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‘Group of death’ challenge for Aussie star



The star-studded, 16-country tournament begins in Sydney on Saturday, but Australia opens its campaign against title favourite Italy on Sunday night.Russian world No.5 Andrey Rublev and Austrian star Dominic Thiem withdrawing helps Australia’s cause, but the group’s incredible depth still means the host nation faces a huge task to advance.France replaced Austria in the group, joining Australia, Italy and defending champion Russia.De Minaur, 22, will lock horns with Russia’s world No.2 Daniil Medvedev, Italy’s seventh-ranked Matteo Berrettini and France’s Ugo Humbert, who is ranked No.35.Australia’s other team members are big improver James Duckworth and doubles trio John Peers, Luke Saville and Max Purcell.De Minaur has a combined 0-5 head-to-head record against his three projected opponents but hopes playing in his “backyard” will work in his favour.“I think this is the beauty of the ATP Cup at the start of the year,” de Minaur said.“I’ve experienced it before and it’s a great way to kind of see where I’m at. These are the kinds of matches I want to be playing, so it’s a great challenge for me.“We put in a very good pre-season and I’ve been working really hard, so hopefully I can go out there and perform.”De Minaur, who has been as high as 15 in the world but is back at No.34, is used to such a daunting set of opponents as Australia’s top men’s player.Stefanos Tsitsipas and Roberto Bautista Agut were his ATP Cup opponents a year ago, while Rafael Nadal, Alex Zverev, Denis Shapovalov and Dan Evans were on the menu in the 2020 edition.“I’m just really looking forward to being back here in Sydney, playing in front of an amazing atmosphere and hopefully packed crowds,” de Minaur said.“We’ve got such fond memories from playing on Ken Rosewall Arena, so I’m itching to get back out there and compete and represent the green and gold. It’s always a huge honour.”Australian captain Lleyton Hewitt said it was “an extremely tough group” but wanted his players to thrive as the “underdogs”.“This gives these guys the opportunity to play at home, which is something that I’ve spoken about with Davis Cup that these guys really miss out on,” Hewitt said.“I’m thrilled that Tennis Australia and the ATP have been able to come together and (create) this event and we’re fortunate that it’s in our backyard.“I think especially two years ago – the (ATP Cup’s) first year – with the crowds they got and not only just for the Australian matches … were incredible.“The atmosphere the boys got to play (in for) the quarters and semis here against Great Britain and Spain was as good an atmosphere as I’ve seen in Australia for a long time at a tennis match.”

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