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.
It felt a similar story to last year’s campaign, which saw the team over-perform only to get outgunned by Canada in the final and unable to take the tie into their stronghold territory of a deciding doubles.
But this loss was more gutting, because Popyrin had so many opportunities to win the opening rubber before suffering an agonising 7-5 2-6 6-4 defeat to Matteo Arnaldi, a player he had bossed for much of the final two sets.
“It’s heartbreaking. I let it slip, and that’s something in Davis Cup Finals that hurts,” sighed the 24-year-old.
Everyone knew then the writing was on the wall with de Minaur playing in the following match against his youthful nemesis Jannik Sinner, who’d previously beaten the Australian No.1 all five times they’d met.
As the tennis world has come to learn, 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 de Minaur 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, clearly the man of the week in the Malaga finals after winning 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 the 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.
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 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, cheered on by the passionate Italian support in the Palacio de Deportes Martin Carpena.
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, and it all left Popyrin inconsolable, saying he had never felt worse.
“I felt like I was in control from the second set onwards, I had break points every single game up in that last set, so it’s heartbreaking. I missed those forehands but it’s the break points in the service games that hurt me more than that last game.”
His loss 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.
For de Minaur, though, there was nothing but misery as Sinner’s mastery consigned him to a second-set ‘bagel’, one final wayward backhand eventually handing the jubilant Italians their only triumph since 1976.
For Australia, though, the frustrating wait goes on.