MELBOURNE — Alex de Minaur failed to take advantage of a fast start and Rafael Nadal’s late scratching as Australia lost their opening ATP Cup tie to Spain.
De Minaur was scheduled to take on world No.2 Nadal on Tuesday night, but the 20-time grand-slam winner withdrew just before the tie started with a stiff lower back.
It meant Spain’s No.3 ranked player – world No.16 Pablo Carreno Busta – was called up to play John Millman in the first singles match.
Millman showed plenty of fighting spirit but he was no match for Carreno Busta in a match that lasted just 77 minutes, with the Spaniard winning 6-2 6-4.
World No.23 de Minaur needed to beat world No.13 Roberto Bautista Agut to keep the tie alive, and he made a scintillating start to race out to a 5-1 lead.
The 21-year-old was broken twice in the next three games but was still able to seal the first set.
But from there Agut took control, snaring early breaks in each of the next two sets to secure the 4-6 6-4 6-4 win in two hours 20 minutes.
Earlier Tuesday [AEDT], Novak Djokovic kicked off his 2021 season in style on his favourite Rod Laver Arena court with a clinical 7-5 7-5 win over Canadian talent Denis Shapovalov.
Leading Serbia’s title defence in the team-based event, Djokovic was thrilled with his form in the Group A clash, a rematch of last year’s quarterfinal against Shapovalov.
“It’s a great opening of the season. I hope all of you who came here enjoyed it because I certainly did,” the world No. 1 told a small crowd at the stadium, soaking up boisterous cheers from Serbian fans.
Last year the Canadian had pushed Djokovic to a third-set tiebreak but the Serb wrapped things up more quickly on Tuesday, breaking Shapovalov as he served to stay in the match.
Himself unbroken on serve, Djokovic sealed the match with a sparkling winner, scrambling to his right to whip a curling forehand passing shot down the line.
The win levelled the tie at 1-1 after Canada’s Milos Raonic had eased past Dusan Lajovic 6-3 6-4.
Djokovic, who will bid for a record-extending ninth Australian Open title, will play in the decisive doubles as he looks to extend his unbeaten record in the ATP Cup to 10 matches.
While Djokovic enjoyed a dream start, Austria’s world No.3 Dominic Thiem slumped to a 6-2 6-4 defeat to Italy’s Matteo Berrettini in his opener.
Blasting groundstrokes metres past the baseline, the Austrian was broken four times in a rusty display in the team-based event at Melbourne Park’s John Cain Arena as world No. 10 Berrettini dominated the clash of hard-hitters.
Playing his first tour match since the ATP Finals, the world No. 3 rallied in the second set to break Berrettini for the first time but surrendered the match the way he played it, with a big swing at a backhand that thudded into the net.
Having pushed Djokovic to five sets in the Australian Open final last year, Thiem is among the top contenders looking to dethrone the Serb at the Feb. 8-21 Grand Slam.
Berrettini was thrilled to take down Thiem in the Group C tie and put Italy back on level terms with Austria at 1-1 after Dennis Novak romped past Fabio Fognini 6-3 6-2 in the morning.
“I’m really happy for my performance,” Berrettini said on court.
“I’m really looking forward to playing this event and the Australian Open.
“Playing for your country is something special.”
France, the other Group C team, start their tournament against Italy on Wednesday.
The winning nations of the four groups advance to the semifinals.
Reuters, The Associated Press and the Australian Associated Press contributed to this report.