21/02/2024

Alexei Popyrin celebrates with Lleyton Hewitt after taking down Finland's Otto Virtanen. (Photo: Tennis Australia X)

The well-renowned ‘Never say die’ attitude is the mantra for when Australian athletes compete on the sporting scene as more often than not they are attached to the underdog tag.

Australian tennis has been no different over the years as many of the top European nations along with the rise of American talent has widened the gap.

Former world number one Lleyton Hewitt is a reflection of that famous phrase as he created a new meaning for fighting until the very last ball.

Now coaching the Australian Davis Cup team, the two-time grand slam champion helped guide the Aussies to back-to-back Davis Cup finals as they defeated Finland in the semi-finals.

However, it can be quickly forgotten just how close Australia was to bowing out in the previous stage of the tournament.

Requiring victory in the second singles rubber after Jordan Thompson was ousted in straight sets to Tomas Machac, Australian number one Alex De Minaur once again rose to the occasion in the only way he knows how.

Trailing a set and 5-3 against Jiri Lehecka, a courageous but unsurprising comeback saw De Minaur salvage the tie against the Czech Republic to keep the green and gold dream alive.

The hustle, determination, and court coverage displayed by Australia’s 24-year-old golden boy represented what both himself and his country stand for.

Given his chance to shine in favour of Thompson for the semi-final against Finland, Alexei Popyrin impressively held his nerve to take out Otto Virtanen to set the pace in the best-of-three contest.

A real lack of consistency has unfortunately been a difficult barrier to overcome for the Sydney-born hopeful, with his best tennis usually coming to light during the Australian swing in January.

An epic five-set victory over top 10 player Taylor Fritz in the second round of this year’s Australian Open has many wondering why those performances cannot be replicated over a 52-week period.

After his win against Virtanen, Popryin admitted that it was “probably the biggest win of my career so far.” Could that potentially give him a confidence boost from here on out?

Mind you, Australia has reached back-to-back Davis Cup finals without the help of the mercurial Nick Kyrgios, who is still recovering from a long-term knee injury.

At the same time last year, Canada was responsible for breaking Australian hearts in a clean sweep to take out De Minaur and Thanasi Kokkanakis in what was a bitter pill to swallow.

Speaking of coming back from the brink, Italy now stands in the way of Hewitt’s squad from glory, as Jannik Sinner battled back from three match points down to miraculously take down world number one Novak Djokovic and Serbia.

The Italian world number four is in the form of his life right now, winning 10 of his past 11 against top 10 ranked opponents since his semi-final exit to Djokovic at Wimbledon.


The 22-year-old will face De Minaur in one of the singles ties, which doesn’t bode well for the Australian given the head-to-head record between the pair. Sinner has won all five meetings, including a straight-sets victory in last season’s Australian Open, dropping one set out of a possible 13.

It all makes sense considering the match-up doesn’t favour De Minaur, with Sinner likely to control the points with the power generated from his racquet on top of his opponent’s inability to consistently hold serve, especially in the crucial moments.

That said, this tie looks likely to be determined by Alexei Popyrin being able to answer the question of whether he can keep his consistency levels up. The 24-year-old will face a great challenge against Lorenzo Sonego who is expected to take Lorenzo Musetti’s place after suffering a leg injury against Miomir Kecmanović of Serbia.

It will be the first-ever meeting between the two, meaning some unfamiliarity early on should be expected.

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Tomorrow morning’s final may come down to doubles action, where Australia are notoriously known for its strong results in the past.

Matt Edben and Max Purcell are both regularly active during doubles action throughout the ATP circuit, albeit competing mostly with different partners. As Sinner and Sonego are known more for their singles play, Australia could have the edge if the tie is level after singles action.

Both nations have qualified for the final under similar circumstances, not only because De Minaur and Sinner were one game and three match points away from defeat respectively, but they are also missing each of their superstars.

Kyrgios is the obvious omission due to injury as mentioned. For the Italians, 2021 Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini is also missing due to the same injury cloud.

Italy will be searching for its first Davis Cup crown since 1976, while Australia looks to conquer a 20-year drought to claim its first title since 2003 back in Hewitt’s playing days.

If the green and gold are to achieve silverware, that ‘never say die’ approach will undoubtedly make the difference for whoever can cross the finish line first. Can the underdog ferociously bark once more?

An already action-packed week of tennis in the Spanish city of Málaga is steadily poised for one last rollercoaster ride of emotions.

Potential Davis Cup match-ups:

Alexei Popyrin (AUS) v Lorenzo Sonego (ITA)
Alex De Minaur (AUS) v Jannik Sinner (ITA)
Matt Ebden/Max Purcell (AUS) v Jannik Sinner/Lorenzo Sonego (ITA)

Play commences tomorrow morning at 2am AEDT on 9Gem.

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