Croatia has booked a place in the Davis Cup by Rakuten semi-finals for the fifth time in the nation’s history after Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic completed a pulsating 2-1 victory over Italy in the decisive doubles in Turin.
The doubles world No.1s delivered the decisive blow for Vedran Martic’s side at the Pala Alpitour Arena with a 63, 64 victory over Fabio Fognini and Jannik Sinner, who had given the hosts hope in the second singles match by overhauling Marin Cilic 36, 76(4), 63 after Borna Gojo had collected the opening point for Croatia, beating Lorenzo Sonego 76(2), 26, 62.
“It was very tight,” said a delighted Martic. “My players fought so well. I am so proud, and so happy we are in the semis.”
Croatia will now swap Turin for Madrid as they prepare to face either Serbia or Kazakhstan in Friday’s semi-final at the Madrid Arena as their quest for a third Davis Cup crown continues. For Italy, there is the consolation of blooding two new Davis Cup stars in Sonego and the electric Sinner in front of a fervent home support.
I want to congratulate the Italians – they played a great tie, and in that second match [Sinner] came back from a set and a break. And to the crowd: you were unbelievable. Thank you
The world No.10 has made an impressive start to his Davis Cup career this week as Italy’s No.1, but the second match of the tie was the first time he had been called upon to keep the hosts in the contest. By contrast, Cilic was contesting the 61st Davis Cup match of his career, but while the talisman behind Croatia’s 2018 triumph knows the fever-pitch atmosphere of Davis Cup all too well, his 20-year-old opponent was every bit as inspired by the occasion.
In the end, however, it would not be enough for Italy. With the tie all square, Sinner came in for Simone Bolleli in the doubles, but Mektic and Pavic’s pedigree set them apart, a single break in each set securing their spot in the final four.
“It honestly feels incredible,” Mektic said. “I don’t think anyone from us expected to go this far, but we played amazing and I can’t believe we’re going to Madrid.”
“I want to congratulate the Italians – they played a great tie, and in that second match [Sinner] came back from a set and a break,” Pavic said. “And to the crowd: you were unbelievable. Thank you everybody for coming.”
“And we apologise,” Mektic added.
There was an added poignancy to the tie in Turin, which began with both teams and the fans observing a minute of silence to mark the death of long-serving Italian team doctor, Professor Pierfrancesco Parra. A shirt with the message ‘Ciao, Doc’ was draped in front of the Italian bench and the players wore black patches on their shirts in tribute.
Chances were few and far between for both Cilic and Sinner in the opening set of the second singles. The Italian's came and went as early as the opening game, but Cilic capitalised on his one look at the Sinner serve, clinching a break from 40-15 down in fourth game before consolidating for a 4-1 lead.
That was enough to seal the first set, and when Cilic broke again at the start of the second the signs were ominous for Italy. But Sinner hunkered down and stole back the break to level at 2-2, drawing choruses of ‘Ole!’ from the stands, and just when it looked like the effort would all be in vain as the world No.30 broke at 4-4 to leave him serving for the match and the tie, the world No.10 responded with a break to love that brought with it a seismic shift in momentum.
The ensuing tiebreak went Sinner's way, as did Cilic’s next service game, and the Croatian did well to halt the charge with an immediate break back. But with errors flying off Cilic’s racket in the way the winners had in the first, it was Sinner dictating the play and conducting the orchestra, staying rock-solid and fired up as he broke again for a 4-3 lead and once more to seal a vital victory.
It honestly feels incredible. I don’t think anyone from us expected to go this far, but we played amazing and I can’t believe we’re going to Madrid
Gojo laid the foundations for Croatia’s victory with his second singles win of these 2021 Finals: a display of controlled aggression against hometown favourite Sonego even after the Italian got off to a fast start, moving 4-1 up as he outmanoeuvred the hulking 23-year-old in the early exchanges.
But world No.289 Gojo has found the courts to his liking in Turin, backing up his booming serve with some assured rallying from the baseline, and exhibited his impressive turn of pace haring in after a string of floating drop shots from Sonego, whose lead soon evaporated as the set went to a tiebreak settled on a net-cord return that wrong-footed the stranded Italian.
Sonego stormed back in the second, racing out to a 4-0 lead that proved decisive, but with tensions at their height it was the Italian who blinked first, blasting a drive volley beyond the baseline to give up a break, consolidated by Gojo for a 4-1 lead.
Three chances came and went for the Italian to get back on serve at 4-2, but having held on, Gojo broke once more to clinch Croatia’s first point.
“This was special, as is anytime I play in Davis Cup for national team,” Gojo said. “I've said it many times: every win for Croatia is the best win and means the most to me. This is the one now that's my best win. I'm very happy that I was able to get the point for us.”