Forza Italy! Comeback Victory Advances Italians To Davis Cup Final

Team Italy (photo: Angel Martinez/Getty Images for ITF)

MÁLAGA/WASHINGTON, November 25, 2023 (by Michael Dickens)

In the 92 years that Italy has been competing in the Davis Cup, dating back to its first appearance in 1922, arguably has there been a more spirited group of Italian players than this year’s team. Italy have won just one championship, back in 1976, led by non-playing captain Nicola Pietrangeli and players Corrado Barazzutti, Paolo Bertolucci and Adriano Panatta.

Now, after their 2-1 comeback victory over favored Serbia, Italy will play 28-time champion Australia for the 2023 Davis Cup Finals title on Sunday afternoon in Málaga, Spain. It will be their first time in the Davis Cup final in 25 years.

The last time Italy made it to the Davis Cup final was 1998, before three of the team – Matteo Arnaldi, Lorenzo Musetti and Jannik Sinner – had even been born. So, there is new history being born and written by this generation of Italian tennis players.

On Saturday, Italy overcame a rough start from Musetti, who lost a tough three-setter to Miomir Kecmanovic, 6-7 (7), 6-2, 6-1, and rallied behind Sinner, who ended the 21-match Davis Cup singles winning streak of Novak Djokovic, 6-2, 2-6, 7-5, saving three match points. Then, Sinner teamed with Lorenzo Sonego to break the 1-1 score and clinched the tie in doubles with a straight-set 6-3, 6-4 triumph.

“We are not a team, we are not a group,” said Italy team captain Filippo Volandri, shortly after the Italians punched their ticket to Sunday’s final. “We are a family. We never gave up [today]. Jannik saved three match points … We are looking forward to tomorrow.”

Later, during Italy’s Team press’s conference, Volandri added: “Jannik give us a lot of energy, give us a lot of confidence in ourself obviously. He’s a great player, but he’s not only great player; he’s a great person. That’s what I like.”

At the outset of the tie, it looked like it would be Serbia’s to win. However, Italy never gave up, never gave in.

Despite a fast start by Kecmanovic, Musetti pulled out a dramatic 72-minute first-set tie-break, winning on his third set point, 9-7, after coming back from 0-2, 30-40. Next, Kecmanovic leveled matters by taking the second set, 6-2, after breaking Musetti on his third chance during a 14-point sixth game. After nearly two hours, it was on to a decider and the atmosphere inside the Palacio Martin Carpena grew even louder.

Soon, Kecmanovic wasted no time in breaking Musetti at love in the second game with a nifty backhand passing shot to go ahead 2-0. He consolidated the break at love to extend his lead to 3-0, having won 10 straight points and seven consecutive games going back to the second set. Then, Kecmanovic extended his lead to 4-0 by breaking Musetti on his third opportunity to wrap up a 10-point game. By the end of the game, Musetti was favoring his left hamstring and required a medical time out for treatment. However, Kecmanovic maintained his focus and served another love game for a 5-0 advantage.

Finally, Kecmanovic closed out the three-set win on his racquet for a comeback 6-7 (7), 6-2, 6-1 victory to give him his second straight win in Malaga and Serbia its best possible start. He weathered a storm for a set and a half. By the end, he was the more dominant player as evidenced by his 44 winners and five break-point conversions. He played relentless defense, causing Musetti into hitting 29 forced errors and 26 unforced errors, and outpointed the Italian 107-77.

“I found my best tennis when it mattered,” Kecmanovic said in an on-court interview after securing his fifth straight Davis Cup triumph (singles and doubles combined). “I’m really proud of that and happy I was able to help my country again. Hopefully, we can get through to Sunday.

“It was an extremely tough set. I thought we both played pretty well and it came down to one or two points. It’s a positive thing I was able to reset and play the way that I did.”

Later, in his press conference, Kecmanovic added: “I knew that if I wanted to have a chance to win, I had to switch the mindset and, you know, especially now when you play for so much, you know you’re going to give everything you have.

“It definitely wasn’t easy, but I’m pretty proud of myself that I was able to pull it off.”

Next, Serbia’s hopes rested on the shoulders of Djokovic, the most successful Serbian player in the history of the Davis Cup with 44 match wins overall (40 singles and four doubles), including 21 straight singles victories. Djokovic’s last singles loss in the Davis Cup came when he retired against Juan Martin deal Potro in Serbia’s 2011 semifinal loss to Argentina. Since then, he’s been lights out. For the third time in less than two weeks, Djokovic faced Sinner, who performed double duty in the Italian’s 2-1 quarterfinal victory over the Netherlands on Thursday.

As Djokovic-Sinner Part III got underway, Sinner dominated the 38-minute opener, 6-2, against Djokovic after dropping just five points on his serve while winning 29 of the 48 points between the two Top-5 foes. The young Italian played brilliant while Djokovic looked weary. It was the most one-sided set the Serbian great had lost since the third one against Carlos Alcaraz in the Wimbledon final.

Next, Djokovic recovered and broke Sinner to go ahead 3-1 as he got fired up for the first time in the match. He consolidated the break at love as Serbian fans came alive at the one-hour mark. Could Sinner weather the storm created by Djokovic? It remained to be seen after Djokovic responded to the loss of the opening set by winning the second set on his third set point opportunity. Djokovic raised the level of his game as he controlled the battle of the baseline.

It was time for the decider after an hour and 20 minutes. If Djokovic could muster a win, Serbia would be in the final. If not, it would come down to doubles. First, Sinner held for 1-1 in a 14-minute thriller that stretched over 20 points and included his ninth ace on game point. From there, both players held firm through the next four games as the match clock reached the two-hour plateau and the set score was 3-all. As the tension continued to build, each point became magnified. In the eighth game, Djokovic gained a break point at 30-40 after Sinner netted a forehand return. However, Sinner erased it with a seventh-shot swing volley winner. He immediately responded with his 10th ace and escaped trouble by holding serve for 4-all.

After Djokovic responded with a love hold, he quickly set up triple match point. However, Sinner saved the first one after Djokovic hit an eighth-shot forehand long. He saved the second one, too. Sinner saved the third one with a beautiful fifth-shot forehand winner, and held for 5-all with a blistering 11th ace right up the middle. Then, Sinner gained a break point in Djokovic’s next set service game at 30-40 and converted it with a forehand passing-shot winner that capped a four-shot rally and gave Italian fans something to cheer about.

Suddenly, with Sinner serving for the match, ahead 6-5, he gained a match point at 40-15 after hitting his 12th ace – and won, 7-5, after Djokovic sent a service return long that put an end to the 73-minute set and a two-hour and 32-minute drama second rubber.

Sinner saved seven of nine break points in the match, including five in the final set, in beating Djokovic for the second time this month. He improved his lifetime win-loss record against Djokovic to 2-4 and became the first player to beat Djokovic twice in the same season since Daniil Medvedev in 2019. The loss ended Djokovic’s remarkable Davis Cup streak of 21 straight wins. He finished with 12 winners and made 19 unforced errors. He outpointed Sinner 93-89 but it wasn’t enough.

Sinner, who finished with 12 aces and 29 winners that overcame 38 unforced errors, had held his nerve beautifully to win three straight games and beat Djokovic in a match he had to win. Sinner gave an incredible effort and did everything he could to help keep Italy’s hopes alive and to give them a chance to pull out the tie in doubles.

When Sinner was asked during an on-court interview how he won the match for saving three match points, he smiled and said: “I don’t know, it was a roller coaster starting off. Second set he played much better than me and third set I tried to serve really well … I’m happy to still be in competition. We were one point away from being out. Now we have deciding doubles. We will give our best shot against them. Let’s see what’s coming.”

In the deciding doubles, it would be Sinner and Sonego, who lifted Italy past the Netherlands in the quarterfinal round, against Djokovic and Kecmanovic. With four singles players deciding the outcome – and Sinner warming up Djokovic about half an hour after beating him – it added to the overall intrigue of the tie.

As it happened, the doubles tie brought life back to the Davis Cup. It was exciting from first ball to last ball. Italy won the 35-minute opening set 6-3 on the strength of the Italian’s teamwork at the net, where both Sinner and Sonego excelled. They broke Serbia to go ahead 4-2 and soon after wrapped it up with an ace by Sinner.

Then, Italy broke early in the second set for a 2-1 lead on their second break-point chance after Djokovic missed a backhand return at the net. However, the break was short lived as Serbia broke back in the next game after Sonego hit a 30-40 forehand return long. Soon, Italy saved four break points to hold for 3-all after gutting out an 18-point, six-deuce game that lasted more than 11 minutes.

Next, Italy broke to go ahead 4-3 after Sonego hit a bone-crushing overhead smash winner on their second break-point opportunity. Could this be the difference maker?

After a pair of holds, Sinner served for the match and a berth for Italy in Sunday’s final against Australia – and got the job done on first match point after Djokovic hit a second-shot backhand return into the net. It was a one-hour, 34-minute victory for Italy and the celebration was on for the Italians. They were literally jumping for joy.

“It was an emotional moment for me and for the team as well,” Sonego said during an on-court interview. “I’m really happy to reach the final for the first time. It’s unbelievable. I like to play with these guys, I like to share the court with Jannik.”

Added Sinner: “We just tried to push every single point. Playing doubles isn’t easy but I think we both handled it pretty well. We are a very complete team — we’re happy to be here — and tomorrow we will try our best.”

During his team’s press conference, Djokovic congratulated the Italians. He said it was a difficult defeat to accept, especially playing for his country.

“They deserved it. They played really well, particularly Jannik, in singles against me and then doubles, as well,” Djokovic said. “He barely missed the ball the entire match. So, you know, you can only say congrats and hats down for the performance like that.

“For me personally it’s a huge disappointment, because I take the responsibility, obviously having three match points, being so close to win it. Yeah, it’s unfortunate really. This is sport. When you lose for your country, you know, the bitter feeling is even greater.”

By the end of the tie, Italy showed that with team spirit and a lot of heart – and with Sinner beating Djokovic in both singles and doubles – nothing was impossible.