Thanasi Kokkinakis has been ruled out of the Davis Cup finals this week in a crushing blow to Lleyton Hewitt and the Aussie team's hopes of going one better than last year. Australia will take part in the eight-team finals of the Davis Cup competition starting on Wednesday, looking to better their runner-up finish in 2022.
But Hewitt will be without one of his most experienced players after Kokkinakis suffered an ankle injury at the NSW Open earlier this month. The Aussies announced their five-man team on Tuesday, with Alexei Popyrin replacing Kokkinakis.
'SAD TO SEE': Tennis fans react to brutal development for Alicia Molik
"(Kokkinakis) played a tournament in Sydney a few weeks ago and twisted his ankle," Australia captain Hewitt said in a statement. "He was working through that, and then he had another little setback in training about a week ago."
World No.12 Alex de Minaur will spearhead Australia's campaign, which begins with a quarter-final clash against the Czech Republic on Wednesday (Thursday AEDT). Jordan Thompson Max Purcell, and doubles specialist Matt Ebden make up the rest of the Aussie squad.
Hewitt said he still felt confident despite the late change. "To be honest, we had a lot of options, so I feel very comfortable with Alexei coming in," he said. "He's had his career-best year on the ATP Tour this year, and we've got a lot of options in our singles but also in our doubles as well. Whoever we end up putting out there on the court I know is going to perform well and leave it all out there for us, and we've got full belief in all the boys."
Popyrin will make his first Davis Cup appearance since November of 2021, and said he is excited to be competing in the Spanish city of Malaga where he used to live. "No Spanish blood, but I did live here," Popyrin said. "I lived in Alicante for five years where Demon (de Minaur) lives, and lived actually in Marbella for another five years. I'm kind of a local here now - most of my best friends are from this area, from Andalucia. It's basically a home tournament for me."
Popyrin is currently World No.40 and Australia's second-highest ranked male player. With de Minaur to play one singles rubber, Hewitt will need to decide who plays the other out of Popyrin, Thompson (World No.56) and Purcell (45). Ebden and Purcell, who won the Wimbledon crown together in 2022, will play the doubles.
Lleyton Hewitt and Australia looking to go one better at Davis Cup finals
Hewitt copped some flak for showing loyalty to Kokkinakis during the group stage in September. The Aussie captain opted to play Kokkinakis in their first tie against Great Britain, despite having higher-ranked players Thompson and Purcell at his disposal.
Kokkinakis went down to Jack Draper as Australia lost the tie, before he was replaced by Purcell in the second. But Hewitt produced a tactical masterstroke when he opted to bring Kokkinakis back for the all-important tie against Switzerland, which the Aussies won 3-0 to punch their ticket to the finals.
Kokkinakis repaid Hewitt's faith in spades, with the World No.74 defeating Dominic Stricker 6-3 7-5 in the opening rubber. It snapped a run of three-consecutive Davis Cup defeats for Kokkinakis, who felt a wave of relief at finally breaking through for his country.
"Relief, honestly, after the other day, just pure relief," Kokkinakis said after this key victory. "I'm not going to lie, I was fighting some demons there towards the end. If you lose, you feel like you've let everyone down so it's tough, I'm not going to lie."
If Australia get past the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals, they will take on the winner of Canada and Finland in the semis. Hewitt and the Aussie team will be striving to avenge last year's loss in the final to Canada.
"Who knows?" Hewitt said about whether or not his side could go all the way this time. "We gave ourselves a great opportunity last year and the boys got a taste for it. We want to try and push a little bit harder and see if we can climb that mountain and I feel like I've got the boys that are able to do that."
Sign up to our newsletter and score the biggest sport stories of the week.