Lleyton Hewitt’s Australian team has endured a miserable start in its quest to bring the Davis Cup home, after Marin Cilic overcame a brave Alex de Minaur in a remarkable match to secure Croatia’s victory in the preliminary group match in Turin.
After Australia’s Alexei Popyrin suffered 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 attempts thwarted 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 Thursday by the old enemy Cilic.
It closed the Croatians’ 2-0 lead with the Australians so desperate to get something out of the match that they later threw de Minaur, after only a short break, into the remaining doubles to give them a greater chance of still reaching the quarter. . finals.
The bet did not pay off as Croatia swept the draw as Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic took care of de Minaur and John Peers in the doubles, 6-3, 6-1.
The task of reaching the last eight has become much more difficult, after not even the emotional encouragement from Captain Hewitt on the pitch 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, presumably by a 3-0 margin, to give themselves a chance to cope with the last eight.
De Minaur had to pull off some of the magic that had seen him go undefeated in singles in the last edition of the men’s world tennis championships two years ago, and for a while he did just that when he fought back in astonishing fashion. from 6. 1, 3-1 down to take their convincing rubber for a decision.
But the 33-year-old Cilic, who had defeated de Minaur in a US Open thriller three years ago, rediscovered his irresistible form of opening that was to reject Sydneysider in a 130-minute affair.
“Alex is such an amazing fighter and this is not the first time he is coming back in such a fight,” said Cilic, praising the 22-year-old opponent who earlier this year had rejected him on grass at the Queen’s Club.
Popyrin, world number 61, had previously been expected to give the team a flying start against the exhausted Croats, who threw world number 276 Gojo into the singles at late notice.
Still, the high-profile understudy that filled the wounded light man Borna Coric produced the performance of his life over an hour and 49 minutes.
“I had chances in the first and second sets, but I hit some errors on key points and I think it failed me.”
Popyrin had already beaten Gojo in Melbourne in a close three-setter in February and was number three in Australia the obvious choice for Hewitt as a second-string single in the absence of Nick Kyrgios.
He only started his second Davis Cup appearance in confident style, but after earning five break-points on Gojo’s big delivery in the Croatian’s first three service matches, his lack of conversion came back to haunt him.
Popyrin played a bad tiebreaker in the opening set, with a series of unforced errors that cost him the streak, but despite giving 27 unforced errors during the match, he had not been externally threatened on the serve until the 11th match in the second set.
A nervous double fault and a stray backhand suddenly gave Gojo the chance to serve for the match, which the 23-year-old took consciously.
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.