Matteo Berrettini: A Star Emerges?

Matteo Berrettini US Open fourth round

Matteo Berrettini is something of a stranger to the big stage. The Italian only made his debut at a Major at last year’s Australian Open where, as a lucky loser, he lost to Jiri Vesely in the first round in straight-sets. He was then ranked outside the world’s top 120 and would not break into the top 100 for the first-time until March of that year, when he spent a week as the world’s 95th best player after winning a match in Indian Wells, again as a lucky loser.

Thereafter, his ranking slipped back into triple-digit numbers until May, when he was given a wildcard at the Italian Open and beat Frances Tiafoe in the first round in straight sets. Though he was then convincingly beaten in the second round by defending champion Alexander Zverev, he managed to preserve his top 100 ranking. In fact, he bettered it. Shortly after his appearance at the Italian Open, he scored his first wins at a Major, beating Oscar Otte of Germany and former-semifinalist Ernests Gulbis at Roland Garros.

Those victories set up a third-round clash with the seventh-seeded Dominic Thiem. The match, played on the iconic Court 1, was Berrettini’s first experience on a show court at a Major. He acquitted himself well, hitting 39 winners in a four-set defeat to the Austrian, who would go on to reach the final. But his efforts commanded little attention, even in his homeland, as his compatriot Marco Cecchinato stormed into the semifinals, upsetting Novak Djokovic, who had been returning to form, in the last eight.

But it was a week that showed that Berrettini could hold his own at tour-level, a point he reinforced emphatically by winning the title in Gstaad in July, beating second seed Roberto Bautista Agut in the final, without dropping a set. The remainder of 2018 saw no further standout successes for Berrettini, who lost in the first round at the US Open and did not play in the main draw at any of the four hard-court Masters events that dominate the second half of an ATP tour season.
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But he did find himself on the cusp of breaking into the world’s top 50 by the end of the year. And although 2019 started slowly for him as he lost three of his first four matches, he put that behind him by reaching the semifinals in Sofia. And since then, he has gone from strength to strength. He won a Challenger in Phoenix on a hard court and tour-level titles on the clay in Budapest and on grass at the Stuttgart Open, where he held every service game he played and again did not drop a set.

That triumph in Stuttgart was followed by an impressive run to the semifinals at the Halle Open, where it took some of David Goffin’s best tennis to end his challenge. Heading into Wimbledon, thanks to his grass-court exploits, he was seeded 17th and, for the first-time in his career, his name was on the lips of tennis fans as one to watch. In the first week, he did not disappoint as he chalked up wins over Aljaz Bedene, Marcos Baghdatis, in what was the Cypriot’s final tournament as a professional, and Diego Schwartzman.

His reward was a shot at the great Roger Federer on Centre Court. But Berrettini’s first steps on the hallowed turf of what is surely tennis’ most august stadium were halting. Federer, who remained as sure-footed as ever on the lawns of the All England Club, was not slow to take advantage. In barely over an hour, the Swiss humbled Berrettini, ceding just five games in a comprehensive 6-1 6-2 6-2 win that left Berrettini painfully aware of the gulf between he and the sport’s elite.
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He did not return to action until the Cincinnati Masters, where he lost first round to Juan Ignacio Londero, in the midst of a fine season in his own right, in straight sets. But if that was far from ideal preparation for the final Major of the year, Berrettini has not shown it. Seeded 24th in New York, he opened his US Open campaign with a four-set win over Richard Gasquet. Berrettini backed that up by out hitting the Australians Jordan Thompson and Alexei Popyrin to book his place in the fourth round for the second-consecutive Grand Slam.

There he faced the in-form Andrey Rublev, who beat Federer in Cincinnati last month and Stefanos Tsitsipas and Nick Kyrgios in the first week at the US Open. But where Rublev had been able to overpower Tsitsipas and Kyrgios, he found Berrettini too hot to handle. The Italian came roaring out of the gate, putting Rublev to the sword in the first set as he won it for the loss of just one game. Rublev made more of a match of it in the second and third sets, but Berrettini remained firmly in the ascendancy.

Barring a poor service game as he attempted to close out the match, it was a composed performance throughout from Berrettini, who scored a 6-1 6-4 7-6 win to book his place in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam for the first time. There he will face Gael Monfils in what is surely a winnable, if tough, match for a player of his prodigious talent. And even in defeat, a place in the top 20 is all but assured for the 23-year-old when the rankings are updated in a week’s time.

He will even have an outside chance of qualification for the season-ending championships in London, particularly if he can reach the last four or beyond at the US Open. Still, he is neither the leading light of Italian tennis, a position that still belongs to the nation’s top ranked player Fabio Fognini, who won the title in Monte Carlo earlier this season. Nor is he the man Italian tennis has pinned its hopes for the future on, with the talented 17-year-old Jannik Sinner occupying that role.

Indeed, at 23, Berrettini is not even one of the NextGen and failed to earn a wildcard berth at the inaugural NextGen finals in 2017 when he was still young enough to compete. But the precision of his serve and the fierce power behind his forehand make for a rather convincing argument that none of that really matters. Because for Berrettini, glory is within reach. All he need do now is extend his hand and take it.

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