Australian tennis dreams have been dashed once again as Lleyton Hewitt’s team succumbed in a second straight Davis Cup final heartbreak in Malaga.
Italy lifted 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.
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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 — 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’s heartbreaking. I let it slip, and that’s something in Davis Cup Finals that hurts,” the 24-year-old said with a sigh.
Australia one step away from 20-year first after Davis Cup triumph
It left de Minaur 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, 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, followed up by making it six in a row against de Minaur, outclassing him 6-3 6-0.
A crestfallen Lleyton Hewitt is shattered after the loss. Credit: Getty
It meant the end of the Australian dream of winning their first Davis Cup in 20 years, when now 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 before being able to do nothing with a searing Arnaldi backhand that he could barely get a racquet to on match point.
Alexei Popyrin was shattered after the loss. Credit: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images for ITF
It left Lleyton Hewitt inconsolable, saying it was the worst he had ever felt.
The 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.
For de Minaur, 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.
The frustrating wait goes on for Australia.