By Giri Nathan
Maybe it’s a little on the nose for this visually inclined mag to pledge allegiance to a visually alluring brand of tennis, but once you’ve seen it, there’s no unseeing Lorenzo Musetti’s game. (If you haven’t yet seen it, quit these words for a highlight reel.) When Musetti is at his best, he sinks deep into the clay and lets that smooth and sinuous baseline game do all the work. He handles high balls with incredible ease. His unremarkable serve ensures that the points can take on a narrative arc. That one-handed backhand has already obsoleted Denis Shapovalov’s as the most telegenic of his generation. And his inventive shot selection can leave the viewer as wrong-footed as the opponent. He’s one of those players where you just hope the tennis might someday be as effective as it is entertaining; that gap can be tantalizing and infuriating. But now that the 20-year-old emerged from last weekend with his first ATP title, that hope has been fed.
Musetti had the glow of prodigy for a little while, becoming the youngest player in the top 100 in spring 2021, but his results stalled out, which he attributed to increased pressure and some post-breakup blues. He credited a sports psychologist with restoring his focus. He’s had some hefty on-court disappointment to shake off. In the majors, the Italian is best known for a pair of traumas in Paris: He has led two of the top clay-courters two sets to love at Roland-Garros, before losing to both. In 2021, Musetti had reached the fourth round, only for his stamina to abandon him in his fight against the eventual champ. He got bageled in set 4 and retired down 0–4 in set 5. It was a master class of Novak Djokovic inevitability, which he could revel in: “I like to play young guys in best-of-five.” (After this year’s Wimbledon, Jannik Sinner can now commiserate with his countryman.) In 2022 a similar misery swept Musetti out of the first round. He came out aflame but returned to room temp as Stefanos Tsitsipas rediscovered his peak stuff in sets 3 through 5.
He’ll have sweeter French Open memories someday, because clay is by far Musetti’s most comfortable surface. The awkward little clay season stashed away in the middle of summer must’ve felt like a sanctuary after he face-planted in the first round of all three of his grass events. He hadn’t strung together three straight tour-level wins since May 2021, but in Hamburg last week he finally found his groove again, taking down a slew of serious clay-courters. By the time he got to the title fight against Carlos Alcaraz—a young deity, 5–0 in career finals—it seemed like Musetti’s good fortune had run its course; when Musetti squandered five championship points at the end of the second set, I could practically see the title in Carlitos’ hands. There was also that dicey moment of a double bounce that wasn’t called by the umpire, and that the Italian himself didn’t fess up to. But none of this ate at him, and he stayed solid through the third, sneaking in a late break to win 6–4, 6–7(6), 6–4.
Young success is full of turbulence. Those 500 ranking points earned in Hamburg kicked Musetti up from No. 62 to No. 31 in the world. He might find himself in the seeds at the US Open. But a career-best week doesn’t immunize you from a second-round loss to world No. 151 Marco Cecchinato, which he suffered in Umag on Tuesday, in the last match he’ll get to play on clay this year. Musetti enjoys the extra time to set up his strokes on clay. Triumphs on faster surfaces have been scarce but intriguing; I’m curious to see how far this newfound confidence can take him on the broiling hard courts of heat-wave America.
Above: Lorenzo Musetti, Il bobino di evidenziazione umana, ad Amburgo. (Getty)