TURIN, Italy -- No Davis Cup tennis fans will be allowed in Innsbruck as Austria goes back into lockdown. Capacity will be at 60% in Turin, where Italian children will be occupying vast portions of the stands amid slow ticket sales. Attendance in Madrid will be at a maximum of 75%.
This isn’t likely what organizers had in mind for the return of the Davis Cup Finals amid yet another format change after last year’s edition was called off because of the coronavirus pandemic.
After the debut of the 18-team event was held entirely in Madrid over seven days in 2019, the main criticisms from players centered on late-night matches played before mostly empty arenas and not enough rest between matches. So organizers decided to spread this year’s tournament, which starts on Thursday, over three different cities and 11 days.
But with coronavirus cases rising again in Europe, that has become more complicated for tennis' oldest team competition.
“Davis Cup was a competition where we could play in front of incredible crowds," French doubles specialist Pierre-Hughes Herbert said. "In Madrid, we didn’t play in front of a full stadium. It was almost (like) closed doors.”
France is in a group with Britain and the Czech Republic in Innsbruck, where it will be behind closed doors.
“I’m sad for Austria, they have so many (coronavirus) cases. I’m sad for the competition that it cannot be a full party,” added Herbert, who teamed with French partner Nicolas Mahut to win the doubles title at the ATP Finals on Sunday.
Each city hosts two groups of three teams each and at least one quarterfinal, then the semifinals and final will be held in Madrid.
With Rafael Nadal unable to play for defending champion Spain because of a left-foot injury that ended his season early, a Russia squad featuring two top-10 players in No. 2 Daniil Medvedev and No. 5 Andrey Rublev could be the team to beat.
“I feel like we can be the big favorites there with the team we have,” said Medvedev, the U.S. Open champion.
Russia, which will be called RTF (Russian Tennis Federation) for the event amid an ongoing doping suspension from international sports, is in a group with Spain and Ecuador in Madrid.
Spain still has a strong team with Next Gen ATP Finals champion Carlos Alcaraz and two top-20 players in Roberto Bautista Agut and Pablo Carreno Busta.
Top-ranked Novak Djokovic leads Serbia’s team in Innsbruck against host Austria and a Germany squad without ATP Finals champion Alexander Zverev.
Djokovic, who lost to Zvevev in the semifinals of the ATP Finals and failed to win a medal for Serbia at the Tokyo Olympics, said he is “very motivated to play for my country.”
“I like my chances against anybody in the Davis Cup, really, (but) obviously Davis Cup is a team competition,” Djokovic said. “It doesn’t depend on me only. We have to try to win another singles or at least one singles, one doubles. ... So hopefully the other guys are fit and ready.”
A United States team featuring No. 24 John Isner and No. 26 Reilly Opelka — who are both nearly 7-feet tall — faces host Italy and Colombia in Turin on the same super-fast court that was used for the ATP Finals.
The Americans are seeking a record-extending 33rd title in the competition.
“We have one of the best serving teams,” said U.S. doubles specialist Rajeev Ram, who should play with Jack Sock, another big server. “That’s a big advantage for us. The courts are quick here. That’s suitable for everyone on our team.”
Host Italy lost Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini to injury but still has new top-10 player Jannik Sinner and Lorenzo Sonego, who is from Turin.
Each matchup on indoor hard courts is a best-of-three series featuring two singles and one doubles match. The six group winners plus the two second-place teams with the best records based on sets and games will advance to the quarterfinals.
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