Matteo Berrettini: Late Bloomer and U.S. Open Semifinalist

Matteo Berrettini rolled his eyes and shook his head as he recalled a humbling moment in his mid-teens. He was at an Italian tennis training facility going through a battery of athletic tests — comparing him with other young players in running, jumping, reaction time and stamina.

It did not go well. Berrettini, now 23, said he finished last in almost every measurement. Afterward he was distraught enough to ask his coach, the former top 100 player Vincenzo Santopadre, whether he should even carry on.

Santopadre pointed out that his pupil had not lost every competition that day.

“I was winning one test, for sure,” the 6-foot-5 Berrettini said this week. “My height. I was the tallest.”

Santopadre convinced Berrettini that in the years to come he would mature in mind and body, and blossom into a player equipped to compete against men in four-hour tests of will in front of thousands of spectators.

That evolution was on display Wednesday when Berrettini, now ranked 25th in the world, beat Gaël Monfils in a thrilling five-set quarterfinal and became the first Italian man in 42 years to advance to a semifinal of the United States Open. Berrettini will meet No. 2 Rafael Nadal on Friday for a shot at the final.

Berrettini’s height may have been the one quality that helped him keep the faith when he was a gangly, middle-of-the-pack junior prospect. But Santopadre, who began coaching Berrettini nine years ago, had a much bigger vision for him than becoming a junior champion.

The goal was to help develop a boy with a passion for tennis into a grounded adult with a sustainable career. Santopadre calls the work they did an investment that was intended to pay off in Berrettini’s 20s and 30s.

For years, Santopadre counseled patience as he held Berrettini off the court while other boys practiced full time, twice a day, and traveled the world to play junior tournaments.

“Nobody knows if it was the right decision or not,” Santopadre said. “But I thought we should wait.”

At times it was difficult for Berrettini. Santopadre steered him toward his schoolwork, his family and his friends when he yearned to compete. At one point, when Berrettini was 16, his father asked Santopadre if Matteo should start ramping up his tennis activities, like the other boys. Santopadre said to wait at least another year.

“I wanted to play more,” Berrettini said. “But I wasn’t ready in my head, and I wasn’t ready physically. I trusted Vincenzo and it helped me a lot. I didn’t burn out.”

Santopadre is the centerpiece of a team built around Berrettini that appears to excel in perspective above all else. In a sport where some coaches, agents and even parents tell players only what they want to hear, this group has been frank with Berrettini.

“Nobody on the team really needs him,” said Corrado Tschabuschnig, Berrettini’s sage manager. “That’s important. We can lose him tomorrow and everybody lives on perfectly. Matteo was treated like a 25-year-old already when he was 15. This is why he is more mature than most of the players his age.”

Plus, restraining Berrettini may have amplified his desire to play. He said his family was always supportive of his dream, including his younger brother Jacopo, 20, who also became a professional player. But there was also some natural concern that Berrettini’s delayed approach might not be rewarded.

Lucia Fogaça, his grandmother, was especially apprehensive. A psychologist who moved from her home in Brazil to marry Berrettini’s grandfather, Elio Bigo, she worried what would become of her grandson if a career in tennis did not materialize.

“But one day she saw it in my eyes that I really wanted to do it,” he continued. “That day she said, ‘O.K., go for it. You can do anything you want to in your life because I know that you have a lot inside you.’”

Berrettini did well as a junior, but he was no superstar. While still growing into his frame, he leaned more on his tactical savvy and mental strength to win matches — he still relies heavily on a sports psychologist. His highest junior world ranking was No. 52, and he did not earn his first ATP point until he was 19, having turned pro that year, later than most.

ImageMatteo Berritini will play No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal in the semifinal round on Friday.
Matteo Berritini will play No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal in the semifinal round on Friday.CreditKarsten Moran for The New York Times

But there was value in that. As Santopadre noted, the lights shone brightly “on other guys,” while Berrettini was free to develop outside the usual scrutiny leveled on a top prospect.

“He did not feel the pressure that grown-ups unfortunately give to the kids,” Tschabuschnig said. “Vincenzo was always against that. He wanted to create somebody for the future. Parents of some players want them to grow up too fast because they want something from them.”

Today, Berrettini’s development is paying off. His serve, which registered 137 miles per hour on the radar gun and averaged 125 against Monfils, is a potent weapon born, in part, from his height and strength. So, too, his mighty forehand. But he also demonstrated the mental acuity to overcome the pressure, and four blown match points on Wednesday. As a junior he once blew 12 match points and lost, but he learned from it.

“He’s built like a rugby player or strong safety linebacker type,” said the four-time Grand Slam titlist Jim Courier, who worked on the broadcast of Berrettini’s quarterfinal. “But he also knows what he’s doing out there. He’s not just a bully on the court. He’s becoming a top-flight player.”

After that breakthrough win over Monfils, Berrettini held a video chat with family members back in Rome. It was chaotic, with everyone celebrating. But through the din, Berrettini heard his grandmother.

“She told me, ‘You are unbelievable. You are my strength, my heart, you are everything,’” he recalled. “It meant so much to hear that.”

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