By Jonathan Barrett
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Novak Djokovic inspired Serbia to victory in the inaugural ATP Cup team event in Sydney after defeating his long-term Spanish rival Rafael Nadal in singles on Sunday before playing a pivotal role in the deciding doubles match.
With the final locked at 1-1, Djokovic partnered veteran Victor Troicki to beat Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta and Feliciano Lopez 6-3 6-4, triggering celebrations that would not be out of place at a Belgrade football match.
The 16-times Grand Slam champion proved to be a calming influence throughout, especially after the Serbian pair fell behind early in the match.
He used his powerful serve and fleet-footed returns to haul his country back into the first set and create a momentum shift Serbia rode all the way to a victory completed in the early hours of Monday morning.
“We are filled with joy,” Djokovic said. “It was probably one of the best doubles we’ve played.”
For Spain, it was a lost opportunity to prove it has the world’s best men’s tennis team, having recently won the revamped Davis Cup and boasting two top 10 players in its ATP Cup side.
Nadal, a capable doubles player who won the doubles Olympic gold at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, was substituted out of the Spanish combination in a surprise last-minute move he said was a team decision.
The world number one cited a gruelling tournament schedule and lack of energy as part of the reason.
Djokovic earlier beat Nadal 6-2 7-6(4), extending his dominance over the Spaniard on hardcourts, a surface Nadal has not beaten him on since 2013.
Djokovic has created the blueprint to beat the Spaniard on hardcourts, although he is one of the very few players good enough to follow the instructions.
The Serbian held his line, and was rarely pushed back deep into the court by the Spaniard’s heavy spin, a position from which Nadal usually dictates terms.
“I was trying to take away as much time as possible from him,” Djokovic said. “I’m just extremely satisfied with the way I performed.”
Djokovic broke Nadal’s serve in the first game, lighting up a near capacity crowd in the 10,500-person canopied-stadium. The noise from the flag-waving Serbian supporters between serves weighed on Nadal, who at one stage gave a sarcastic thumbs-up gesture to his rival’s supporters.
The Spaniard’s reaction only enticed the crowd deeper into the contest as they bellowed Djokovic’s nickname – “Nole, Nole”.
While Nadal is the undisputed king of clay, he hasn’t taken a set off Djokovic played on a hardcourt in nine attempts since his 2013 U.S. Open victory.
After a dominant first set marked by Djokovic’s strong serving, the contest tightened. Nadal employed more attacking serve-volley tactics, and settled into a harder-hitting rhythm.
Trailing 0-40 on his serve in the sixth game of the second set, Djokovic looked likely to crack, but the Spaniard was unable to convert.
The second set was decided in a tiebreak, ending when Nadal netted a forehand.
Earlier, Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut completed a flawless tournament by defeating Serbia’s Dusan Lajovic 7-5 6-1.
The ATP Cup received mixed reviews from players. They applauded the high standard of tennis while also questioning the wisdom of having back-to-back men’s team events, with the Davis Cup completed just weeks before the Sydney event started.
But the victors said the ATP Cup victory was a career highlight. The Serbian team danced on the centre court, and promised to party with their fans through the night.
Djokovic quipped that he might also return to Serbia to celebrate and come back for the Australian Open, which starts next week.
(Reporting by Jonathan Barrett, Ed Osmond)