Australia has lost a second straight Davis Cup final, after Alexei Popyrin and Alex de Minaur were beaten in their singles matches in a 2-0 defeat to Italy.
Australian tennis dreams were dashed 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 Sydneysider teammate Alex de Minaur.
It was a similar story to last year’s campaign, in which the team over-performed 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 felt extra disappointing, 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 who he had bossed for much of the final two sets.
It left de Minaur in the following game to face his youthful nemesis Jannik Sinner, who’d beaten the Australian No.1 all five times they’d met – and as the tennis world has come to learn, there can only be one winner when a ‘Demon’ meets a Sinner.
The Italian was 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. On Sunday, he followed up by making it six in a row against de Minaur, outclassing him 6-3 6-0.
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. 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 he 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.
It left Popyrin inconsolable, saying it was the worst he had ever felt.
His loss put captain Filippo Volandri’s Italian team in the driving seat as it sought to win only its second Davis Cup crown against the 28-time champions after its triumph in 1976.
But the 24-year-old couldn’t quite do that, even after rallying from a disappointing first set and, largely, looking in control.
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.
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.