By Charles David Mathieu-Poulin
(November 25, 2023) MALAGA, SPAIN – Everyone had high expectations of the Italy and Serbia Davis Cup semifinal and it certainly did not disappoint, as Italy qualified for the final in what might become an instant Davis Cup classic.
While everyone was waiting for Djokovic vs Sinner, it was Miomir Kecmanovic and Lorenzo Musetti who got on court first in this tie. Kecmanovic played incredible tennis in the quarterfinals, and it seemed like the Serb would keep the momentum going as he broke in the first game of the match. But Musetti was slowly finding his game as the set progressed, and he broke back right on time at 4-5. A few games later, in a phenomenal tiebreak that saw spectacular tennis by both players, Musetti emerged victorious 9-7 to win the first set.
It seems like the fight took a lot out of the Italian however, as he then struggled to keep up both mentally and physically in the next two sets. From 6-7 2-2 down, Kecmanovic went on a streak of nine consecutive games, finally winning the match 6-7(7) 6-2 6-1 to give Serbia a critical 1-0 lead in the tie. “It wasn’t easy at all to stay positive after the first set,” Kecmanovic revealed. “But I knew that if I wanted to have a chance to win, I had to switch the mindset. 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.’’
Under thunderous applause by the Málaga crowd, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 4 Jannik Sinner then came on court for their third match in eleven days, after exchanging wins last week at the Nitto ATP Finals in Turin. Djokovic was coming into this match having won his last 21 matches and 24 sets in singles in Davis Cup competition, while Sinner had played a crucial role in qualifying Italy for the semifinal with two straight set wins on Thursday.
The Djokovic set streak was in danger right from the start, as Sinner was the first to break for 2-1. The Italian then held after being down 0-30, only to break a second time on a blistering down-the-line backhand return winner. Two holds later, Sinner was taking the set 6-2 over an erratic and low-energy Djokovic.
But at 36-years-old, Djokovic has been in this situation many times before. At 2-1 in the second set, the Serb hit a spectacular backhand winner to come back to deuce on Sinner’s serve, showing emotion for the first time as he raised his fist towards the Serbian supporters. Keeping up on that energy, he then won seven points in a row to take a 4-1 lead. Three games later, we were heading to a third set.
After two lopsided sets, both players held serve for the first nine games of the third set, with Djokovic failing to break in both the third and seventh games despite having a break point. Under pressure at 4-5, Sinner played three uncharacteristic loose points to go down 0-40 and give Djokovic three consecutive match points. One after the other, Sinner found big first serves to erase the match points and then hold for 5-5. The momentum had clearly shifted, and after a failed serve and volley attempt on a second serve, Djokovic got broken in the next game to give Sinner a chance to serve for the match. The Italian took his opening, and after just over two and half hours, won the match 6-2 2-6 7-5 on a missed Djokovic return.
Djokovic and Sinner weren’t done with each other, as both players were chosen to play in the deciding doubles. Just like Thursday, Sinner was paired with Lorenzo Sonego, while Djokovic would play with Kecmanovic in the first doubles of the week for Serbia. The Italians started off strong, playing better doubles and moving well at the net. That energy paid off in the sixth game, where they broke the Djokovic serve to lead 4-2 on their way to winning the first set 6-3.
It seemed like the second set would mirror the first, when Sinner and Sonego got an early break, but Sonego’s enthusiasm got the best of him in the next game when he overplayed a few groundstrokes to get broken right back. The momentum then went Serbia’s way, as they held easily and then got a 0-40 lead on Sinner’s serve. But just like in singles, the No. 1 Italian found some great serves when he needed them most to get through a long service game and level the set at 3-3. As Djokovic grew irritated with the pro-Italy crowd, the Italians were fired up from the last game and broke right away to take a 4-3 lead. One Sonego and one Sinner hold later, the Italians completed their improbable comeback to steal the tie 2-1 and head to the Davis Cup final for the first time since 1998.
In the other semifinal played on Friday, defending finalists Australia took on Finland, who was reaching this stage of the Davis Cup for the first time. The Finns had surprised defending champions Canada in the quarterfinals on Tuesday, despite having their No. 1 player Emil Ruusuvuori sidelined with an injury. Early reports indicated that Ruusuvuori would be back healthy to face off against Alex de Minaur, which was confirmed as the match-ups were released on hour prior to the tie. At No. 2, Australia elected to send Alex Popyrin, who replaced an injured Thanasis Kokkinakis only a few days before the event, to face red-hot Otto Virtanen.
Both Popyrin’s and Virtanen’s games are well suited to fast surfaces, and it showed early as both players held serve comfortably in the first eleven games. It was the Finn who had the first opportunity to break at 6-5, holding a set point. But the Aussie saved it to hold serve and then played a better tiebreak to take the first set 7-6(5). Popyrin kept the momentum going in the second set, breaking twice to win 6-2 and give Australia a 1-0 lead.
This put world No. 12 Alex de Minaur in a position to clinch the tie against against Ruusuvuori. The Australian, who had nearly escaped from a long battle against Czechia on Wednesday, looked a lot more in control in this match, having no less than eleven break points in the first set. The Finn saved eight of those, but it wasn’t enough as de Minaur sealed the set 6-4 on his third set point. The second set followed a similar path, as the Australian broke for a 3-1 lead and never looked back to win 6-3, sending Australia into their second straight Davis Cup Final.
The final between Italy and Australia will be played on Sunday at 4pm local time at Palacio de Deportes José María Martín Carpena in Málaga. The Italians will try to win their first Davis Cup since 1976, while Australia’s last triumph was in 2003.