Berrettini leads Italian men's youthful renaissance

 - Simon Cambers

After a golden era for Italy's women, Berrettini finds himself the older statesman of a new generation of Italian men chasing major success

Matteo Berrettini, Roland Garros 2020, first round© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

Take a quick look at the men’s draw for this year’s Roland-Garros and you could be forgiven if you thought the event was being played in Rome instead of Paris.

Italian men are littered across the main draw, with 10 of them making it in by right and two coming through qualifying.

Only France with 18 – seven of which are wildcards – and the United States with 13 have more players in the field, with Spain, led by Rafael Nadal, alongside Italy on 10.

Italy has a long tradition at Roland-Garros – Nicola Pietrangeli won back-to-back titles in 1959 and 1960 and Adriano Panatta won in 1976 . But after Italian women led the way for a decade, with Francesca Schiavone winning in Paris in 2010 and Flavia Pennetta at the US Open in 2015 – the men have taken over.

With 13 Challenger Tour events in Italy, young players, in particular, are able to play at a top competitive level without the cost of travelling abroad, while the Italian Federation is actively ensuring its emerging players receive wild cards into events.

While only 24, Matteo Berrettini is already becoming the older statesman of Italian tennis. He cruised into the second round at Roland-Garros with a 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 victory over Vasek Pospisil of Canada on Tuesday.

The seventh seed is the highest-ranked Italian, but with the likes of Jannik Sinner – who crushed David Goffin in the first round – and 18-year-old Lorenzo Musetti – who beat Stan Wawrinka in Rome – fast rising, he almost feels as though he is getting old.

“Yeah, now it's crazy, until last year I was the young one,” Berrettini said. “Now these two are with big steps stepping in. When I had their age, I was starting, I was playing Futures.

"I'm older, but I still didn't have so many experiences. This is my third Roland-Garros, and I'm 24. Probably them at 24, they would have played already maybe six Roland-Garros.

“It's definitely different. But I'm feeling that still I have a little bit more experience because I've been in the tour a little bit more. These two are really young and impressive.”

For Berrettini, Italian men’s resurgence is down to a combination of factors.

“Obviously you have to have the guys that are good enough to play this kind of tennis at this level,” he told reporters at Roland-Garros on Tuesday.

“At the same time it's a consequence, I think, of what happened two years ago with Marco (Cecchinato, who reached the semi-finals at Roland-Garros in 2018) a little bit, what the [Italian] federation did for the younger ones like me, Lorenzo Musetti, and Jannik Sinner.

Lorezno Musetti, Roland-Garros 2019© Pauline Ballet/FFT

"Then all the great job that all the coaches are doing with the older ones, like (Salvatore) Caruso and (Stefano) Travaglia."

The abundance of Challenger Tour events has been a key factor. For many countries, which don’t have any events, their players are forced to travel, incurring immense cost with no guarantee of success. In Italy, they can stay at home for long periods without losing out on competition.

“I think we are the second, maybe first country for Challengers after the US,” Berrettini said. “The federation guarantees wild cards for the younger ones. It's important also if you have the ranking to play, you don't have to travel too much. You can be in Italy, in Europe, and it's a big thing. I mean, you're going to get, like, less tired.

“(It is) one thing… going (to) China, being there for two months. (It is another) thing being in Europe, Italy, especially for two months. This is really great. It's great for everyone, especially for the younger ones, because they can have a chance to play a high level since the really beginning.”

Italy is also looking to the long-term, too. Berrettini has been with his coach, Vincenzo Santopadre, for 10 years; Sinner has had Ricardo Piatti in his corner since he was 13 and Musetti has been with Simone Tartarini for several years already.

Matteo Berrettini, Roland Garros 2020, practice© Philippe Montigny/FFT

The Nitto ATP Finals will be held in Turin for five years, starting in 2021, and Italian tennis is booming.

“I'm really happy for the Italian crowd,” Berrettini said. “Once one player is losing, they have five or six to follow. It's really good for the moment. It's really good, if you think about the Davis Cup.

“It's really good for myself because it pushes me to achieve more and more. That's one of the main things. We are helping each other. One week one is winning, the other week the other one is winning. We want to push each other for the best.”

And Berrettini also said the performances of the Italian women had inspired the men.

“It was really impressive, was really great period that we been like some years ago with (Schiavone), with Flavia (Pennetta), with Sara (Errani), with Roberta (Vinci),” he said. “I think we had a great period for the girls. Now we hope to have the same period with the guys.”