The Davis Cup has a way of marking pivotal moments in a player’s career, unlocking qualities that can sometimes only be accessed while enduring the pressure of carrying the hopes of an entire team, not merely your own. As a raucous crowd inside Málaga’s Palacio de Deportes chanted his name, Jannik Sinner seemed to take a significant step forward as he led Italy to a 2-1 win over Serbia and into a Davis Cup final for the first time since 1998.
In his third battle in 11 days with the world No 1, Sinner trailed Novak Djokovic 4-5, 0-40 on his serve, triple match point down in the final set of an incredible tussle. Somehow, impossibly, he recovered to defeat Djokovic 6-2, 2-6, 7-5. He then returned for the decisive doubles alongside Lorenzo Sonego and the pair defeated Djokovic and Miomir Kecmanovic 6-3, 6-4 to clinch the tie.
Australia, last year’s runners-up, await Italy in Sunday’s final after they defeated Finland 2-0 on Friday.
“I’m just very happy for all of us, for the team, and tomorrow we have a great opportunity,” said Sinner. “We know this, but in the other way, we will try to stay as relaxed as possible, you know, keeping a smile in our head, which is important also, and then also to be happy to be here, no? It’s not so many – for me, it’s the first time that we can play a final in Davis Cup, which means a lot for us.”
Before the tie descended into madness, it began on Saturday afternoon with another brilliant display from Kecmanovic, who sealed the first point for Serbia with an impressive 6-7 (7), 6-2, 6-1 win against Lorenzo Musetti.
The world No 1 and the second-best player in the world over the past few months then went at it again. At the ATP Finals group stage, Sinner duelled with Djokovic for three hours and gained his first victory over the 24-time grand slam champion but the Serb won when it truly mattered, dismantling Sinner to win the final.
This time, Sinner began the match vaporising the ball off both wings, determined to step inside the court and take control of the baseline as soon as possible. The 22-year-old constantly rushed Djokovic with his sheer pace and weight of shot, pushing him from on top of the baseline as he breezed through the set.
Djokovic was clearly flat, but he began to find sufficient intensity in the second set as he served excellently and his defence began to bring errors from the Italian. The 36-year-old finished the set on top of the baseline, unloading on his forehand as he forced a third set.
By the final set, the level had skyrocketed, with both players serving well and attacking without hesitation. But it always seemed to be heading in one direction. Djokovic continually put pressure on Sinner’s service games while breezing through his own. His 0-40 lead on Sinner’s serve seemed like the inevitable consequence of his performance.
From triple match point down, though, Sinner stood up and showed his toughness. He served out of his mind, attacking and moving forward. He reeled off five points in a row to hold and then as the crowd chanted the Italian’s name, it was Djokovic who baulked under pressure. He ended a poor service game at 5-5 with a failed serve and volley and Sinner closed out an astounding comeback, and victory in the match of his life, with a nerveless hold.
Thirty minutes later, Sinner and Djokovic were warming each other up again before the decisive doubles. Djokovic is simply not as capable in doubles as he is in singles. With their greater serves, weaponry and willingness to constantly close down the net, Sinner and Sonego held their nerve through two tense sets and sealed an incredible tie.
Afterwards, Djokovic heaped praise on Sinner’s performance and offered congratulations but he did not hide his disappointment: “For me personally it’s a huge disappointment, because I take the responsibility, obviously having three match points, being so close to win it. Yeah, it’s unfortunate really. This is sport. When you lose for your country, the bitter feeling is even greater,” he said.
With his two victories, Sinner finishes a fruitful afternoon as the first player to ever defeat Djokovic twice in a day, and he is the first to recover from triple match point down against Djokovic. He also broke the Serb’s 21-match Davis Cup winning streak, which dates back to 2011.
There has never been any doubt about Sinner’s clean, destructive shot-making and the increasingly complete game he was building around those assets. But after starting the year with doubts about his mental toughness against the very best players in the biggest moments, he is ending it by showing that he is capable of competing for all of the biggest titles in the years to come.
First appeared on www.theguardian.com