Lleyton Hewitt has been praised for an incredibly gutsy call that helped Australia reach the Davis Cup final for the first time in 19 years on Friday. The Aussies came back from a 1-0 deficit to shock the highly-favoured Croatians and surge into the final for the first time since 2003.
A Thanasi Kokkinakis loss followed by a brilliant win from Alex de Minaur over Marin Cilic left the tie at 1-1 heading into the deciding doubles rubber. Australia had earlier been rocked by the news that Matt Ebden wouldn't be able to play if a doubles decider was needed, meaning only one half of the reigning Wimbledon champions in Ebden and Max Purcell would be fit.
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Hewitt was faced with a difficult decision in who to select to replace Ebden, with Australian Open doubles champion Kokkinakis the seemingly obvious choice. But Hewitt made the shock call to go with Jordan Thompson after playing Kokkinakis in the singles instead.
The move proved a masterstroke as Thompson and Purcell shocked Olympic champions Mate Pavic and Nikola Mektic 6-7 (3-7) 7-5 6-4 to send Australia into raptures and the Davis Cup final. It was a triumph straight out of Hewitt's gritty playbook, as a doubles pairing who'd never played together in the Davis Cup were staring at defeat before rallying for victory.
Hewitt later revealed the problem had been an ankle niggle for Ebden which meant "we had to go back to the drawing board and work out a plan that could get the win". His solution worked perfectly.
Thompson, a singles hero in the quarter-final win over the Netherlands, was replaced by Kokkinakis in the opener's role. But as a fine doubles player in his own right, Thompson was selected alongside his pal Purcell - a long-time training partner.
"There's nothing f****** like it, mate! Honestly, nothing like it, the best thing I've ever experienced!" Purcell told the crowd. Thompson suggested a little less colourfully he hadn't minded being dropped from the singles. "Whatever role the team needs me in, I'll do it. I still got to wear the green and gold and alongside Maxie in a do-or-die doubles match," he said.
On Sunday (Monday morning AEDT), the Australians will face Canada in the final. "It's been a long time - we're a very proud Davis Cup nation and I'm just thrilled for these boys," said Hewitt, who'll be looking to oversee a 29th Australian Davis Cup triumph.
"I couldn't be prouder of the whole team. We knew we were the underdogs coming into this today and we like being in that position. It's a place I really enjoyed as a player and also as a captain."
Hewitt was a star of the team when Australia last won the Davis Cup - way back in 2003 against Spain in Melbourne. That was the country's 28th triumph in the competition, and now they have a chance to go after No.29 and $3 million in prize money. Fans flocked to social media to congratulate Hewitt and the Aussie team.
Bloody well done guys!!! Great effort from the VIP this week @alexdeminaur too!! But in the end, Incredible win over Croatia in the doubles to @MaxPurcell98 and @jordanthommmo2 …. Congrats @lleytonhewitt and team @TKokkinakis @mattebden
— Rennae Stubbs OLY (@rennaestubbs) November 25, 2022
Amazing. Go Aussie
— Mary Smith (@CullMary) November 25, 2022
— Todd Woodbridge (@toddwoodbridge) November 25, 2022
Australia are in the final of the World Cup!!! (…of tennis, slogan (c) Gerard Pique). Can you believe it? Terrific win over a stacked Croatian team #DavisCup
— GV (@GoldenViews00) November 25, 2022
Incredible result - did not expect it to go that way in the doubles when Ebden was injured!
— sara evans 💙💛 (@saralmevans) November 25, 2022
I've just woken up in Australia and very surprised with this combo 🧐 Matt not 100% right?
— Rae (@RaeleneStratton) November 25, 2022
19 years ago at Melbourne Park it was Lleyton Hewitt that came back from two sets down, in the Davis cup semi-final against Roger Federer. That will always have clubhouse lead for me, in what being an Aussie and representing our great country means. Rusty refused to be beaten. 👍 https://t.co/kCXJoqKnY6
— Nathan Watson (@N_Watson_) November 26, 2022
Australia advance to Davis Cup final in 19-year first
In the deciding doubles rubber, the Croatian duo didn't give the Aussies a sniff of a chance for almost two sets until they suddenly conjured up inspiration. Thompson fired some tracer bullets down the middle as the Aussies broke Mektic's serve from nowhere at 5-5 in the second set to turn the tie on its head.
Both Aussies then produced a salvo of stunning winners to break for 4-3 in the third set. Pandemonium erupted among a small, noisy Aussie fan club in the 8000 crowd in the Palacio de Deportes Jose Maria Martin Carpena, as Hewitt's team soon celebrated reaching their first final since 2003.
Earlier, de Minaur delivered a masterclass to keep Australia's hopes alive. The Aussie gun outplayed Cilic 6-2 6-2 in a must-win second singles match following Kokkinakis's 6-4 6-3 defeat by Borna Coric.
Kokkinakis' loss meant the onus had been on de Minaur to continue his stellar run, needing to win his 10th singles rubber out of his past 11. Cilic was the last man to beat de Minaur in the competition in Croatia's group victory in 2021.
"I know my role," said de Minaur. "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."
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