As Filippo Volandri reflected on his first Davis Cup by Rakuten tie as captain of Italy, it was with measured satisfaction. His team, brimming with potential but untested in this competition, delivered a crucial Group Stage victory to open their Davis Cup by Rakuten Finals 2021 campaign.
“It was the first time for many sides,” Volandri said. “First time for me, first time for [Lorenzo] Sonego, first time for [Jannik] Sinner, first time for Lorenzo [Musetti], first time for this couple [Musetti and Fognini]. We had a lot of ‘first times’, but we are really, really happy.”
And with good cause. To the delight of the vast majority at the Pala Alpitour Arena in Turin, the hosts posted a 2-1 victory over USA to put themselves in prime position for a quarter-final berth heading into Saturday’s second Group E clash with Colombia.
Debut duo Sonego and the irrepressible Sinner served up straight-sets singles victories against Reilly Opelka and John Isner respectively – a feat worthy of note according to Fognini, who stressed that Davis Cup really does test players in unique ways.
“Everybody should know the first time, it's really difficult,” said the 34-year-old, who partnered Musetti in the doubles, adding of his partner: “I am happy that I'm old and he's the young one.
“I mean, I'm in the new generation, inside the new generation. Even if Matteo [Berrettini] is not here, I think for the future we have a really good, young team. Hopefully I will be part with them before I say goodbye.”
As Davis Cup debuts go, Sonego could not have scripted it better. The 26-year-old, twice a member of Italy’s squad without playing in the past two years, finally stepped out on court within walking distance of his home in Turin and handed Italy a crucial opening win over Reilly Opelka.
“It’s for sure the best tennis match in my life because I play at home,” Sonego said. “I live 200 meters from here. This for me is an amazing, amazing moment – I enjoyed every single moment in the court.”
It’s for sure the best tennis match in my life because I play at home. I live 200 meters from here. This for me is an amazing, amazing moment – I enjoyed every single moment in the court
Sonego played virtually flawless tennis against some monstrous ball striking from Opelka, going unbroken and producing just three unforced errors in the 63, 76(4) win.
“I [played] without pressure because I wanted only to enjoy this moment, because the captain chose me for this match,” he added. “This is unbelievable – it’s for sure my most emotional moment. It was a dream play in Turin this tournament because this my city. I love this city, this country.
“I like to play for our team, for Italy. I have a big team with lot of friends – we are really together: we win and we lose together. If we are together, we are the best.”
It speaks to the pedigree in this Italian team that Sonego, a player ranked No.27 in the world, could be considered an outside shot for a singles spot in Filippo Volandri’s side before Berrettini was ruled out through injury. But if there was any doubt left about the formidable talent at Volandri’s disposal at these Finals, Sinner removed it in emphatic fashion.
Isner, beaten 62, 60 in what he admitted was the most one-sided defeat he could remember, conceded: “I definitely ran up against a buzz saw today. He was entirely too good.
“I didn't really have a chance out there. There’s not many times I can think back where I didn't at least give myself a shot, a chance to maybe turn things around in a match. That was the case today. Of course, all the credit goes to him. He's an incredible talent, and I think more importantly than that, he's a very, very nice kid, too.”
I'm playing for our country, something different. I always watched in front of the TV the guys who play for Italy. Now I'm here trying to make the best what I can do. Today it went very well – it is very special
For Sinner, the victory was more than just another fine performance for this process-focused 20-year-old. To produce a display so dominant in front of his compatriots was a special moment.
“It means a lot because I'm playing for our country, something different,” said the world No.10, who ranked the win among the top five matches of his season. “You play not alone, you play for a group. You have a lot of responsibility. I always watched in front of the TV the guys who play for Italy. Now I'm here trying to make the best what I can do. Today it went very well – it is very special.
“It's not like a normal match day, for sure,” he added. “People see me, everyone says that I'm relaxed, but I'm not because I'm human being and we are nervous. We have a lot of pressure. For us the singles are very, very important because I think we have great singles players. We can make changeups, as well, with Fognini, with Musetti, obviously me and Sonego. Everybody is a great player.”
But there is no time for resting on laurels. Volandri and his newly-minted squad must return on Saturday and deliver victory against Colombia to guarantee their spot in Monday’s quarter-finals. Such a quick turnaround is what makes the team element of Davis Cup so important – and that extends beyond the captain and his players.
“Obviously I'm not alone,” Volandri said. “I have a big team on my back. We have psychologists, we have the coaches, which is quite new for the Italian team. We share a lot of information, and they help me to do my job. They work hard every day with the players. I want to include them in the team. I think the cooperation is not a secret, but it's the thing that helps me a lot.”