Australia’s tennis men have defied all the odds with a makeshift doubles pairing steering them to victory over Croatia and into their first Davis Cup final in 19 years on a nerve-shredding evening in Malaga.
After more heroics from Alex de Minaur had pulled Lleyton Hewitt’s team back from the brink with his consummate tie-levelling singles win over Marin Cilic, Jordan Thompson and Max Purcell beat the Olympic doubles champions to seal Friday’s exhilarating 2-1 semi-final win.
It was a triumph straight out of captain Hewitt’s gritty playbook as a doubles pairing who had never played together in the Davis Cup were left staring at defeat before rallying to down the formidable Mate Pavic and Nikola Mektic 6-7 (3-7), 7-5, 6-4.
On Sunday, the Australians will face either Canada or Italy in the final, with the force now seeming to be with Hewitt’s heroes.
“It’s been a long time – we’re a very proud Davis Cup nation and I’m just thrilled for these boys,” Hewitt said on court. “They deserve to go out there and get a chance to play in a final – and now it’s going to happen on Sunday.”
There was shock earlier with news the Wimbledon-winning partnership of Purcell and Matt Ebden wouldn’t be starting, with Hewitt revealing later Ebden had an injury concern.
Yet Thompson, a singles hero in the quarter-final win over the Netherlands, is a fine doubles exponent and proved a nerveless stand-in alongside his fellow Sydneysider pal he has trained with many times.
“There’s nothing fucking like it, mate! Honestly, nothing like it, the best thing I’ve ever experienced!” Purcell told the crowd.
The Croatian duo are one of the top modern partnerships in doubles, having triumphed at Wimbledon and the Olympics last year but the Australians, who didn’t get a sniff of a chance for almost two sets, suddenly came alive.
Thompson fired some dazzling winners as they broke Mektic’s serve from nowhere at 5-5 in the second set to change the course of the match and both then produced a salvo of remarkable winners to break for 4-3 in the third.
It prompted huge celebrations among a small, noisy Aussie fan club in the Palacio de Deportes Jose Maria Martin Carpena, with Hewitt’s team soon celebrating reaching their first final since 2003, when the captain himself spearheaded the triumph over France in Melbourne.
Earlier, de Minaur delivered a masterclass to keep their hopes alive, outplaying Marin Cilic 6-2, 6-2 in a must-win second singles match following Thanasi Kokkinakis’s 6-4, 6-3 defeat by Borna Coric in the opening rubber.
Hewitt had started the day with a pre-tie surprise, bringing in Kokkinakis to replace quarter-final hero Thompson, trusting his extra firepower might discomfit the resurgent world No 26 Coric.
But Kokkinakis’s defeat meant the onus was on de Minaur to continue his stellar run, needing to win his 10th singles rubber out of his last 11 against Cilic, the last man to beat him in the competition in Croatia’s 2021 group victory.
“I know my role,” de Minaur said. “My role is to be tough as nails and be that guy that’s just hopefully going to be getting those tough wins. I have been doing that well for a while, so very proud of myself.”