By Giri Nathan
Much is made about the old players losing out on a precious final season—Roger or Serena missing some of their last few chances at pushing their records a little further out of reach. But there is also something sad about missing out on that window where you see, in real time, a young player waking up to their abilities. This is why I feel physical pain watching Zion Williamson highlights. We were just watching an idiosyncratic generational talent take shape, make dents in the competition. Tennis had its own case of that last year: How could anyone not, immediately, want to see Bianca Andreescu do that season all over again, only healthier? First injuries, then a pandemic, have delayed that possibility.
And then there was the perplexing case of Matteo Berrettini and his late-bloom 2019 season. The 6-foot-5 Italian did not make waves as a junior, and only earned his first ATP point at the ripe old age of 19. He started the 2019 season ranked outside the top 50, turned 23 in April, started racking up some upsets, flourished on grass, made an unlikely run to the US Open semis, followed that up in the fall, and landed at the unlikely perch of No. 8 in the world. Everyone needs their weapons, and his were obvious: a forehand that can tear open the rally from any position on the court, and a delivery with an unconventional grip that flirts with high 130s and won him 87% of service games last season. There’s an echo of young Tsonga in Berrettini’s beefy forehand and serve, not-so-beefy two-hander, and general beefiness. He ended the season with six top-10 wins, and, out of nowhere, a new top-10 mainstay had materialized. Or…had it? How replicable was that success? Was he another tall prospect who could be solved by the grand strategy of “hit ball to the ad side of the court”? Come 2020, Berrettini lost in the second round of the Australian Open, then was sidelined with a lingering groin injury. Then came COVID-19. Another career surge, deferred.
But tennis is back, in fits and starts, and Berrettini is all over the courts. Looking visibly trimmer, too: While playing at the Tour Finals, he realized “they were better than me physically,” and directed his quarantine to that end. His lateral movement looks a little smoother, and an improved backhand slice gives him more versatility to construct points around the shot he actually wants to hit, all day: the forehand. Many players are lazily praised for their forehands, and it is sort of a truism that any top player on tour would have a good forehand (sorry, Benoit), but after watching him play these exhibitions, I’d comfortably put Berrettini in rare company: This is a Nadal, del Potro, Kyrgios tier shot. His opponents studiously avoid that wing, and know that whatever advantage they’ve gained in the point can slip away as soon as he gets a good look at one. The take-back is quick and hard to read, and the result is a heavy dipping ball that looks miserable to deal with. (According to practice partner and girlfriend world No. 56 Ajla Tomljanovic, it is.)
Apply all the necessary qualifiers—no one’s in match form yet, there are no ranking points on the line, these are glorified practice sets—but all the tennis that Berrettini has played in July, across France, Austria, and Germany, suggests that there really is a “there” there. He won Patrick Mouratoglou’s futurist carnival, the Ultimate Tennis Showdown, in a final against Stefanos Tsitsipas. It’s a format where big servers can’t simply slack off on return, and it’s punishingly fast, which did not seem to trouble the svelter Berrettini. After going back to Germany and returning to quotidian tennis, “I was like, ‘Oh this is slow.’” Two days after his UTS win he went to Berlin to play a compact, three-day exo and made it to a final against Dominic Thiem, whom he beat in two of their three matchups last season. It was a tight contest, which Thiem won in a match tiebreak, 10–8, and it convinced me that the Italian will back up his breakout season once the tour gets back to normal. While I remain uneasy about the resumption of tennis, I’ll concede that it’s a joy to see it played again at this volume—for there be enough tennis out there that a player could plausibly be “on a roll,” or delivering on promise.
Matteo Berrettini entertains a near-empty stadium in Berlin. (Getty Images)
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