Berrettini leads on-song Italian quartet

 - Dan Imhoff

World No.9 flies the flag for a stacked bunch, which includes two 19-year-olds and a high achiever at home

Matteo Berrettini, final, Madrid 2021©️ Antoine Couvercelle/FFT

Matteo Berrettini knows there is no surer antidote to a dip in confidence than bagging a trophy.

Witnessing compatriots, who happen to be your good friends, climb doesn’t hurt for added motivation either.

Fortunately for Italian men’s tennis, a collective cause for buoyancy has only surged in recent years, following a mix of youth and experience filling their stocks – and trophy cabinet.

Four in particular – ninth-ranked Berrettini, teenagers Jannik Sinner and Lorenzo Musetti, and late-blooming 26-year-old Lorenzo Sonego – will descend on Paris with high hopes from recent results on Europe’s red clay courts. 

In the shadows of their higher-achieving counterparts on the women’s tour for the past decade, the men have hit their straps and are adept on all surfaces – no longer solely on clay.

For the first time since talk of this renaissance, their standard bearer, Fabio Fognini, has been surpassed by three of the four, with Musetti closing the gap. Italy now boasts nine men in the top 100 of the latest rankings.

“We’re trying to change the identity of our players,” Italy’s Davis Cup captain and former world No.25 Filippo Volandri told AP. “We’re training for modern tennis. That’s why we have players who don’t seem ‘Italian’ in terms of their technical style.

"We’re all advisors available to the players and their coaches and teams. That’s the big change in mentality that the federation made.”

As Sinner and Musetti – the only 19-year-olds in the top 100 – rifled up the order this season, their spearhead of recent years, Berrettini, was dealt a blow.

It was an uncertain couple of months on the sidelines, following an abdominal injury, which forced the 25-year-old’s withdrawal ahead of an Australian Open fourth-round clash with Stefanos Tsitsipas.

In only his second singles tournament back from the injury, after a first-round exit in Monte-Carlo, Berrettini surprised even himself at his quick turnaround when he collected a fourth career title in Belgrade over Aslan Karatsev.

“I proved to myself that I can fight and I can digest tough situations,” Berrettini said upon claiming the title. “I'm able to handle really tough moments. There are moments that all athletes in general have, but I really put myself in the struggle without any fear. I came back stronger.”

A first-time victory over Fognini in his next match, to open his Madrid campaign, was a glimpse at the changing of the guard. By week’s end he had reached his first Masters 1000 final, where he narrowly fell to Alexander Zverev.

“I always say that when you don't see room for improvement, then it would be like a bad day,” Berrettini said after beating Fognini. “I mean, I like to work every day to get better, and the day that I'm gonna see there is no room, then I will probably change something.”

It is an attitude many of his compatriots held and facilitated thanks to the Italian Tennis Federation’s move to share coaching knowledge.

A career-best fourth-round showing at Roland-Garros last year was a mere precursor to the improvements 28th-ranked Sonego would display on clay in 2021. A first tour title on home soil in Cagliari was followed by a maiden Masters 1000 semi-final in Rome, where he beat Andrey Rublev and Dominic Thiem before taking a set off Djokovic.

“At the end of the day, he is showing why he reached his first [Masters 1000] semi-finals,” Djokovic said. “He’s a quality player, not easy to play against him.” 

The world No.1 had even higher praise for Sonego’s countryman, Sinner – the highest-ranked teenager – after seeing him off in Monte-Carlo last month.

Less than eight months ago, Sinner became the first player since Rafael Nadal in 2005 to reach the Roland-Garros quarter-finals on debut and it took the Spaniard to end his campaign.

He has since soared to world No.19, following back-to-back titles in Sofia and Melbourne, his first Masters 1000 final in Miami and a semi-final in Barcelona.

“[He] has got a lot of talent and he has proven that he is the future of our sport. Actually, he is already the present of our sport [having] played a final [of an] ATP Masters 1000,” Djokovic said. “He is making big strides in professional tennis.”

Seven months Sinner’s junior, 76th-ranked Musetti has reached two tour-level semi-finals already this year – including on clay in Lyon last week – and beaten the likes of Diego Schwartzman and Felix Auger-Aliassime. His vanquisher in both semi-finals, Tsitsipas, was also glowing in his appraisal.

“I see him at the top,” Tsitsipas said. “I see no reason he won't be there, but that also will have to do a lot with his mentality and the way he approaches his tennis and how much he works hard to get to the top of the game. I see no reason that he won't be a good player. He has everything.”