Lleyton Hewitt’s Australia team has endured a miserable start in its quest to bring home the Davis Cup after Marin Cilic outstayed a gutsy Alex de Minaur in a remarkable contest to seal Croatia’s victory in the opening group tie in Turin.
After Australia’s Alexei Popyrin had been on the end of a shock 7-6 (7/5), 7-5 defeat from Borna Gojo — a late stand-in ranked more than 200 places behind him — Australian number one de Minaur saw his excellent comeback attempt thwarted 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 on Thursday by old foe Cilic.
It sealed the Croatians’ 2-0 lead with the Australians so desperate to get something out of the tie that they later threw de Minaur, after only a short break, into the remaining doubles to give them more of a chance to still reach the quarter-finals.
The gamble did not pay off, with Croatia sweeping the tie as Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic took care of de Minaur and John Peers in the doubles, 6-3, 6-1.
That task of making the last eight has become much harder after not even the emotional encouragement of captain Hewitt at courtside in the Pala Alpitour arena was enough to lift his two top players as they ran into opponents in inspired form.
All is not lost but Australia will now have to beat Hungary on Saturday, probably by a 3-0 margin, to give themselves a chance of making the last eight.
De Minaur had to pull out some of the magic that had seen him go unbeaten in singles in the last edition of the men’s world cup of tennis two years ago and for a while he did just that as he fought back in astonishing fashion from 6-1, 3-1 down to take their compelling rubber into a decider.
But the 33-year-old Cilic, who’d defeated de Minaur in a US Open thriller three years ago, rediscovered his irresistible form of the opening set to oust the Sydneysider in a topsy-turvy 130-minute affair.
“Alex is such a great fighter and it’s not the first time he’s come back in a match like that,” said Cilic, praising the 22-year-old opponent who’d ousted him earlier in the year on grass at Queen’s Club.
Popyrin, the world number 61, had earlier been expected to give the team a flying start against the depleted Croats, who plunged world number 276 Gojo into the singles at late notice.
Yet the big-serving understudy, filling in for injured luminary Borna Coric, produced the performance of his life over one hour and 49 minutes.
“I had chances in the first and second sets but I did hit some mistakes on important points and I think that let me down.”
Popyrin had already beaten Gojo in Melbourne in a tight three-setter in February and, ranked number three in Australia, was the obvious choice for Hewitt as the second-string singles player in the absence of Nick Kyrgios.
He began only his second Davis Cup appearance in confident style but after earning five break points on Gojo’s big delivery in the Croat’s first three service games, his failure to convert came back to haunt him.
Popyrin played a poor opening set tiebreaker, featuring a series of unforced errors that cost him the stanza but, despite gifting up 27 unforced errors throughout the match, he had not been remotely threatened on serve until the 11th game of the second set.
A nervy double fault and a stray backhand suddenly gave Gojo the chance to serve for the match, which the 23-year-old took with aplomb.
Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz out of Davis Cup with COVID
Carlos Alcaraz, the teenager touted as Rafael Nadal’s heir and the biggest name in Spain’s team at the Davis Cup finals, tested positive for the coronavirus and was dropped from the squad on Thursday.
The 18-year-old Alcaraz, who was going to make his first Davis Cup appearance, said on social media he was sad to miss out on “such an important and special tournament like the Davis Cup”.
“I was very excited to be able to play and represent my country here in Madrid in front of our fans,” he said. “But sometimes things don’t go how we want them to go and you have to overcome that. It’s a very tough blow but you have to pick yourself up and come out stronger.”
Alcaraz was expected to play in the Group A meeting with Ecuador.
The International Tennis Federation earlier said a member of Spain’s team had tested positive for the coronavirus and was put in isolation, but did not name the player. The rest of the Spanish team members took a new PCR test.
The 32nd-ranked Alcaraz, coming off a title at the Next Gen ATP Finals, will be replaced by world number 60 Pedro Martínez.
The other members of the Spanish squad are Pablo Carreno Busta, Alberto Ramos-Vinolas, Feliciano López and Marcel Granollers. The team captain is Sergi Bruguera.
Spain was already without Nadal because of an injury, and it lost number 19 Roberto Bautista Agut earlier this week because of an abdominal injury.
Spain is the defending champion at the Davis Cup Finals that are being played in Madrid, Innsbruck and Turin. Thursday was the first day of competition in all three cities.
The matches in Austria are being played without fans because of the coronavirus pandemic. Capacity is at 60 per cent in Turin and 75 per cent in Madrid.