Agonising loss for Aussie Popyrin in Davis Cup final

Ian Chadband |

Alexei Popyrin was crestfallen after dominating much of his Davis Cup final match before losing.
Alexei Popyrin was crestfallen after dominating much of his Davis Cup final match before losing.

Alexei Popyrin has suffered an agonising defeat for Australia in the Davis Cup final, leaving their hopes of bringing home the Davis Cup for the first time in two decades on the brink.

The squad’s late replacement, who’d stepped in for the injured Thanasi Kokkinakis, dominated the last two sets, only to let the chances slip by and eventually be outlasted by a dogged Matteo Arnaldi, who eked out a 7-5 2-6 6-4 win to put Italy 1-0 up in the Malaga showdown on Sunday (Monday AEDT).

Ultimately, this closest of battles between Australia’s world No.40 and Italy’s world No.44 came down to who could hold their nerve best – and it was the youngster from San Remo who held firmest in the two-hour 27-minute battle, cheered on by the passionate Italian support in the Palacio de Deportes Martin Carpena. 

Arnaldi celebrates win
Matteo Arnaldi celebrating his victory over Alexei Popyrin in Malaga. (AP PHOTO)

Popyrin earned eight break point opportunities in the final set but was constantly repelled by the stubborn Italian, who just needed a second chance in the decider to pounce at match point.

The Sydneysider saved one of his worst games for last, spraying a couple of forehands long before being able to do nothing with a searing Arnaldi backhand that he could barely get a racquet to on match point. 

The defeat left the Australians’ hopes of becoming men’s world tennis champions for the first time since captain Lleyton Hewitt was a player back in Melbourne in 2003 looking bleak.

Because next up, Alex de Minaur was set to face his youthful nemesis, Jannik Sinner, in the battle between the finalists’ two No.1s in the second rubber.

It put captain Filippo Volandri’s Italian team in the driving seat as they sought to win only their second Davis Cup crown against the 28-time champions after their triumph in 1976.

Popyrin knew he had to deliver with the team’s spearhead de Minaur next having to face a mountainous task to beat the world no.4 who’s defeated him in all their five meetings.

But the 24-year-old couldn’t quite do that, even after rallying from a disappointing first set and, largely, looking in control.

Whether it was Hewitt animatedly geeing him up at the set changeover wasn’t clear, but the transformation at the start of the second set was dramatic as Popyrin started stepping in earlier to pressure Arnaldi’s accommodating second serve and started going for his shots more.

Two breaks raced him into a 4-0 stranglehold that he wasn’t about to release and it looked as if it would continue in the decider only for the Italian to hang in courageously.