Davis Cup 2021: Croatia deny Italian fans in Turin, and Germany gain revenge over GB in Innsbruck
In semis, Croatia now face Serbia or Kazakhstan, Germany meet Russia or Sweden
For one of the younger nations among the 141 that entered the Davis Cup in 2020/21, Croatia has come a long way in a relatively short time.
Since it first joined the tournament’s family in 1993—before which, Croatian players represented Yugoslavia—the nation has featured such familiar players as Goran Ivanisevic, Mario Ancic, Ivan Ljubicic and Ivo Karlovic.
With a population less than half that of London, Croatia went on to become the first unseeded nation to win the title in the 2005.
And come the next season, that country’s most successful player featured for the first time. Marin Cilic has gone on to notch up a record 13 years, 29 ties and 42 match-wins, and at the age of 33, has again sat alongside compatriots a decade his junior as Croatia emerged as the top nation in Group D, then headed past one of the favourites for the semis, Italy.
And while Cilic won just one of his singles rubbers—he beat Alex de Minaur in his opener—he was surely an inspiration to his two young associates, Nino Serdarusic and Borna Gojo, who defied their mid-200s rankings to win their rubbers. Certainly Gojo could take a bow after his outstanding performance against world No27 Lorenzo Sonego in the first rubber of their quarter-final, and in front of the partisan Italian fans.
The No279 played well above his ranking to hit 20 winners, playing aggressive, net-rushing tennis to win 7-6(2), 2-6, 6-2 after two and a quarter hours.
It put Croatia on the road to the semis for a fifth time, and while Cilic looked set to sweep to a win against 20-year-old Jannik Sinner, the Italian crowds worked their magic to inject a little extra aggression and fight into their No10-ranked home man. From a set and a break down, Sinner came back to win, 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-3.
However, the problem for all the other nations facing a 1-1 score-line is that Croatia boasts one of the best doubles teams in the world. Sure enough, Olympic and Wimbledon champions Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic, went on to win their third rubber of the tournament, beating a gutsy Sinner and Fabio Fognini, 6-3, 6-4, without facing a break point.
Croatia will now face either Serbia or Kazakhstan in Madrid for a place in the championship tie. And while a Novak Djokovic-led Serbia will remain favourites to come through, despite making the knock-out stages as one of the runners-up, Kazakhstan is another nation that often punches above its weight. They too went 5-1 on their way to their sixth quarter-final.
The second quarter-final, still played in the echoing emptiness of Innsbruck’s Olympia-Halle—the resurgent Covid virus ensured closed doors to any fans—brought a replay of an old rivalry: GB versus Germany.
After not contesting a tie for 46 years, 1973 to 2019, the two were meeting for the second consecutive time at the same stage. GB won in 2019 to level the overall head-to-head between the nations at 5-5. Hard to believe, then, that they are two of the oldest member nations of the tournament, dating back to 1900 and 1913.
This time, without Germany’s big star Alexander Zverev, GB were arguably the favourites to win. Both Cameron Norrie—who made it to the ATP Finals in Turin earlier this month—and Dan Evans, ranked 12 and 25 respectively, had put together career-best seasons with their first titles in 2021, while GB has long boasted strong doubles players. This time, it was ATP Finals runner-up, and third in the doubles ranks, Joe Salisbury, alongside Neal Skupski, himself ranked 20.
Evans was up first again, playing not the 54-ranked Dominik Koepfer, a leftie, but after a late change to the line-up, the 86-ranked German, Peter Gojowczyk, a right-hander.
It was a first-time meeting between the two men, and started perfectly for the Briton, two breaks, two holds, 4-0, with Evans serving well, and Gojowczyk looking nervous. A love hold sealed the set for Evans, 6-2, in under half an hour: The Briton had dropped just six points on serve.
The second set began as the first, with Gojowczyk playing tense tennis, missing his first serve, struggling to cope with the slow, low bounce of the Evans’ sliced backhand. It earned the Briton an immediate break, and it very nearly became another in the fourth game, but the German fended off two break points with three straight aces.
Evans continued to serve well, held for 3-1, and his return of serve, played with slice, to a great length, and taking the pace out of the ball, earned him another break point. His shot of the match, a pin-point backhand down the line into the extreme corner, converted for 4-1.
Evans made another love hold, and needed just one more game for the rubber. But he would not have to serve again, making another break with some great returns and then another signature backhand pass down the line, 6-1, in 55 minutes.
He afterwards admitted that he had determined to play a cross-court game, keep the balls low, work hard, and he did just that, but it was his speed of reaction against the German serve, his own serving, and those picture-perfect backhand finishes that did the rest. He summed it up: “Probably some of the best tennis I’ve played all year.”
Norrie led Jan-Lennard Struff 1-0 in their head-to-head, having last played him in 2019 in the Auckland semi-finals. But he knew he would have his work cut out against the huge and huge-hitting Struff, and sure enough, there were no nerves on the German side. He hammered down his big serves, and fired off powerful shots from the baseline to keep Norrie off balance and with no rhythm. Struff broke in the second game and led 4-1 before Norrie got his eye in, forced Struff to adjust his serving tactics, and at the fourth attempt, got the break back.
Norrie stepped in, kept switching directions, varied the spin to counter the Struff power. It was all square, 4-4, back on serve.
The Briton had a glimmer of a chance to break before it went to a tie-break, and he harried the Struff serve in the longest game of the match. At last he got his chance, scampered to the net, finished with a smash, and had the break, 6-5.
But it was short-lived as Struff regained his aggression to break back, and while Norrie earned two serves to seal the set in the tie-break, he could not convert. Struff levelled to 6-6, and took the next two points and set, 7-6(6).
Norrie bounced back in the second to level things, 6-3, but fatigue from what has been a long and demanding season seemed to eat into the Briton’s energy, and from 2-2, Struff upped the attack, forcing more errors from Norrie, and swept four straight games to take the rubber, 6-2, after a little over two hours.
So once again, the doubles pairs of both teams would have to prove their worth, with both sides of near equal ranking and achievements. That was reflected in the score, two tie-breaks, both of which could have been won by Salisbury and Skupski but were taken by Kevin Krawietz and Tim Puetz. The Britons had four set points in the first set, losing it 6-7(10), and let a 5-0 lead disappear in the second to concede it, 6-7(5).
There was little to choose between them, not a break in sights. As Puetz said afterwards:
“[It was] just grit, persistence, whatever you want to call it. I thought it was a pretty high level.”
And it was enough to take Germany to the semi-finals for the first time since 2007, where they will play either the hot favourites, Russia, or Sweden, in Madrid.
For the Britons, it is a weary trip home for a much-needed break and some recuperation. After all, the new season is already just around the corner.
Germany beat Great Britain in Innsbruck
Russian Tennis Federation vs Sweden: Thursday, Madrid
[NB SF Saturday in Madrid]
Croatia beat Italy in Turin
Serbia vs Kazakhstan: Wednesday, Madrid
[NB SF Friday in Madrid]