NEW YORK — The cell phone of Matteo Berrettini continued to chime incessantly minutes after the biggest win of his young career — and one of the biggest triumphs ever recorded by an Italian man at a Grand Slam. Amidst the hundreds of congratulatory texts that flowed in came one from a countrywoman whose yeoman’s work in a previous generation paved the way for Berrettini to achieve his own tennis dreams.
Berrettini is a semifinalist at the 2019 US Open, earning his spot with a 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (5) thrill-a-minute quarterfinal win against Gaël Monfils in a match lasted just three minutes shy of four hours. The win was seismic in Italian men’s tennis, as the 23-year-old became only the second Italian man since 1978 to make the semifinals of any major and the first Italian man to ever make the semifinals of a major played on a hard court. (Corrado Barazzutti, the only other Italian man to ever make the US Open semis, did so in 1977, the final year the US Open was played on clay.)
His historic moment was soon punctuated with words from the last Italian to lift a singles’ trophy at a Grand Slam.
“Actually, Flavia [Pennetta] texted me today,” Berrettini said to A Lot of Sports Talk in the media press conference room after his match against Monfils. “She was really happy for me. She told me to keep going.”
The path that Berrettini is walking on toward tennis fame was paved by the success of the Italian women who turned the country into the center of the tennis world just a few years prior, including 2015 US Open women’s singles champion Flavia Pennetta. In that final, Pennetta defeated fellow Italian Roberta Vinci, whose upset victory over Serena Williams in the semifinals to derail the American’s quest to complete a calendar Grand Slam was arguably the story of the sports world that year.
Berrettini was in Rome on the day of the Pennetta-Vinci match, preparing to play as a wild card in a Challenger Tour event and, figuratively speaking, miles away from being able to make an impact on the professional level like the women who ended up making the country’s premier travel across the Atlantic to take in the occasion.
“I remember watching the finals [in New York]. I was in Italia playing a future, 2015,” Berrettini said. “It was unbelievable, you know, like, for them, for Italy. I remember President Giovanni Malagò coming to watch the match. So for sure it was an inspiration.”
Pennetta and Vinci were just two of the number of inspiring women for Berrettini to look up to in the early part of the decade while in the throes of junior tennis: Francesco Schiavone appeared in back-to-back finals at the French Open, lifting the title in the first of those finals, in 2010; in 2012, Sara Errani made the final in singles at Roland Garros, marking the third consecutive year that an Italian woman reached the final in Paris; and the doubles team of Errani and Vinci won the career Grand Slam in doubles between 2012 and 2014.
Then there is the Fed Cup, the international tournament that Italy won four times between 2006 and 2013. If, somehow, there was a rival to Italian Serie A soccer for Italian sports fans’ affection, the success of women’s tennis was a worthy competitor.
“They won, I don’t know, I forgot how many Fed Cups they won,” Berrettini said in amazement.
“For sure they showed us how to do it.”
Italian women set the bar high for the next generation, but Berrettini is just two wins away from becoming the first Italian man since Adriano Panatta during the 1976 Roland Garros event to win a major singles title. The task will not be easy, having to go through Rafael Nadal in the semifinals just to get to the US Open final. However, with what the Italian women had done before him, Berrettini knows that the tennis mountaintop has been adorned with the green, white and red of the Italian flag before, and it can sure happen again.
“I’m really looking forward to beating their records,” Berrettini said of the women’s accomplishments. “Why not? I mean, I’m here.”