Davis Cup qualifying started on Friday under the shadow of the deadly coronavirus with fist bumps instead of handshakes, ball boys and girls keeping their distance from sweat-stained towels and two ties even played out in eerily-empty arenas.

With matches taking place from Australia to Japan to Europe and in South America and Hawaii, 12 teams are bidding to join defending champion Spain, 2019 runner-up Canada, semifinalists Great Britain and Russia, as well as wildcards France and Serbia in the Madrid finals in November. Two of Friday’s encounters had to be staged behind closed doors with spectators banned in Miki, where Japan is hosting Ecuador, and in Cagliari as Italy faced South Korea.

“Conditions were strange,” said Italian No. 1 and World No. 11 Fabio Fognini after cruising past 251-ranked Lee Duck-hee 6-0, 6-3 in just over an hour at the Circolo Tennis venue. “It was not difficult to focus but it was a bit strange to play in front of 100 people. But safety first and then sport,” Fognini told daviscup.com .

Italy has been the worst-hit European country with 197 deaths from the coronavirus. As a result, all sporting events are being played behind closed doors for the next month.

On Friday, only teams, media and support staff were allowed into the arena where World No. 79 Gianluca Mager then extended the Italian lead to 2-0 overnight after a 6-3, 7-5 debut win over Nam Ji-sung. “There’s too much silence for a Davis Cup crowd,” said Italy skipper Corrado Barazzutti after a day in which players and backroom staff exchanged fist bumps rather than the traditional post-match handshake in an effort to reduce the risk of a virus spread.

In Miki, Japan, without its top two singles players Kei Nishikori — who hasn’t played Davis Cup since 2016 — and Yoshihito Nishioka, slipped 2-0 down to Ecuador. Emilio Gomez defeated Go Soeda 7-5, 7-6 (7/3) while Roberto Quiroz shrugged off a gap of 186 places in the rankings to beat Yasutaka Uchiyama 7-6 (7/4), 2-6, 7-6 (10/8).

‘Do not touch’

Ball boys and girls wore gloves to handle the balls and used baskets for players to toss their towels. Japan has reported 360 confirmed cases of coronavirus and six deaths.

It all added to a miserable day for Japan which was without Nishikori, still recovering from an elbow injury which has sidelined him since the US Open, and Nishioka. World No. 48 Nishioka decided not to join the national team to avoid the possibility of being quarantined on his return to the United States ahead of next week’s ATP event in Indian Wells.

Elsewhere, 28-time Davis Cup champion Australia was 2-0 up on Brazil in Adelaide.

Jordan Thompson saw off Thiago Monteiro 6-4, 6-4 before John Millman recovered from a set and 5-3 down to defeat last week’s Santiago ATP champion, 19-year-old Thiago Seyboth Wild 4-6, 7-6 (7/0), 6-2. “That’s what Davis Cup is all about, never giving up,” said Millman.


Yasutaka Uchiyama (right) and Ben McLachlan of Japan react after losing their doubles match against Gonzalo Escobar and Diego Hidalgo of Ecuador on Saturday in Miki, Hyogo, Japan. - GETTY IMAGES


In Zagreb, 2005 and 2018 champion Croatia was 2-0 up on India after Borna Gojo beat Prajnesh Gunneswaran 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 and former US Open winner Marin Cilic saw off World No. 182 Ramkumar Ramanathan 7-6 (10/8), 7-6 (10/8). In Bratislava, three-time champion Czech Republic was 2-0 ahead of Slovakia in their first meeting since the countries split into two independent nations in 1993.

Sweden was 1-1 with Chile in Stockholm on a contrasting day for the home side’s Ymer brothers. Mikael beat Marcelo Tomas Vera 6-2, 6-3 but older brother Elias lost to Alejandro Tabilo 6-4, 6-3.

Other ties were also locked at 1-1 — Kazakhstan v Netherlands, Austria against Uruguay, Hungary at home to Belgium, Germany’s tie with Belarus and Colombia v Argentina.

Later on Friday, record 32-time champion the United States took a 2-0 lead over Uzbekistan in Honolulu. American Taylor Fritz easily swept aside little known Sanjar Fayziev 6-1, 6-2 and Fritz’s team-mate Reilly Opelka beat Denis Istomin in straight sets, 6-2, 7-5.

The qualifying round will be completed on Saturday when each tie will feature a doubles clash and reverse singles.