Were Great Britain to bounce back from defeat on the first day to win the inaugural ATP Cup they would emulate in one way at least the achievement of the England football team, who lifted the 1966 World Cup without leaving Wembley.
While it would be a stretch to say Tim Henman’s squad would generate quite the same excitement as Alf Ramsey’s men did when Harold Wilson was prime minister, they certainly lucked out when drawn to play their Group C matches in Sydney. This is the venue for the Final Eight knockout stage and the final on 12 January, so travel hassles in the world’s sixth largest country will not be an issue if they reach the deciding Sunday.
The 2019 Davis Cup finalists started well on Friday when Cameron Norrie took the first rubber 6-2, 3-6, 6-2, against the stubborn world No 423, Dimitar Kuzmanov. Dan Evans then went a set up against Grigor Dimitrov before the former world No 3 recovered to win 2-6, 6-3, 6-1.
That prompted Dimitrov, as player-captain, to join Alexandar Lazarov against Jamie Murray and Joe Salisbury – a match which began at 12.47am and finished at 2.47am, 3hr 12min after public transport finished. It was an inspired decision by Dimitrov – and his sizzling return to save match point was not bad, either.
The British pair, playing together for the first time, clicked but not often enough, and Bulgaria won 7-6 (5), 6-7 (2), 11-9 to seal an edgy 2-1 result. Murray served for the match at 9-7 but the Bulgarians got back on terms, Murray left Lazarov’s blistering backhand down the line and it dipped in for the winner.
Murray said later: “It’s annoying, isn’t it, let’s be honest, to have to play at that time. For everyone, I mean, for everyone involved in the tournament, isn’t it? It’s a shame, because you start the match, singles, there’s 5,000 or 6,000 people there, but by the time you get to play there’s a few hundred. That’s not really what the event should be about.”
The marketing men have branded this addition to a packed schedule “for love of country” and, although Norrie perhaps has a choice of allegiances – born in South Africa to a Scottish father and Welsh mother, raised in New Zealand and drawn back to Blighty to further his career – he is the sort of committed player anyone would want.
As he said later: “I’m really happy that I made the team. I practise with Evo a lot on the tour, so it’s nice to be around a couple of my mates – especially Tim being the captain. He’s got some good stories from when he was playing, and some good experience.”
Norrie found the court “extremely slow” but that suited his grinding game and an entertaining match with several long rallies pleased fans who took up maybe two thirds of the 10,000 seats in the air-conditioned Ken Rosewall Arena under a new canopy originally intended to keep out the rain, of which there was a mere 1.6mm last month, 76mm below the December average stretching back 161 years.
When the ATP and Tennis Australia began to pull this event together last year, the sheer scale of the enterprise lent it a surreal edge. For a start there are 2,044 miles between Sydney and Perth, where Spain, one of the favourites, begin their campaign on Saturday. Russia, who won their tie against Italy, look strong in that group.
There is a more amenable 454‑mile hop from Brisbane, where the hosts were handed a wildcard entry, and home fans were ecstatic when Nick Kyrgios eased past Jan-Lennard Struff in two sets and Alex de Minaur shocked the world No 7, Alexander Zverev.
This is not the first international sporting event to ask participants to travel vast distances, and the 1994 World Cup in the US still owns the nine longest journeys for a tournament. But Perth-Sydney comes in a respectable 10th.
Travel is the least of the problems facing the players here, though. There is the deadly spectre of bushfires crackling in the distance, roaring, roaming monsters of flame fed by intense heat and unpredictable winds that tug and shove them in all directions. As the death toll rises and scenes of mass evacuation fill TV screens around the clock, the hardships of tennis players are, beyond argument, trivial.
Still, players, fans and administrators have responded generously, urged by Nick Kyrgios to help the fire victims and those trying to save them. After pledging $A200 an ace for relief funds, he hit 20 of them to beat Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff in two sets in Brisbane.
“Seeing my hometown [Canberra] almost being on the alert and having, like, just the worst air quality in the world at the moment, it’s sad to see,” Kyrgios said. “It’s tough to go out there and concentrate on tennis, to be honest. Every ace I was hitting that’s all I was thinking about.”
There is no shortage of enthusiasm or goodwill for this competition, and plenty of empathy for people in a daily life and death struggle with nature. The flames will fade sooner or later; whether or not the ATP Cup withers on the vine will depend on the quality of the tennis and the brutal weather. While there will be no rain on Saturday to ease the scorching 43C forecast for this parched site, some of the tennis so far has been outstanding.