By Ian Chadband
Alex de Minaur and Thanasi Kokkinakis have both succumbed in the dramatic ‘tennis Ashes’ as an inspired British team swept to victory over Australia in their Davis Cup Finals group stage clash.
But the Australians were belatedly indebted to a crucial doubles win for Matt Ebden and Max Purcell which reduced the final deficit to 2-1 and left captain Lleyton Hewitt still believing his team, while on the back foot, can make it to the finals in November.
Cheered on by their home fans in Manchester on Wednesday (Thursday AEST), exciting new boy Jack Draper first outstayed Kokkinakis 6-7 (8-6), 6-3, 7-6 (7-4) in a classic big-hitting duel before Dan Evans repelled a stirring comeback from Australian ace Alex de Minaur to prevail 6-1, 2-6, 6-4.
But 2022 Wimbledon doubles champions Ebden and Purcell then rekindled their old partnership to beat Evans and Neal Skupski 7-6 (7-5), 6-4, a victory that at least left the team buoyed after a disappointing start to their bid to surpass last year when they reached their first final since 2003, eventually beaten by Canada.
Needing a top-two finish in this week’s group-stage round-robin just to make it to the last eight in Malaga again, the Aussies have to rebound immediately on Thursday in a must-win duel with France and then also beat Switzerland on Saturday if they are to be sure of making it.
But with every game, set and match result during the week counting, the duo knew their doubles victory could yet prove key for the Australians.
Alex de Minaur congratulates Daniel Evans after their Davis Cup rubber in Manchester.Credit: Getty Images
“Obviously GB won the day but we knew a win in this last rubber could be the difference at the end of the week so we really had to bring it and have to play great,” said Ebden, who had just returned from playing in the US Open doubles final.
The hosts, playing in front of a partisan 9000 crowd in the AO Arena, caused a surprise by dropping their No.1 Cameron Norrie and all-time great Andy Murray from Wednesday’s line-up but were left hailing their fresh prince in 21-year-old Draper after Kokkinakis had served for the match in the final set of the opening rubber.
Draper also then roared back from 4-2 down in the first match-deciding tie-breaker he had ever played at tour level as he finally prevailed after 2 hours 50 minutes.
It was a high-quality and exhilarating contest between two heavy hitters but Draper, who had just returned from a magnificent breakthrough US Open where he reached the last 16, proved just too strong for the Adelaide man, trusted by Hewitt to play the key starter role despite a disappointing display in last year’s finals.
“I let my nerves get to me a little bit,” admitted Kokkinakis, who will probably now be benched for the France tie. “Hats off to him, he played some good tennis when he needed to but it’s definitely a tough one. It stings for sure.”
De Minaur, who had won seven of his last eight Davis Cup singles and was playing his first match as a world top-12 player, started slowly against the attacking Evans before his familiar never-say-die excellence belatedly began to wear down the Briton, who’d won their only two previous meetings.
But Evans powered away to a 4-0 lead in the decider and managed to hold off the Sydneysider after he’d forged back to 4-3.
“You have good and bad days, tomorrow will be a new day and I’ll do my best to get the boys up and hopefully we can turn things round,” said a glum de Minaur.
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