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Jannik Sinner relished his role as Italy’s national hero after guiding his country to their first Davis Cup title for 47 years.
When Sinner was staring at three match points against Novak Djokovic on Saturday with Italy 1-0 down to Serbia, it appeared hugely improbable that he would be lifting the trophy 24 hours later.
But the world number four somehow recovered to defeat Djokovic, repeated the feat in doubles along with Lorenzo Sonego and then saw off Australia’s Alex De Minaur 6-3 6-0 on Sunday to clinch a 2-0 victory.
That sparked joyous celebrations among Sinner and his team-mates and the Italian-dominant crowd at a packed and vibrant Palacio de Deportes Martin Carpena in Malaga.
The victory earned Italy just their second Davis Cup title after success in 1976 as they continue to reap rewards from their heavy investment in men’s tennis in recent years, while for Australia it was more disappointment after their 2-0 loss to Canada in the final 12 months ago.
Sinner has elevated himself to the status of biggest challenger to Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz for the major titles and his performances here will send him into 2024 on a huge high.
“This is a really important win for me and for the whole team and Italy together,” he said. “We felt the pressure. We had a lot of responsibility. But still we managed. We were excited. Obviously everyone is really happy about the end result.
“I came here with confidence. I gave 100 per cent, all what I had, and I think the whole team, they pushed each other, and this is maybe our key why we are standing here with this trophy.”
It was fitting that it was Sinner, who had won both singles and doubles rubbers in the quarter-finals and semi-finals, was the man to seal it.
Given Australia’s strength in doubles, though, the crucial win may have been Matteo Arnaldi’s in the opening rubber against Alexei Popyrin.
Nerves were all too evident in a clash of two young players inexperienced in the unique pressure-cooker of Davis Cup, but it was 22-year-old Arnaldi who ultimately handled it better to win 7-5 2-6 6-4.
Popyrin, 24, seemed to have a grip on the match after losing the opening set and had eight break points in the decider, but Arnaldi was rewarded for bold play at the big moments and it was his opponent who tightened up when it really mattered.
A tearful Arnaldi said: “It’s very emotional, more because a very important person passed away a month ago for me and my girlfriend so this is for him. I think now I won one of the most important matches in my life. I’m sorry for Alexei, because he deserved to win, for sure.”
Popyrin was distraught, saying: “It’s heartbreaking. I let it slip, and it hurts.”
De Minaur had had a day extra to prepare for the clash than Sinner but had lost all five previous matches against the Italian and had no answer to the 22-year-old’s power.
Australian captain Lleyton Hewitt, part of their last title-winning team 20 years ago, rued another near miss, saying: “Obviously it’s disappointing for the boys. The first match out there today could have gone either way.
“Jannik, he’s played awesome all week. He backed up what he did yesterday against Novak and played extremely good tennis.
“I’m super proud of all the boys and the support staff and the team. We did absolutely everything we possibly could have, and we have come agonisingly close yet again.”
De Minaur vowed to make it third time lucky, saying: “We are very, very close. It’s stinks like hell. Again, like I said last year in this same position, we’ll be back. We’ll get this. We’ve got a very, very strong future ahead of us.”
To do that they will have to get past Italy, though, and they have other young players waiting in the wings.
Sinner said: “We are all very young. We are really hungry to try to win it one more time for our life, but in another way, having this feeling at least once, it is a really special feeling.”