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Young Italians Doing It Better

By Giri Nathan

Goodbye to summer hard-court. Now this bizarro 2020 season truly begins to bend the tennis calendar. Clay season is upon us—it probably started before Dominic Thiem climbed out of his post-Open ice bath—and all of a sudden, I’ve got Italy on my mind. A few nations seem to be hoarding the future of the ATP. Russia has three guys in the top 15, and they look like they’ll linger there for a long time. Canada’s pair of all-court killers, Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime, are bumping elbows in the top 20 as of this week. And regarding this week in Rome, it’s the locals having all the fun. Not just world No. 8 Matteo Berrettini, who fully broke through last season and has cleared the third round in Rome without much fuss. It’s the teens making all the noise against top seeds. Jannik Sinner took down Stefanos Tsitsipas in three sets, while Lorenzo Musetti beat both Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori—not too shabby for the first two tour-level wins of his life.

At 19, Sinner is the youngest guy in the top 100, yet he has an uncannily mature game. Of all the players under legal American drinking age, he’s looking like the surest bet: He eats up the court, hits huge off both wings, and comports himself like he’s in his 15th season on tour. No kid stuff, just sedate fist pumps and small nods as he tackles tasks at the office. Both Sinner and Tsitsipas were shaking off rough days in New York. The Italian lost both his matches in the bubble, the latter after going up two sets to love on Karen Khachanov in the first round of the US Open, only for his body to give out as he lost in five. Tsitsipas, meanwhile, saw his US Open end in ego-crushing collapse, after going up 5–1 in the fourth set on Borna and blowing six match points (in colorful ways), only to lose in the fifth-set tiebreak. Ever the oversharer, within minutes of leaving the court, he was on his phone describing the loss as “the saddest and funniest at the same time thing that has ever happened in my career!” (Don’t delete tweets that good, man.) After making it to Rome, Tsitsipas was asked how he was adjusting to the new surface, and delivered another succinct gem: “In all honesty, it hasn’t been the best so far. So, yep.” He’s going through it. Sinner, meanwhile, flew straight out to Monaco after losing in New York and got accustomed to a surface he hadn’t competed on since July 2019. When they met in the second round in Rome, Sinner dominated their first set 6–1, then served for the match at 5–2 in the second—only for Tsitsipas to rage back and win the set in a tiebreak. Sinner staved off Tsitsipas to win the third 6–2, notching the second of many top 10 wins of his career.

Lorenzo Musetti, meanwhile, is an even fresher face than Sinner, and flashes even more shotmaking sprezzatura. The 18-year-old was handed a wild card into the qualifying rounds for Rome, played his way into the main draw, and then became the first player born in 2002 to win an ATP match. (This is the part where you feel old.) That he did it against a three-time major champ and current No. 17 player in the world is a little nutty. That he handed Stan a bagel set, while looking like the more powerful one-handed backhand in the match, is even nuttier. Wawrinka hadn’t played since the restart, and played his way into form for the second set, but Musetti put that away in a tiebreak. This set up an imposing second-round matchup against Kei Nishikori, also playing his way out of rust. And Musetti won that one in straights, too, strengthening the case that he is a terrifying clay-court player with speed, tremendous power, and soft net touch. Insofar as it is possible for a player with two ATP wins to really have a signature shot in his career, it’s probably this down-the-line backhand on the run. 

He did against Stan, who knows a thing or two about that shot:

And then again against Kei, in even wilder circumstances:

Doesn’t look like a guy who will be ranked No. 249 in the world for long. Bravo, Italy. The days of pinning all your hopes on Fabio Fognini are behind you. That’s probably for the best.

Above: Lorenzo Musetti celebrates win over Kei Nishikori in Rome this week. (Getty Images)

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