by By Charles David Mathieu-Poulin
(November 22, 2023) MALAGA, SPAIN –
Both the defending champions and finalists were in action on the first two days of the Davis Cup Finals in Malaga, but their respective quarterfinals ended in contrasting paths. On Monday, Canada, with their No. 1 player Felix Auger-Aliassime sidelined with injury, suffered a surprise 2-1 defeat to Finland, while Australia narrowly escaped the same fate by beating The Czech Republic 2-1 on Tuesday.
Canada vs Finland – The fairytale run continues.
While it was known that Finland’s No. 1 Emil Ruusuvuori had been struggling with an injury before the tournament, most were surprised to see neither him nor Auger-Aliassime on the order of play of the Canada vs Finland tie. This meant that Otto Virtanen and Gabriel Diallo were moved up from No. 2, while Patrick Kaukovalta and veteran Milos Raonic took their spot and stepped on court first.
A former world No. 3 and Wimbledon finalist, Raonic had only played eight matches since July 2021 and had last played the Davis Cup in 2018, but his form had been impressive in his comeback, notably in his home tournament in Toronto. Once again, the 32-year-old Canadian showed no sign of rust, starting the match with four consecutive aces. This was a sign of things to come, as Raonic produced yet another serving clinic, hitting 18 aces and losing only three points on serve in a quick 6-3 7-5 win. When asked about the secret of his serve, Raonic responded with a smile: “Hit it hard and hit it close to the line.”
This win gave Gabriel Diallo the chance to clinch up the tie for Canada. The young Canadian, who had impressed in the Group Stage in September, was also nursing an injury he sustained a few weeks back. He was facing Otto Virtanen, one of the Cinderella stories of the 2023 Davis Cup, who had perfect 3-0 record himself two months back in Split.
Much to the delight of the thousands of Finnish supporters who had made the trip to Malaga, Virtanen showed from the get-go how he had gone undefeated on the indoor courts of the Group Stage. Playing first strike tennis, he surprised Diallo with missile returns and big serving, breaking early and never looking back to win the first set 6-4.
The second set was much closer, as both players held serve comfortably until 4-4. Once again, Virtanen was the first to get an opportunity, getting up to 0-30 and having two break points in the ninth game. But Diallo, with the support of a smaller-but-mighty Canadian cheering squad, managed to save the break points and hold for 5-4. After an easy hold by the Finn, the Canadian couldn’t repeat the feat in his next serving game, getting broken to give Virtanen a chance to serve for the match. Despite a spirited fight by the Canadian to go up 0-30, the Finn racked up the last four points under thunderous chants, forcing a deciding doubles rubber.
There was once again uncertainty as to whom would step up on court for the doubles match. While Canadians kept their pairing of Pospisil and Galarneau, Finland switched their original duo to have red-hot Virtanen partner with veteran Heliovaara. It turned out to be one of the best choices in the history of Finland in Davis Cup.
The Finnish duo, with the help of their very loud supporters, played with incredible energy and put a lot of pressure on Canada, especially on Pospisil who was dealing with a right shoulder injury. The Canadian was struggling on serve and got broken three times in the match, including when serving at 5-6 in the first set and 3-4 in the second. It was all Finland needed to win 7-5 6-3 on a Virtanen ace, sending the team to their first ever Davis Cup Finals semifinal.
In the post match interview, Heliovaara confirmed that he and Virtanen had never played a single point together before Tuesday: “We went through the signs and the tactics just 15 minutes before the match. But that’s sometimes what works the best. Let it happen. No expectations. Just do your best. Be a good teammate. We did exactly that.’’
Australia vs The Czech Republic : Escape Artist
On Wednesday, Australia and The Czech Republic met in the Davis Cup for a 10th time, with Australia holding a heavy 8-1 lead in the head-to-head. Both teams have had major success in this competition in the past, both having been ranked No. 1 on the Davis Cup rankings.
The Czech Republic was coming in hot, having won their last 10 matches, including a perfect 9-0 record at the Group Stage in September. Tomas Machac, who enjoys the fast indoors conditions, came up first against Jordan Thompson. Machac took control right from the start, breaking the Australian in the first game. That one break was all it took, as nine holds later, the Czech won the first set 6-4.
The series of holds continued in the second set, as both players didn’t face any break points until 4-4. There again, it was Machac who got the break first, on his fifth break point of the game, to serve for the match. Despite being down 30-15, Thompson finally got his first break of the match to level things out at 5-5. But that only delayed the inevitable, as Machac broke again and then held to 15 to win his fifth Davis Cup match of the season and give The Czech Republic a 1-0 lead.
Jiri Lehecka was also coming in with a stellar record in Davis Cup in 2023, being 5-0 in the Qualifiers and Group Stage. But the Czech was facing his biggest test yet in Alex de Minaur, Australia’s No. 1 and world No. 12. The Australian had won 8 of his last 10 matches in the highest stages of Davis Cup and is known for his relentless fighting spirit.
It seems like the Czech success would continue early on, as Lehecka’s aggressive game managed to consistently hit through de Minaur’s world class defense. The Czech was the first to break for 3-2 and seemed to cruise until serving for the first set. That’s where it became more complicated, as the pair entered a marathon game with 8 deuces, including five breakpoints for de Minaur. But it was Lehecka who managed to close it out on his fifth set point and bring The Czech Republic one set away from the semifinals.
It seemed like the second set would follow the same scenario, as winners kept flying off Lehecka’s racket to get a break for 2-1. Once again, it is only while serving for the set, and this time the match, that things got harder for the Czech. While de Minaur stayed very solid, Lehecka played a loose game to get broken at love, giving some newfound life to the Australian and his fans. Two games later, the two players entered a very key tiebreak, with de Minaur taking an early lead and never looking back to even the match one set apiece.
Momentum was now on Australia’s side, as de Minaur took an early 2-0 lead in the third set. But Lehecka hadn’t said his last word, as the Czech regained his big-hitting game to win three consecutive games and go up 0-40 on the Australian’s serve. But this match had more twists in store, and the Australian went on to win five points in a row to hold for 3-3. After four more holds, the match was tied at 5-5 in the third set, and that’s when de Minaur stepped into another gear. Notably, he showcased his speed in a spectacular defensive point to go up 15-30 on Lehecka’s game, leading to a break. The Australian then held comfortably to keep his team’s hopes alive and send the tie to a deciding doubles.
“I’m always going to fight until the end. I think my reputation is quite strong when it comes to these types of situations,” de Minaur said post-match. “It’s always special representing your country, and I hope everyone in the team, everyone back home sees what it means.”
With former Wimbledon champions Max Purcell and Matthew Ebden in their corner, Australia entered the doubles confident in their ability to clinch the tie. The experience of the duo showed as they played a more crafty and creative game than their opponents, winning the first set 6-4 with flawless serving. In the second set, Lehecka and Pavlasek continued to fight, saving break points in three of their first four service games. But the Australians continued to hold comfortably all the way to 5-5, where their superior doubles game prevailed to get an important break. One more easy service game later, the Australian duo won 6-4 7-5, winning the tie 2-1 after more than seven hours of spectacular play in Malaga.
Australia will now be a clear favorite in its semifinal against Finland on Friday. The two other quarterfinals will be played tomorrow, with Jannik Sinner making his entrance as Italy will face the Netherlands at 10am, followed by Serbia, with world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, against Great Britain at 4pm.