At Long Last, Italy Wins Its Second Davis Cup Title And First In 47 Years

Team Italy, 2023 Davis Cup champions (photo: ITF video)

MÁLAGA/WASHINGTON, November 26, 2023 (by Michael Dickens)

A day after superhero Jannik Sinner led Italy back from the brink of a semifinal defeat, saving three consecutive match points against Serbia’s Novak Djokovic before ending his 21-match Davis Cup singles winning streak to level the tie, then winning it in doubles with Lorenzo Sonego, one had to wonder what the Italians – who had won exactly one Davis Cup title, in 1976, and last reached the final in 1998 – could do for an encore.

Not to mention, Italy would be facing a strong and talented Australia team that had won 28 Davis Cup titles and reached the finals in back-to-back years (2022 and 2023). They were led by the never-say-die personality of Alex de Minaur and captained by Lleyton Hewitt, who played for the Australians the last time they took home the Davis Cup crown in 2003.

Guess what? In their 13th career head-to-head Davis Cup tie – in a series dominated by Australia, 8-4 – it was Italy who prevailed 2-0, in back of a pair of impressive performances by 44th-ranked Matteo Arnaldi and the World No. 4 Sinner.

Arnaldi gained a valuable point for Italy by outlasting No. 40 Alexei Popyrin, 7-5, 2-6, 6-4, that set the tone for the Italians. Then, Sinner delivered the knock-out punch and clinched the Davis Cup crown for Italy with an impressive 6-3, 6-0 triumph over World No. 12 de Minaur.

“It has been an incredible feeling I think for all of us and obviously we are really happy,” said Sinner, soon after securing his victory that clinched the 2023 Davis Cup title for his team.

“We kept together everything and obviously yesterday we went from one point away from being out and now we can celebrate the win. I think we can all be very, very happy.”

Sunday’s final was the 13th Davis Cup meeting between Australia and Italy, but just the first in 30 years since 1993. The teams met 12 times between 1928 and 1993, with the longest span between ties in that time being 19 years between 1930 and 1949. Australia won eight of the 12 previous meetings, including three of the last four since 1976, when Italy defeated Australia in the Interzonal semifinals before going on to defeat Chile in the final for their only title to date.

As this year’s Davis Cup final took shape, Arnaldi faced Popyrin in a nervy opening rubber. They had previously split two ATP Tour-level matches – once on clay and once on hard court – and their familiarity with each other’s games showed.

Arnaldi jumped out to an early 3-1 lead in the opening set after an early break of his opponent, but was unable to consolidate the break and the two competitors were back on serve. He gained another break-point opportunity to close out the first set, ahead 5-4 (0-40), but Popyrin was up to the challenge and erased each break point with conviction. The Australian held serve aided by a booming first ace to level the set at 5-all. Soon, Arnaldi erased two break points on his serve and hit a swing volley winner to hold for 6-5. Then, he closed out the 55-minute set by raising the level of his game just in time to break Popyrin for the second time to win the first set 7-5.

As the second set began, Popyrin broke Arnaldi and consolidated it for a quick 2-0 advantage. He broke Arnaldi, again, for the third time to complete a 10-point battle and pushed ahead 3-0. Popyrin fought off a break point and held his serve for 4-0 as the unforced errors continued to pile up for Arnaldi. Soon, Popyrin held for 5-1 with a series of clinical but powerful forehand groundstrokes that pinned Arnaldi deep behind the baseline and, finally, forced him into netting an eighth-shot return. Then, he closed out the 35-minute middle set, 6-2, aided by his seventh ace and and another Arnaldi unforced error.

It was on to a one-set shootout, and at 1-1, Arnaldi fought off two breaks – eight overall in the third set – to hold serve for a 2-1 lead. Then, Popyrin held steady at 2-all after hitting his ninth ace but Arnaldi countered with his 32nd  winner to remain on hold at 3-2 as the rubber reached the two-hour mark. Later, Popyrin gained two break-points at 15-40, but Arnaldi erased both, the second on a service winner. He gained a crucial hold for 4-3 after Popyrin hit a pair of backhand returns wide of their marks. Then, Popyrin’s third double fault gave Arnaldi a big break point but the Australian saved it with a service winner and went on to superbly hold for 4-all with a solid forehand winner.

Next, Popyrin gained a big break point at 30-40 but it was saved by Arnaldi’s fifth ace. The Italian gained a huge hold for 5-4 after Popyrin weakly netted a second-serve second-shot return. Soon, Arnaldi gained a match point after Popyrin hit a third-shot forehand long and wrapped up an emotional two-hour, 27-minute 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 victory with a backhand winner – his 13th – that Popyrin was unable to keep in play.

At the start of the season, the 22-year-old Arnaldi had played only one ATP Tour-level match after plenty of seasoning on the Challenger Tour circuit. Now, the one-time Next Gen ATP Finals qualifier was a legitimate Top-50 player, who performed admirably under the world spotlight of the Davis Cup final and managed to pull off the biggest win of his career – improving to 3-1 in Davis Cup singles.

Arnaldi’s triumph over Popyrin was vindication after he let slip three match points against Botic van de Zandschulp in Italy’s 2-1 quarterfinal win against the Netherlands on a Thursday.

“I didn’t play much in the last few weeks, so I was happy after the first match even if I lost,” an exhausted but proud Arnaldi said in his on-court interview. Of his victory over Popyrin, he added: “It was very emotional for me. It means a lot for me and for our country. I just won one of the most important matches in my life.”

Later, in his press conference, Arnaldi said it was important for him to play every point, “to stay there, and try something.

“At the end it worked. I’m sorry for Alexei, because he deserved to win, for sure. He was playing better. But sometimes Davis [Cup] is like this. I had my team cheering a lot, and I think that helped a lot.”

Meanwhile, Popyrin’s feelings – and those of his Aussie teammates – could be summed up in one sentence. “I let it slip, and that’s something in Davis Cup Finals, it hurts,” he admitted.

With the Italians holding a huge 1-0 lead, it was up to their team leader Sinner to try to repeat his semifinal performance, when he took the court against Australian No. 1 de Minaur with a chance for Italy to win its first Davis Cup title in 47 years.

Sinner wasted little time in taking control of the rubber. He broke de Minaur with a nifty but effective lob shot winner to go ahead 2-1 and consolidated it to extend his lead to 3-1. Later, ahead 5-3, Sinner gained three set points against de Minaur and cashed in on his second to win the 45-minute opening set, 6-3, that put the Italians within a set of winning their first Davis Cup title since the days of non-playing captain Nicola Pietrangeli and players Corrado Barazzutti, Paolo Bertolucci and Adriano Panatta, who were all part of Italy’s 1976 Davis Cup championship team.

Statistically, Sinner played a pretty solid opening set. He hit 16 winners to six unforced errors, won 71 percent of his first-serve points, saved the only break point he faced and broke de Minaur twice.

As the second set unfolded, Sinner wasn’t no time in breaking de Minaur in the second game for a 2-0 advantage as the rubber reached the one-hour mark. He confidently consolidated the break for a commanding 3-0 advantage after de Minaur netted a doable return.

Then, Sinner went ahead a double break lead after de Minaur netted an 11th-shot backhand and, again, he consolidated for a commanding 5-0 lead. Finally, Sinner put away game, set, match and championship for Italy, with his 6-3, 6-0 victory in an economical hour and 23 minutes. Impressive from both wings, he finished with 25 winners to just nine unforced errors.

Not only did Sinner remain undefeated against de Minaur in six career meetings, he won 20 of his last 22 matches of the 2023 season, following the US Open. It’s a remarkable run that included a pair of ATP 500 titles in Beijing and Vienna and a runner-up finish to Djokovic last week in the Nitto ATP Finals. The 22-year-old Sinner capped off his incredible season with a personal-best 64-15 win-loss record and a World No. 4 ranking after starting the year at No. 15.

As the Italian team, which also included Sonego, Simone Bolelli and Lorenzo Musetti, celebrated alongside Arnaldi and Sinner, team captain Filippo Volandri reflected on the significance of Italy’s historic title victory. He said: “Really thankful to have these guys. Really proud to have these guys. You’ve been here for all these two years and I really have to say thanks to the crowds, to Italy, for all the support they gave us. We had to manage with a lot of emergencies in these two years, but we did it and we did it like a family.”

Just before the trophy ceremony, Team Italy welcomed injured star Matteo Berrettini onto the court to join their celebration. Sinner spoke for everyone when he said of Berrettini: “Huge thanks to Matteo. He’s had a very tough year with a lot of injuries. It means a lot to us that he came here for all of us. He gave us a lot of positive energy. Thanks Matteo.

“All the time, we kept everything together. Yesterday, we were one point away from being out. Today, we get to celebrate the win. We are very, very happy.”

By the numbers

Before Sunday’s title final, Australia and Italy had met in the Davis Cup final three times – in 1960, 1961 and 1977 – with Australia winning on all three occasions for their 16th, 17th and 24th titles respectively.

“Quotable …”

“Match of my life? I don’t know, but it’s for sure very, very important. You know, as I say, it helps a lot the last competition that it’s a team competition, because you get a lot of energy from your teammates, from the whole team, and then the crowd is different, too.”

Jannik Sinner of Italy on what it was like to play World No. 1 Novak Djokovic of Serbia with a berth in the Davis Cup final riding on the outcome.