Lead by Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev, Team Russia is the oddsmaker’s favorite, but well-rounded Spain is perfectly positioned to avenge their 2020 second-place finish.
The second edition of the ATP Cup will begin on Tuesday, February 2. The tournament, condensed from 24 to 12 teams due to the ongoing pandemic, will immediately provide 2021 with some fireworks after a quiet start to the season. The players may be rusty, but tennis fans dare not complain, as the world’s top four players will take the court on the first day.
Perhaps the best wrinkle of the unique ATP Cup format is the decision to play the No. 2 singles position first. This puts the world’s best players in a high-stakes, must-win situation right from the beginning.
For example, in the Serbia versus Canada tie, Milos Raonic should take care of Dusan Lajovic (especially on a hard court), which will pit Novak Djokovic against Denis Shapovalov. Not only will Shapovalov feel less pressure as a massive underdog against the world No. 1, but he’ll play with a scoreboard advantage, which should free up his flashy and powerful game even more.
Also, team captains can play whomever they want in doubles. Some teams, like Spain and Australia, traveled with doubles specialists (Marcel Granollers- 21 ATP doubles titles, and John Peers- 23 ATP doubles titles). Other teams will surely play their singles superstars in any deciding doubles rubber with only one nation advancing out of each group to the semifinals.
Serbia is the defending champion, thanks in part to a phenomenal run of tennis from Dusan Lajovic—who went 4-2 in singles play last year—but struggled to end 2020, losing his last five matches of the season. Djokovic went a combined 8-0, posting four Top 15 victories in his six singles wins.
Will Serbia repeat? Will powerhouse Russia sweep their singles and avoid deciding doubles ties? Will well-rounded Spain avenge their second place finish in 2020? Let’s discuss from a betting perspective.
Oddsmakers Favorite: Russia
In terms of singles prowess, no team can match Russia’s combination of Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev. The only team with two Top 10 players, Rublev and Medvedev combined to win seven titles in 2020. Barring a catastrophic performance against fellow Group D teams Argentina and Japan, Russia feels like a shoe-in to advance to the semifinal stage without even needing to take the doubles court.
It’s tough to think of a worse matchup for Argentina’s No. 1 Diego Schwartzman than Medvedev. Both players are brick walls from the baseline, but at 6’6”, the 2019 US Open finalist is sure to win plenty of free points on his first serve, while Schwartzman will likely win just a handful (if he’s lucky). In their last two matches at the Paris Masters and ATP Finals—both won by Medvedev, 6-3, 6-1, and, 6-3, 6-3—Schwartzman tallied just one total ace.
But if Russia reaches the semifinal stage, their lack of doubles expertise could come back to haunt them. The four-player team of Medvedev, Rublev, Evgeny Donskoy and Aslan Karatsev own just one combined ATP doubles title. Both Medvedev and Rublev prefer to avoid the net on the singles court, and if a match comes down to a deciding doubles tie, they could be in serious trouble.
Best Bet: Spain
In addition to being the most well-rounded team in the tournament, Spain will benefit from it’s relatively weak Group B competition (Greece and a Nick Kyrgios-less Australia). While Tsitsipas is capable of springing an upset against Nadal, Greece’s No. 2 singles player, Michail Pervolarakis, is currently ranked No. 463, and is no match for Spain’s No. 2, whether it’s Roberto Bautista Agut or Pablo Carreno Busta.
Spain’s singles players can compete with anyone, but their doubles prowess will separate them from the pack. While Nadal rarely appears on the doubles court, he is undoubtedly one of the best doubles players in the world. Spain’s team owns a combined 36 ATP doubles titles, and will be hungry for revenge after a heartbreaking second place finish in 2020. Look out.
Dark Horse: Canada
Don’t sleep on Team Canada. For the first time in a few years, Milos Raonic enters the new season at full strength, and might be the most dangerous No. 2 player in the tournament. Raonic should provide Canada with a 1-0 lead against both Serbia (Lajovic) and Germany (Jan-Lennard Struff). It’s a tough ask for Shapovalov to seal the deal at No. 1 against Djokovic or Alexander Zverev, but even if Shapovalov loses both matches, Canada can still succeed in doubles.
I asked Canada’s captain Peter Polansky about possible doubles lineups, to which he responded, “I can play whoever I want.” That means Polansky will most likely send out the lefty-righty powerhouse duo of Shapovalov and Raonic; a team no one wants to face.
Canada faces a brutally tough group stage, but at +2800 to win the title, their talent and firepower at the top makes them an extremely dangerous contender, and a long-shot bet worth placing.