Australia may be out of the ATP Cup, but there’s little doubt the reshaping of the summer calendar with the national teams event has been embraced by fans and the big name players.
The thrilling singles match on Saturday night between Australian rising star Alex de Minaur and legendary Spaniard Rafael Nadal proved that the retooling of the summer schedule by Tennis Australia has paid dividends.
The 20-year-old needed to beat the 19-time grand slam winner in Sydney for Australia to stay in the tournament after Nick Kyrgios was upset 6-1 6-4 by Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut earlier in the day.
De Minaur came out hard against Nadal, but eventually went down 6-4 5-7 1-6 in a fighting display that will have buoyed his spirits ahead of the Australian Open.
The 20-year-old Australian broke Nadal on his first service game, he held firm to take the opening set and went toe-to-toe with the Spaniard for much of the second.
After a break-point chance at 5-5 to serve for the match, things started to unravel for de Minaur who had lost in straight sets to Nadal in their two previous encounters.
Nadal snatched the set with his only opportunity as part of a run of six-consecutive games to effectively seal the match and avoid back-to-back losses for the first time since October 2016.
Nadal’s Spanish team will now meet the Novak Djokovic-led Serbia in Sunday night’s final after Serbia beat Russia 3-0 in the first semi-final.
The ATP Cup certainly appears like it’s here to stay given the $22 million prize money, rankings points and buy-in from fans and players.
“Players want to play for their country. There is no doubt about that,” said Australian captain Lleyton Hewitt.
“Tennis is such an individual sport throughout the year,” he said. “So for these guys to get the opportunity to play for their country, yeah, it’s pretty special.
I said before we started this event we are very fortunate and lucky that it’s in our backyard, and we get the opportunity to play as a team for our country.
“We feel privileged to be able to do that. For these boys to play in front of packed stadiums in Brisbane and now Sydney, it’s an unbelievable feeling for these guys leading into the Australian Open a couple of weeks away.
“Everyone’s laid it on the line out there. I think everyone has prepared as well as possible. It’s been great.”
Still, there has been some concern in the women’s ranks after Australia’s world No.1 Ashleigh Barty and a raft of other grand slam champions had to play second fiddle to the ATP Cup in Brisbane.
Barty faces another gruelling week trying to restore order in Adelaide after her shock early exit from the Brisbane International.
The world No.1 was handed a bye at Saturday’s draw and will play tough Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova or Estonian Anett Kontaveit in her opening match.
Hoping to bounce back from her loss to American world No.53 Jennifer Brady in her first outing of the summer, Barty is certain of a major test if she passes the second round of the Adelaide International.
The top seed is slated to run into former world No.1 and three-time grand slam champion Angelique Kerber, 2018 US Open winner Sloane Stephens, a qualifier or classy young Czech Marketa Vondrousova in the quarter-finals.
Barty beat Vondrousova in last year’s French Open final on the way to becoming Australia’s first women’s world No.1 since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1976.
The other big names in Barty’s top half of the draw are Swiss fourth seed Belinda Bencic and American seventh seed Sofia Kenin.
Having lost to Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic in November in Australia’s heartbreaking Fed Cup final defeat, Barty is looking to avoid three straight slip-ups for the first time since returning to tennis in June 2016 after an 18-month hiatus.
Adelaide will be Barty’s last tournament before arriving at Melbourne Park as the country’s first women’s top seed at the Australian Open since Dianne Fromholtz in 1977.
Australian No.2 Alja Tomljanovic, who received a wildcard, faces a qualifier in the first round for the right to play second-seeded Wimbledon champion Simona Halep.
Priscilla Hon faces Barty’s regular doubles partner, German Julia Goerges, after also earning a wildcard.
With reigning Australian Open champion and world No.2 Novak Djokovic withdrawing on Saturday, Barty’s countryman Alex de Minaur has been named top seed in the men’s event.
Fresh off his ATP Cup heroics in Brisbane and Sydney, de Minaur also enjoys a first-round bye and will meet either Davis Cup teammate Jordan Thompson or Spaniard Albert Ramos-Vinolas in his tournament opener.
Karolina Pliskova will chase a third Brisbane International title in four years after saving a match point in a titanic semi-final victory over Naomi Osaka 6-7 (10-12) 7-6 (7-3) 6-2.
The Czech will play Madison Keys for a chance to add to her 2017 and 2019 triumphs.
American Keys had earlier rallied from a set and break down to beat Petra Kvitova 3-6 6-2 6-3.
There was some bad news for the Australian Open however, with US Open champion Bianca Andreescu withdrawing after failing to recover from a knee injury.
Andreescu, the world No.6, had hoped to overcome her injury in time for Melbourne Park after pulling out of the Auckland ASB Classic in December.
“The Australian Open is unfortunately too soon in my rehab process and I sadly will not be able to play in it this year,” Andreescu said on social media.