’s events begin the day before the ATP Cup on Jan. 31. The final is the day after it concludes, on Saturday, Feb. 6.
Oh, on top of that, there are also two ATP 250-level tournaments to find courts for. Somewhere. Maybe on Courts 16-23, in the back area near John Cain Arena? Who knows.
With 96 main-draw spots in those ATP tuneups, and an undetermined number of Australian Open main draw players taking part in ATP Cup, it’s entire possible there won’t be enough playing opportunities to go around for the men in the week before the Australian Open. Let’s hope that’s not the case.
How all of this shakes out remains to be determined. But it’s a decent bet that the women will get the short end, again.