Sinner punishes Demon as Aussie Davis Cup dream dies

Ian Chadband |

Alex de Minaur’s hopes of lifting the Davis Cup died in Malaga as he was humbled in the final.
Alex de Minaur’s hopes of lifting the Davis Cup died in Malaga as he was humbled in the final.

Australian tennis dreams have been dashed once again as Lleyton Hewitt’s team succumbed in a second straight Davis Cup final amid heartbreak and another jolting reality check in Malaga.

Italy ended up lifting the giant trophy for just the second time in Sunday’s (Monday AEDT) showdown with a 2-0 victory fashioned amid misery for Alexei Popyrin and dispiriting deja vu for his fellow Sydneysider Alex de Minaur.

De Minaur, the hero of their quarter-final win over the Czech Republic earlier in the week with his comeback triumph, could this time only find gloom on the Costa del Sol as he reflected: “We are very, very close – it stinks like hell.”

It did feel a similar story to last year, when the team over-performed only to be outgunned by Canada in the final and unable to take the tie into their stronghold territory of a deciding doubles.

Sinner wins in Malaga
Jannik Sinner, the Davis Cup man of the hour, lifts the trophy aloft in Malaga. (EPA PHOTO)

“We did absolutely everything we possibly could have – and we have come agonisingly close yet again,” said Hewitt.

But not close enough. 

This loss was more galling because of what might have been with Popyrin having so many opportunities to take a grip in the opening rubber before suffering a “heartbreaking” 7-5 2-6 6-4 defeat to Matteo Arnaldi, a player he had bossed for much of the final two sets.

The writing was already on the wall with de Minaur playing the following match against his youthful nemesis Jannik Sinner, who’d previously beaten the Australian No.1 all five times they’d met.

Make that six. As the tennis world knows, there can only be one winner when a ‘Demon’ meets a Sinner – and this time the Aussie really did seem to go through hell as the 22-year-old, who’s tormented him ever since they were NextGen starlets, reeled off the last eight games to crush him 6-3 6-0 in just 81 one-sided minutes.

The Italian world No.4, playing at an extraordinary level all week in Malaga as he won all his five rubbers in three ties – including his historic two victories over Serbian great Novak Djokovic in Saturday’s singles and doubles – overpowered de Minaur in the manner Felix Auger-Aliassime had done in last year’s final.

It meant a humbling end of the Australian dream of winning their first Davis Cup in 20 years since captain Hewitt was still in his playing pomp in Melbourne.

Popyrin loses
Alexei Popyrin was crestfallen after dominating much of his Davis Cup final match before losing. (AP PHOTO)

The squad’s late replacement Popyrin, who’d stepped in for the injured Thanasi Kokkinakis, dominated the last two sets of his opener, only to let the chances slip by and eventually be outlasted by the stubborn Arnaldi.

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.

Hewitt insists he misses the home-and-away element of the new-look Davis Cup but the final felt very much like an away tie for his side amid a sea of Azzurri blue in the Palacio de Deportes Martin Carpena. 

Popyrin earned eight break point opportunities in the final set but was constantly repelled by the 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, and it all left Popyrin inconsolable, saying he’d never felt worse.

But Hewitt consoled him, saying: “Alexei did great. Probably a point away quite a few times, to be honest – and I’m proud of all the players.”

His loss, though, put captain Filippo Volandri’s Italian team in control as they went on to win only their second Davis Cup crown against the 28-time champions after their triumph in 1976.

For Australia, though, the frustrating wait goes on.

AAP