It was only six months ago that Matteo Berrettini was standing on Court 20 at the Australian Open hitting a ball towards the tram stop and shouting “I want to die, what the f**k did I do to deserve something like this?”. He was playing against Denis Kudla in the third and final round of the qualifying tournament and a few minutes earlier he had squandered two match points on 5-3 40-15 in the third set to end up losing the match 4-6 6-3 7-5. That was his first chance to make it to the main draw of a Grand Slam (a few months earlier he had lost to Tsitsipas in round 2 at the US Open qualifications tournament), which he was able to clinch anyway as a lucky loser.
Fast forward to July 2018, and we find him lifting the trophy at the Swiss Open in Gstaad where he conquered his first ATP title not only without dropping a set, but without ever losing his serve. This win propelled him to the 54th spot of the ATP Ranking, with not many points to defend in the last part of the season and a great chance to use his thunderous serve and blistering forehand on the hard court in North America and in Asia.
After a six-month stop in 2016 due to a knee injury and a first part of 2017 when he won his first ATP Challenger title in San Benedetto, Italy, he started feeling the pressure of his own success and missed one of the main goals for the season: in the play-offs for the Italian wild-card at the ATP Next Gen Finals in Milan, he lost in his first match as n.1 seed and overwhelming favorite to underdog Liam Caruana, forfeiting the chance to meet the best young guns in the circuit on a world-class stage. “In general, he is a very calm player – said his coach Vincenzo Santopadre, a former Top 100 player – but during the last few months of the last season he was a lot more tense, he had lost some of his usual tranquillity”.
But the golden boy who is lighting up the enthusiasm of the Italian tennis fans, still waiting for a Top-10 player since the end of the ‘70s, kept maintaining his general composure in the face of burning defeats like the one in Australia against Kudla or some of the Challengers finals lost in 2017 against top-100 players like Malek Jaziri and Sergiy Stakhovsky after having led the match on multiple occasions. “I often re-watch my matches to analyze them – declared Berrettini in an off-season interview to Tennis World Italia – I am very critical towards myself, and seeing the mistakes I’ve made can only be good for me. Vincenzo [Santopadre] was very good at making me see the positive aspects of the finals I lost, even if I was feeling quite down for having missed those chances”.
Neither Matteo nor his coach Vincenzo were not targeting a specific position at the beginning of 2018: “It’s not time to focus on ranking and points, not yet – said Berrettini – it’s more important to be healthy and work on my fitness”. “Our objective for this season is to improve on his strengths, serve and forehand, to make sure they are worth of the top 100 – commented Santopadre – but we also need to reinforce his backhand and his return. I would love for him to take the net more often, but I believe that will come with time”.
In six months Berrettini not only has consolidated his serve+forehand play, making it a Top-50-worth cornerstone of his game, but has also made significant progress on his backhand. “Last March in Indian Wells I watched [Berrettini]’s last training session with Shapovalov: on the backhand side it was one in the court and two in the net or on the fence – says Ubitennis’ technical expert Luca Baldissera – now he is incredibly more solid in the rallies and can even go for winners at times”.
During the final in Gstaad, the Italian served 11 aces in the first set alone, four of which during the tie break he won by 10 points to 8. And after his triumph in the singles final, he went on to take home also the doubles’ title with his fellow countryman Daniele Bracciali, completing a memorable week for him on the Swiss Alps.
“It’s unbelievable, it’s like a dream” he kept repeating after that triumphant Sunday, but he may have to get used to this more quickly than he expects: his 135mph serve demands it. However, anyone who has had the chance to spend an hour talking to this very balanced young man has very little doubt that his early successes will not distract him from the long term goal, which is “becoming the best that I can be”. And in order to achieve this goal, Berrettini has included in his team a mental coach (Stefano Massari) who works regularly with him when he trains at the Rome Tennis Academy, a venture launched at Circolo Canottieri Roma by Santopadre himself, whom Berrettini followed to that club when he was 14. “The time I spend recovering from the injury in 2016 was very important for me: I spent a lot of time in Rome, with my family, went on vacation, all things I hadn’t done in a while. I started dating my girlfriend and this gave me a good perspective on life. Vincenzo made me work with the kids of the tennis school and all this made me click: when I was able to return to practice I was a different player, more mature, more focused”.
The disappointment of ATP Next Gen play offs and the desperate words shouted on Court 20 at Melbourne Park are nothing but a pale memory now: Berrettini’s focus is locked in on the rest of the 2018 season now, and it sure is looking bright.
Laver Cup: As Europe’s blue reign, myriad hues peek out in event’s latest iteration
The 2019 Laver Cup showed all over again why it was an opportunity for tennis to be diverse in its offering.
Twelve matches spread over a three-day weekend later, Laver Cup has modified the proverbial face and scope of men’s tennis. It is still viewed sceptically as a disruptor to routine, individual-focused tennis matches in certain pockets. Yet, the singularity it has brought into the midst of the prevalent concept of individuality is irrevocable.
In the third year of the event’s emergence, these aspects are repetitive. However, Laver Cup’s display re-lit the theme of a team before a player. It also elevated it to heights not seen in its previous two editions. This showed in the players’ camaraderie with each other. As it did in the numerous coaching tips that came from the bench from Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and even Nick Kyrgios towards their fellow squad members.
Broadly, it was laid out in how the Laver Cup changed the subject from who would win the most Slams to which part of the globe would be victorious. For once, the conversation did not focus on 20 Slams versus 19, as it had come to be after Nadal’s win at the US Open. It was riveted on how two sportsmen with 39 Slams between them could set aside their competitiveness towards a common goal for a still-mushrooming tourney.
— Laver Cup (@LaverCup) September 22, 2019
“Winning (as) teams is just amazing because you celebrate together. It’s a very special thing. Honestly, I really hope that this new and young generation keeps supporting this event because this event is special,” Nadal said after Team Europe’s three-peat on Sunday. “We need to make this event stronger and stronger because the atmosphere that we leave here is difficult to find in other places.”
The 33-year-old’s statements, aside from setting aside any cynicism about his involvement in the event this year, emphasised the growth Laver Cup has had in its three years. Nadal’s participation in Laver Cup’s inaugural year was seen as a novelty, a continuation of his and Federer’s triumphant return to the Tour after an injury-troubled 2016. Novak Djokovic’s inclusion in Europe’s 2018 squad was viewed as a reiteration that the event was a fad, where top-ranked players would make a one-off appearance, before stepping away.
In 2019, the 12-time French Open champion’s return contradicted this previously-held supposition. This shifting of perceptions is why Laver Cup has turned problematic to the Tour’s other mainstay events.
If Laver Cup were to be regarded as merely an exhibition, a tournament with no relevance to how the ATP tour progressed year-on-year with its usual clanking schedule, all of the players’ emotiveness and reactions would have been on par with the idea of livening it up for its sake.
On the other hand, when two former world no. 1s were heard sternly telling their touted successor not to be negative for the rest of his match, it was hard to convince that the whole atmosphere was made-up.
Though, it does bear noting that not being put-on and the ease with which it has been assimilated in tennis’ mainstay have been the catalysts for Laver Cup’s disparaging mooting in certain circles.
The past weekend it coincided with a couple of ATP tournaments, in St. Petersburg and Metz. Both events had several interesting match-ups of their own. Followers deeply vested in the sport knew the happenings across all tournaments held last week. But for casual viewers, it would have come down to picking one event over the rest.
The factoring in of this unnecessary chasm added to the enervation around tennis by making one take sides in a sport that is already at crossroads, without Laver Cup even being mentioned.
Yet, if it were about inclusivity, selectivity in audiences’ preferences is the other side of tennis’ coin. These choices cannot always remain aligned, even in accepting or discarding the tri-day tournament as a consequential pursuit. As Nadal opined, when asked to compare between his other title wins and his Laver Cup team win, “…every single thing is different and is important by itself.”
Novak Djokovic Doesn’t Need Love, Just Respect
He will never win a popularity battle with Federer, but does that really matter?
As a world No.1 with 16 grand slam titles, Novak Djokovic has proven himself to be one of the best players in the world. Yet, amid the outburst of boos following his retirement from the US Open last week, the debate surrounding his popularity in the sport was reignited once again.
Taking on the formidable Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round, a player known to play his best on the biggest stages of the tour, Djokovic called it quits during the early stages of the third set. Citing a shoulder problem as the reason. Something that had bothered him during the earlier rounds. On the Arthur Ashe stadium, the crowd was less than pleased with his decision to stop.
“I’m not being offended or mistreated by anybody. I don’t really pay too much attention on that.” Djokovic said of the crowd. “I like to respect others. I hope that others can respect me and my decision.’
“I’m sorry for the crowd. Obviously they came to see a full match, and just wasn’t to be. That’s all it is.’
“I mean, a lot of people didn’t know what’s happening, so you cannot blame them. It is what it is.”
The New York crowd are certainly unique when it comes to other grand slams. When you go to Wimbledon there is a guard at every gate to direct you to your seat. Talking during points is frowned upon and misbehaviour is certainly not tolerated. In Flushing Meadows, there is no such thing with people casually walking around the stadium during points. Highlighted by one journalist during the women’s semi-final who tweeted ‘Why are people just strolling around in the Arthur Ashe Stadium? Get to your f***ing seats.’
“Well, no, I really believe that he doesn’t deserve of course,’ Rafael Nadal commented about his rival. “I believe that he’s a super athlete. If he had to go is because he was not able to continue at all.
“For him is much more painful than for anyone on that Arthur Ashe Stadium.”
At a glance all of this could be put down to the sometimes rowdy New York contingent at Flushing Meadows. However, this isn’t the first time Djokovic has been in this situation.
Taking to the Wimbledon final back in July it was more than evident that he wasn’t the crowd favourite. It was rival Roger Federer, who won the event seven times. Chants of ‘Federer’ erupted around Centre Court. Prompting the Serbian to mentally transmute those calls into one of his own name.
It is clear that Djokovic is a powerhouse and an icon in the world of tennis given his achievements, but for some reason he isn’t able to generate as much popularity as his two rivals. Illustrated by their social media accounts.
*numbers as of 10/9/2019
Whilst the 32-year-old may not be the most popular man in the world of tennis, that isn’t to say that he doesn’t have a loyal fan base. On social media that are groups of die-hard ‘Nole’ fans ready to defend their man from any potential criticism he receive. From first hand knowledge, some of them are very feisty to say the least.
The debate surrounding the popularity of the Big Three is one that will likely continue beyond their retirement, but that doesn’t mean that the focus should be taken away from their outstanding achievements. For Djokovic, he is the first player to earn more than $100 million in prize money, the first to win four consecutive ATP Finals, the oldest-ever year-end No.1 and the only man to win every Masters 1000 title.
Many have said his reception in the world of sport triggers memories of Ivan Lendl. In 1987 he graced the front cover of Sports Illustrated with the caption ‘the champion that nobody cares about.’ A reserved Lendl struggled to struck a special connection with the crowd in North America compared to what some of his opponents managed to do. Fortunately, he was later recognized and appreciated more for his contribution to the sport.
As for Djokovic, he is somewhat on the same ground as Lendl, but not to such an extent. It would be quite inconceivable for a magazine to place him on their front cover using the same caption as what was used for Lendl. Nevertheless, there are undoubtedly similarities.
It is likely that Djokovic will not be as popular as Federer, but that isn’t a problem. An all-time great is measured by their records in the sport and not how many are cheering them on. He shouldn’t be loved by everybody in the world, no player has the right to that entitlement. However, what he does deserve is a degree of respect. Something that is sometimes forgotten by the public attending the world’s biggest tennis events.
Maybe Djokovic’s true impact on the sport will not be recognized until he walks away for good. Whenever that will be.
Nadal, Djokovic And Federer Excelled On Manic Monday And That Isn’t A Good Thing
Why the dominance of the trio at Wimbledon should be admired, but not celebrated.
WIMBLEDON: On a day where all the fourth round matches took place at The All England Club there was an inevitability in the men’s draw.
Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic all proved why they are the top three seeds. Producing a display that overwhelmed and frustrated their opponents. The trio along with Andy Murray have won the past 16 Wimbledon titles. A true testament to their dominance in the sport. On the other hand, it is also a somewhat mixed situation for the world of men’s tennis.
“I wasn’t feeling so good about my strokes, my serve, my forehand, backhand, everything. I wasn’t feeling so good, I didn’t expect to be tight, to be maybe not ready, but not like this.” Matteo Berrettini said following his loss to Federer.
“I was saying to myself that it was normal, for me, it was my first time on Centre Court against him.”
The brick wall put up by the Big Three at The All England Club can only be compared with the Great Wall of China. A gigantic structure that requires a huge effort to conquer it. Yet it is possible to scale it and people have done before. So there is one question that arises. Is the Big Three too good or are their challengers on the court not good enough?
World No.1 Novak Djokovic shed some light on the situation shortly after his straight-sets win over Ugo Humbert. The only member of the Next Generation to reach the last 16 of the tournament. Djokovic has been a giant in the world of grand slam tennis within the past 12 months. Winning three titles and reaching the semi-finals at Roland Garros.
“I think we are working as hard as anybody really to be there. I think the experience we have helps confidence, everything that we have achieved in our careers obviously we carry onto the court, then most of the players feel that, feel the pressure.” He said.
“For us, it’s another match on the center stage that we’ve experienced so many times. I think that’s one of the reasons why we, I guess, feel comfortable being there and managing to play our best consistently.”
Experience certainly pays it part. 14 out of the 16 players to reach the fourth round are over the age of 27 and eight of those are over the age of 30. However, when the older guys of the tour has had a shot on Manic Monday in the past against the Big Three they fell short. What is it that they are doing wrong?
“I think the best guys now are fully engaged, they know exactly what to expect from the court and the conditions. That helps us to play better.” Explains Federer.
“I think with experience, that’s good. We haven’t dropped much energy in any way. It’s not like we’re coming in with an empty tank into the second week.’
“All these little things help us to then really thrive in these conditions. I don’t know what else it is.”
Fortunately, Federer and Co are human. Even if it is hard to believe when they illustrate such breathtaking tennis at times. Serena Williams describes Federer’s play as that similar to an elegant Ballerina. The way he moves around the court effortlessly and dictates the points.
One people aiming to rain on the parade of the big guns is Sam Querrey. A 31-year-old American who reached the semi-finals of the major back in 2017. Against Tennys Sandgren on Monday, he produced 25 aces and won 83% of his first service points on route to victory. Setting up a clash with Nadal. Somebody who he beat in their last meeting back in 2017, but trails their overall head-to-head 1-5.
“In order to kind of break that streak, it’s most likely beating Rafa, Federer, Djokovic. The mountain gets very steep from here to break that trend, but I’m going to do the best I can.” Said Querrey.
“I like playing here (at Wimbledon). I’m comfortable here. This seems to be the slam where you’ve got odd results, if you want to call them, over the, you know, last 25 years.”
In an era that is dominated by a selected group of players, there are both admiration and frustration among both players and fans. Their achievements have been incredible, but when will a fresh face live up to the hype on a consistent basis? Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas are all huge threats. Just not on a regular enough basis.
“I am not thinking about sending a message about the next generation, how they are coming or not. I know they’re good.” Nadal stated.
“I know there is going to be a day where they are going to be in front of us because they will play better than us or because we are leaving (the sport), we are not kids anymore. That’s all.”
“It is special what we achieved in the last 15 years. Something special, difficult to repeat I think, so many titles between three players. But sometimes these kinds of things happen.”
Men’s tennis is undoubtedly in the midst of a unique period with some of the greatest ever players taking to the court’s. However, is their dominance too much of a good thing?
Only time will tell when the trio retires and men’s tennis are left facing the prospect of trying to fill in their shoes. A task that is as exciting as it is terrifying for the next contingent of players.
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