After a thrilling No. 2 singles marathon earlier in the day, World No. 11 David Goffin clinched the opening ATP Cup tie for Team Belgium in Sydney on Friday with relative ease. Goffin defeated Moldovan No. 1 Radu Albot 6-4, 6-1 after one hour and 22 minutes.
The 2017 Nitto ATP Finals runner-up now leads Albot 4-0 in their FedEx ATP Head2Head series, with this being the only match that did not go to a deciding set. Goffin reached his first ATP Masters 1000 final last year in Cincinnati, and he is off to a good start to his 2020 campaign after dismissing an error-laden Albot.
"It's never easy to start the season with the first match, first team competition, the new format, with the team on the bench," Goffin said. "And the way I played, I'm very pleased, and so it's good for the next tie."
Belgium's No. 2 singles player and captain Steve Darcis gave his country the lead with a 6-4, 6-7(4), 7-5 victory against Alexander Cozbinov. But for the former World No. 38, it was was anything but easy.
On paper, Darcis had a substantial experience advantage, having won 116 tour-level matches, including three against the Top 10. World No. 818 Cozbinov had never played a tour-level match, and he is 0-3 on the ATP Challenger Tour.
But the ATP Cup provides a stage for players like Cozbinov to shine, and Darcis did that by pushing a veteran — who owns a win against Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon — to the brink in a three-hour, 10-minute marathon that featured plenty of changes in momentum. Ultimately, despite letting slip a break advantage in both the second and third sets, Darcis held his nerve.
"It was a tough match. The first one of the competition is always difficult. I didn't know too much what to expect, but Alex played a great match for the first time on a big stage," Darcis said. "Of course when you have the team behind you, when you have the crowd, it pushes you. You know you're going to fight till the end."
It made for a tough situation for Goffin, who was supporting Darcis for a set in Team Belgium's team zone. Darcis went up by a break in the second set and then a break in the third set, giving Goffin reason to warm up several times before going out for his match against Albot.
"It's never easy, especially when you stay for one set during the match of Steve, and then I went in, had [my] first warm-up, second warm-up, and third warm-up," Goffin said, cracking a smile. "Then finally I went on the court, and from the first point I had good energy, good attitude, and I served well when I needed, as well."
Darcis, the two-time ATP Tour titlist who is retiring after this year’s Australian Open, was broken three times in the first set of his match, with Cozbinov intelligently remaining patient despite Darcis' probing backhand slices. However, the Belgian surged with an around-the-net forehand for a winner to clinch the opener, leaping in celebration as his countrymen jumped out of their seats in Belgium’s team zone.
When Darcis broke to lead in the second set, it appeared his class would allow him to cruise the rest of the way. But Cozbinov was fighting for not just himself, but his country, and he relentlessly battled. Even a 4/0 lead in the second-set tie-break was not enough for Darcis, with the Moldovan winning seven consecutive points to force a decider. And although Darcis let slip a break late in the set — even with Cozbinov appearing to cramp — the Belgian finally closed out Sydney's first match of the ATP Cup.
During the match, Thomas Johansson, who is Goffin's personal coach, assisted Darcis with advice. Darcis spoke to the media and quickly returned to Ken Rosewall Arena to serve in his captain role as Goffin defeated Albot, arriving by the end of the match's first game.
"I think today the big goal is to finish 3-0. I think we were the favourite, but it's always difficult even if you are [the] favourite," Darcis said. "When it's a team competition, everybody is fighting like hell."