Is there a better way to ring in the new tennis season than with the best players in the world putting on their national colours?
The calendar has flipped. The charters have landed. The quarantines are over.
It’s time to play.
The second ever ATP Cup gets underway this week with the 12 top countries in the world sending their best to Melbourne, Australia, including Canada.
The Great White North has been establishing itself as a tennis superpower over recent years and now has a chance to make a statement with the reduced field. But the draw has not been kind to the Canadians.
So what can we expect from the boys in red and white at the ATP Cup?
How does the ATP Cup work?
The ATP Cup features countries drawn into groups, where they play a round robin and the winner of each group advances to the knockout round.
Each matchup features two singles matches, a match between each country’s No. 2 singles player and then between No. 1, and a doubles match. Whichever country wins two matches wins the tie.
A major difference this year is that fewer countries are participating, so each group only has three teams, rather than four which was the case in 2020. Also, only the team that wins the group advances to the semifinals, whereas last team eight teams advanced and there was a quarterfinal round.
Last year, Canada finished second in their group and advanced to the quarterfinals as the second best second-place team, where they lost to the eventual-champions, Serbia.
This year, Canada has been drawn into Group A with Germany and defending champions Serbia.
Who is playing?
Canada will be led by their top two players in the rankings, world No. 12 Denis Shapovalov and No. 15 Milos Raonic. Canada is one of three teams, the others being Spain and Russia, being represented by two top-15 players.
Steven Diez and Peter Polansky round out the Canadian roster.
Shapovalov played for Canada in the inaugural event last year, going 2-2, which included straight-set wins over top-ten opponents Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev. He also took Novak Djokovic to a third-set tiebreak in the quarterfinal against Serbia.
Polansky appeared in the quarterfinal doubles match last year, losing in straight sets.
Raonic and Diez will be making their ATP Cup debuts.
The Canadians will be without their numbers three and four players in the rankings, Félix Auger-Aliassime and Vasek Pospisil, both of whom will be playing in ATP tour events in Melbourne instead. Auger-Aliassime played for Canada at last year’s ATP Cup, going 1-3 and losing three times in straight sets.
Since the arrival of Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime on the ATP Tour in 2017/18, Canada has only once had their complete Fab Four of Raonic, Pospisil, Shapovalov, and Auger-Aliassime play at the same team event, that being the 2018 Davis Cup World Group Playoffs.
Group A has been, accurately, described as the group of death as it features three of the strongest teams in the tournament.
It is also déja-vu for Canada as they played both of these teams at the 2020 edition of the ATP Cup.
Feb. 2 vs. Serbia
First up for Canada is a shot at revenge against the team that knocked them out of the tournament in 2020, Serbia. The Serbs went on to win the title.
The first singles match will see Raonic take on Dusan Lajovic. The pair have split their previous two meetings.
Lajovic struck the most recent blow, edging Raonic in three sets on clay last September in Rome. The Canadian won their lone hard-court meeting in straight sets back in 2018 in Cincinnati.
Raonic should be able to strike first for the Canadians, as the surface works better for his game. Lajovic also had a losing record in 2020, ending the season on five-match losing streak.
The Canadian also historically has played well early in the season in Australia. Last summer, he came blazing out of the restart, reaching the quarterfinals or better at all but one hard court event that he played.
Canada will need a good start from Raonic because Shapovalov will have his hands full with the world No. 1 in the second singles match.
Shapovalov is 0-5 in his career against Novak Djokovic, including a loss in the ATP Cup quarterfinals a year ago.
However, it is worth noting that the only two times Shapovalov took sets of the Serbian great were both in Australia. And their 2020 ATP Cup quarterfinal matchup, also their most recent meeting, was the closest, in which Shapovalov won the first set and eventually forced a final set tiebreak, which Djokovic won 7-4.
It is hard to see Shapovalov stealing a victory here. In the fall of 2019 and early 2020, he was playing the best tennis of his career and still lost to Djokovic twice.
This is a stylistic matchup that heavily favours Djokovic. To beat the Serb, an opponent needs to be able to consistently hit with power. While Shapovalov has the shot-making ability and heavy groundstrokes to keep the world No. 1 on the defensive, he often lacks consistency and can be forced into errors. No one does that better than Djokovic.
The doubles poses an interesting question, as neither Canada nor Serbia have established doubles stars on their roster.
In 2020, both teams executed the same strategy of playing their singles players if the doubles match was going to decide the tie but using their backups if the same country had won both singles matches.
If the doubles is needed to decide the tie, Canada might have the slight edge, as Raonic’s big serve and volley game can translate to doubles fairly well, while Shapovalov is actually the highest-ranking doubles player of the four in the tie and played regularly in 2020.
But even in doubles, Djokovic is still Djokovic and can be a threat. He won both his doubles matches at the ATP Cup last year, including the decider against Spain in the final.
Surprisingly, Canada actually has a shot to upset the defending champions on day one, but they are going to need an ace performance from Raonic and a good showing in the doubles, as a singles victory over Djokovic is hard to envision.
Feb. 3 vs. Germany
Germany likely poses a bigger threat to Canada than Serbia due to the depth of the German team, led by world No. 7 Alexander Zverev.
These two met in the group stage a year ago, with Canada winning 2-1 courtesy of a double-win for Shapovalov, who whipped Zverev in the No. 1 singles before teaming up with Auger-Aliassime to win the doubles.
Shapovalov may need lightning to strike twice if Canada is to double-up the Germans.
But first, Raonic will have to overcome a tricky match-up in the form of Jan-Lennard Struff.
Like his Canadian opponent, Struff is a monster hitter and blew Auger-Aliassime off the court in their meeting here last year. But Raonic leads their head-to-head 2-1, although they have not met since March 2019.
The German is capable to stepping up and hitting almost any opponent off the court, as Shapovalov knows all too well as he has lost to the world No. 37 in four of five matchups. But Raonic is one of the tour’s biggest hitters and anything Struff can do, Raonic can do better.
If Raonic plays his A-game, he should win this match, but it is by no means a safe bet. Struff can also blow Raonic off the court if given the chance. The German is likely to be harder matchup for Raonic than Lajovic given his ability to step up and overpower an opponent, and the Thornhill-native does not have a great record against fellow big hitters.
Once again, Shapovalov will get a repeat matchup, but this time he could be on the opposite end of the revenge story.
A year ago, the Canadian dropped the hammer on Zverev, beating him 6-2, 6-2, the most one-sided of match of their rivalry to date.
The German leads their head-to-head 3-2, but after winning the first three meetings all in straight sets, Zverev has lost the last two to Shapovalov.
However, since the ATP Cup match a year ago, Zverev reached the semifinals of the Australian Open and a maiden major final at the US Open, while Shapovalov has continued to struggle with consistency.
The Canadian also had a tough run down the stretch in 2020, while Zverev finished the year by reaching the Masters 1000 final in Paris and the final of the ATP Finals. If momentum carries over the offseason, it would be firmly in the German’s favour.
If both men come in playing an equal level of tennis, it should be a tight matchup. Shapovalov is the gamebreaker, with the ability to seize command with his shot-making and end points quickly.
However, Zverev is by far the more consistent ball striker and can keep Shapovalov behind the baseline, preventing him from attacking, and the Canadian does not win matches on his defence.
Given the style matchup, Zverev has more of an ability to bully Shapovalov and take control if he plays his best.
The area in which the Germans have the biggest advantage is doubles. The German team features two-time reigning French Open champions Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Meis available to play the doubles, which very well could decide the tie.
It is almost impossible to see the Canadians stealing the doubles in this one, so they will need to win both singles matches to have a chance.
Can Canada advance?
The name “Group of Death” is very fitting in this case as all three teams are powerhouses, any of them could come through the group, and at least one, possibly two, good teams are going to be eliminated.
Canada certainly has a shot in this group, but they are the underdogs.
No disrespect to Shapovalov, but Canada has the weakest No. 1 of these three teams, and he will be long shot to win any of his singles matches.
Fortunately, Canada has the strongest No. 2 in Raonic. He could, and probably should, win both of his singles matches, although Raonic is very prone to let downs and Lajovic and Struff can be dangerous.
The lack of a doubles threat also puts Canada in a perilous position, especially if they are expected to lose at least one singles match in each tie.
While it is true that anything can happen, best case scenario for Canada is probably finishing as one of the best second-place teams, although finishing third is the most likely, albeit not surprising, result.
Header photo: ATP CUP