Nadal sidelined; team Djokovic wins to open ATP Cup defense

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Serbia’s Novak Djokovic celebrates after defeating Canada’s Denis Shapovalov in their ATP Cup match in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Hamish Blair)

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Rafael Nadal didn’t make it for Spain’s ATP Cup opener because of a sore back, deciding it wasn’t worth the risk a week ahead of the Australian Open.

Novak Djokovic did double-time for defending champion Serbia, meanwhile, winning singles and doubles matches Tuesday to ensure a 2-1 comeback win over Canada.

The top two players in men’s tennis took different approaches to their fine-tuning at the start of a hectic week of preparation for the season’s first major.

Both spent 14 days in hotel quarantine — as did all incoming players — because of Australia’s strict border regulations amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and both played in an exhibition event last Friday. Nadal played more of a hand in that, with Djokovic limiting his time on court because of a blister.

Djokovic was in his element on Rod Laver Arena while Serbia fans chanted and waved their national flag as he beat Denis Shapovalov 7-5, 7-5 to force a deciding doubles match, then combined with Filip Krajinovic for a 7-5, 7-6 (4) win over the Canadian pair.

Last week in Adelaide, Djokovic spoke about feeding off the energy of the crowds.

Back at Melbourne Park, where he has won a record eight Australian Open titles, he had plenty of energy to consume.

The large and loud band of Serbia supporters was a feature of Djokovic and his team’s win in the inaugural ATP Cup last year, which culminated with a victory over Nadal and Spain.

“It’s a pleasure to see them in such big numbers. Whenever they can, they show up,” Djokovic said. “Last year it was amazing. That was probably the best support outside of Belgrade that we ever had.

“We need that. In this kind of competition, it’s necessary.”

The second-ranked Nadal posted a statement on Twitter before his scheduled night match against Australia’s Alex de Minaur saying he had a stiff lower back and “hopefully I’ll be better for Thursday.”

Spain didn’t miss a beat, with Pablo Carreno Busta and Roberto Bautista Agut winning their singles matches to secure a win over Australia in Group B.

The ATP Cup, a 12-team competition in 2021, is one of the six tournaments crammed into the schedule this week to give players as much chance as possible to prepare for the Australian Open, which has been delayed three weeks from its usual January time slot.

With coronavirus cases under control, the government is allowing crowds of up to 25% capacity for the tune-up events for the season’s first tennis major, rising to 50% from the start of the Australian Open on Monday.

That’s something the players haven’t experienced since the pandemic started to change the international sports landscape.

Matteo Berrettini said having the crowd back helped during his 6-2, 6-4 upset win over U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem in Italy’s 2-1 victory over Austria in Group C. Russia opened Group D with a win over Argentina.

KENIN BACK

Sofia Kenin had a sprinkling of fans in the stands to watch her first match back at Melbourne Park since her Grand Slam breakthrough at last year’s Australian Open.

She loved it, saying she really missed her fans, although she would have enjoyed a longer stint on the court at Margaret Court Arena. Kenin had just won the first set 7-5 when Camila Giorgi retired from their match at the Yarra Valley Classic because of injury.

Kenin had only one match win in previous trips to Melbourne Park in 2018 and ’19 before winning her first major title last year, when she beat Ash Barty in the semifinals and Garbine Muguruza in the final. Kenin also reached the final at the delayed French Open, losing to first-time winner Iga Swiatek.

“Obviously, it’s really special. Super glad to be here,” Kenin said of her return to Australia. “Trying to somehow handle the emotions on court. I feel like it’s going to be a little bit of a rollercoaster next Monday or Tuesday, whenever I play. I feel like you guys, the fans, will see a little bit more emotion.”

Barty needed four match points to finish off her 6-3, 6-3 win over Ana Bogdan in a night match, her first in competition in almost a year.

“I had so much fun out there today. I missed you guys so much,” the top-ranked Australian told the crowd in an on-court interview. “This is one of my favorite places to play in the entire world.”

Barty opted against traveling during the pandemic, and skipped the U.S. Open and her title defense at Roland Garros.

“I missed it a lot. I wrestled with the decision I my head for quite a while,” she said, “”but my health had to be prioritized.”

In later matches, fourth-seeded Petra Kvitova beat 40-year-old Venus Williams 7-6 (6), 7-5 and the sixth-seeded Muguruza beat Alison Van Uytvanck 6-2, 6-0.

OSAKA CRUISING

Third-ranked Naomi Osaka won her opening match in the Gippsland Trophy, beating Alize Cornet 6-2, 6-2.

Osaka, who won the U.S. Open last year and the Australian Open in 2019, will next face No. 371-ranked Katie Boulter, who upset No. 14 Coco Gauff 3-6, 7-5, 6-2.

Kaia Kanepi beat No. 4 Aryna Sabalenka 6-1, 2-6, 6-1, while fifth-seeded Johanna Konta and No. 7 Elise Mertens also advanced.

ANDREESCU’S ABSENCE

Bianca Andreescu’s absence from competitive tennis will continue for another week after the 2019 U.S. Open champion withdrew from the Grampians Trophy.

The 20-year-old Canadian hasn’t played since the 2019 WTA Trophy because of knee and foot injuries, and is coming off a hard lockdown in Melbourne.

“After discussing it with my team, we have decided to focus this week on training,” Andreescu said. “See you all at the Australian Open!”

KYRGIOS, SANDGREN WIN

In the other ATP tournaments, Nick Kyrgios returned after almost 12 months off to beat Alexandre Muller 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (4) in the first round of the Murray River Open, and two-time Australian Open quarterfinalist Tennys Sandgren won his first match since coming out of the hard lockdown at the Great Ocean Road event.

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