After four decades of dormancy, male tennis players in Italy are finally showing signs of becoming as good as the women have been.
Marco Cecchinato got things rolling by reaching the French Open semi-finals last year – the first Italian man to reach the last four of a major since 1978. Fabio Fognini followed by becoming the first to win a Masters event by beating Rafael Nadal en route to the Monte Carlo title last month.
And players such as Matteo Berrettini and Lorenzo Sonego are in the process of breaking through, while teenagers Lorenzo Musetti and Jannik Sinner represent a bright future.
All that success has resulted in record ticket sales at this week’s Italian Open – and some of the Italians could make a run at the French Open, which starts May 26.
On Wednesday, play at the Italian Open has been wiped out by rain, meaning Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will have to wait until Thursday to play their opening matches at the clay-court tournament. Federer was slated to meet Joao Sousa on Wednesday, eight-time Rome champion Nadal was scheduled to play Jérémy Chardy and Djokovic was up against Denis Shapovalov. Also, top-ranked Naomi Osaka was to play Dominika Cibulkova.
“The men haven’t reached this level in 40 years. So people are not coming only to see [Rafael] Nadal or [Serena] Williams, they’re coming to root for the Italians,” Italian Tennis Federation president Angelo Binaghi said. “It’s one thing to have 10,000 spectators. It’s another thing to have 10,000 fans.
“This boom in men’s tennis is the next step in a process that began with the golden age of the women followed by the development of SuperTennis,” Binaghi added, referring to the federation’s highly successful TV channel. “A minute after Fognini won Monte Carlo I called the ticket office and they had already noticed a jump in sales.”
The women’s golden age that Binaghi was referring to includes the four Fed Cup titles that Italy won between 2006 and 2013 with a team featuring Francesca Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta, Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani. Schiavone (2010 French Open) and Pennetta (2015 U.S. Open) also won Grand Slam titles, while Vinci (2015 U.S. Open) and Errani (2012 French Open) were Grand Slam finalists.
Corrado Barazzutti captained those winning Fed Cup teams and remains Italy’s Davis Cup captain. He’s also Fognini’s personal coach and played on the 1976 Italy team that won the Davis Cup – making him the link between generations.
“A lot of it is because the skill level of our coaches has improved,” Barazzutti said. “We’re growing together with the players. And the federation is doing its part by assisting these coaches and players.”
Berrettini, who recently won the Hungarian Open and reached the BMW Open final in Munich, Germany, in consecutive weeks, upset fifth-ranked Alexander Zverev on Tuesday before a raucous, soccer-like crowd at the Foro Italico.
Sonego, who is 23 like Berrettini, came through qualifying to reach the quarter-finals in Monte Carlo.
Musetti won this year’s Australian Open boys’ title at the age of 16 – and he’s not even the country’s most promising young player. That title belongs to Sinner, the only 17-year-old in the top 400 of the rankings at No. 263.
In Sinner’s first Masters Series match on Sunday, he rallied past American veteran Steve Johnson in three sets. That made Sinner the youngest player to win a match at the Italian Open since Goran Ivanisevic 30 years ago.
“He’s the real deal,” said Riccardo Piatti, Sinner’s coach.
At No. 12, Fognini is within striking distance of becoming the first Italian man in the top 10 since Barazzutti achieved the feat in 1979.