Mama Mia – Mighty Matteo Sculpts an Italian Sunday for the Ages

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Can the first Italian to reach a Wimbledon final stop Novak’s quest for history?

Bill Simons

Like Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, Lleyton Hewitt and Gael Monfils, Matteo Berrettini has a WTA girlfriend – Australian Ajla Tomljanovic. Like Connors, Hewitt, Sampas, Murray, Nadal and Becker, Berrettini won Queens and is now hoping to win Wimbledon.

He’s at the forefront of Italy’s 21st-century tennis renaissance that features Jannik Sinner, Lorenzo Musetti and Lorenzo Sonego. Berrettini’s crackling forehand is compared with those of Dominic Thiem and Juan Martin Del Potro. He has a huge, athletic body worthy of a linebacker. Before us is a hunky ATP heartthrob in the tradition of Pat Rafter, Marat Safin, Tommy Haas, Feliciano Lopez, Fabio Fognini and Senor Nadal.

Plus, he’s on an eleven-match win streak. The former US Open semifinalist and French Open quarterfinalist certainly is charismatic and charming, but today he was playing a man on fire. Miami Open champion Hubert Hurkacz was having the Grand Slam of his life. The Pole and No. 14 seed had just beaten No. 2 Daniil Medvedev and the man who many people now and possibly forever will consider the GOAT – Roger Federer.

Still, Berrettini was the favorite, and he played that way. Painting the lines, his serve was fast and, whether flat or out wide, had an uncanny accuracy, his forehand was wicked, his game was in the zone. It was one-way traffic on Centre Court. The Italian, mature and full of confidence, had come of age – and was playing his best match of the fortnight. At one point he won 11 games in a row. He took the second set and gained a commanding 6-3, 6-0 lead.

Matteo definitely seemed in control. “This is terrifying, big hitting,” said Radio Wimbledon. “Outside the Big Four, this is some of the best grass court play we’ve seen. He’s utterly ruthless, and bristling with intent.”

But on grass, often it’s good enough to be patient, hold your serve and wait. Hurkacz forced a third set tiebreak. There the Italian’s Roman Holiday hit the skids. His returns of serve were modest, his volleys were errant. Hurkacz prevailed – he seemed to steal the set.

Others might have blinked. Doubt could have reigned, and Berrettini’s hard-earned  momentum could have vanished. But Matteo told himself that he was the better player and would win. He held his nerve and calmly regained the initiative. As one broadcaster said, Berrettini “was all over Hurkacz, like a proverbial rash.” His 6-3, 6-0, 6-7, 6-4 win meant that one of the most incredible sports afternoons in Italian history was in place. On Sunday at Wembley Stadium, that’s just 12 miles from Wimbledon, Italy’s soccer team will try to overcome England’s home court advantage in the final of the coveted Euro Cup.

Perhaps an even bigger challenge will be Matteo’s effort to take down the streaking Novak Djokovic, who rebuffed Denis Shapovalov’s notable effort today. As usual, the Canadian, with his glorious backhand, powerful forehand, appealing variety and stutter-step speed, mounted a considerable challenge. But champions have to believe. They have to execute. “Been there, done that” experience is your friend. This was Novak’s 41st Grand Slam semifinal. This was the 23-year-old’s first, and the No. 10 seed hadn’t won any of his six previous meetings with Master Nole. The blond kid, full of swagger, had a boatload of chances. But like a Canadian lake in April (or maybe May or maybe June) he melted, converting just one of his eleven breakpoints.

Djokovic, who’ll be going for his sixth Wimbledon, his third Slam of the year and a record-tying 20th career major, uses guile as a weapon. He knows how to defends, he knows how to wait, he tightens the screws. The man from the mountains, who long has been No. 1, puts excessive pressure on his foes. They know they need to be all but perfect.

Can Matteo be near-perfect on Sunday? Certainly the great masters of Italian culture, like da Vinci and Michelangelo, were close to flawless. As the first Italian to play in a Wimbledon final, 26-year-old Berrettini will be feeling the weight of his nation. But then again, this rather mighty man does have broad shoulders.

THE BUZZ

QUOTEBOOK:

“Without question Federer has the best one-handed return of serve ever.”Brad Gilbert 

“He’s an unbelievable lobber. I’m trying to think what in his game is not unbelievable. Maybe his overhead.” – John McEnroe on Novak Djokovic

“When you’re second in the world, fourth round is a really bad result. It’s a bad result. That’s it.”Daniil Medvedev

“At least we made some record.” – Karen Khachanov on the 13 breaks of serve he and Seb Korda had in the fifth set of their marathon match

BRIGHT CANADIAN FUTURE: John McEnroe said, “I’d be shocked if Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime both don’t win multiple majors.” 

TRUE CONFESSION: When asked about the 40th anniversary of his infamous, “You can’t be serious!” Wimbledon rant, John McEnroe confided, “I always enjoy that, in a weird, pathetic way.”

CLASSIEST NEW NAME: British junior, Jack Pinnington Jones

ALL HAIL INDOOR CARRIAGE RACING: As Hungarian Marton Fucsovic faced Djokovic, Radio Wimbledon did a deep dive on the wonders of indoor carriage racing, that draws throngs of fans in Hungary.

WHY ARE THERE SO FEW MALE BLACK STARS? In an in-depth piece in the Washington Post, Liz Clarke notes the striking difference between the great successes of black women in tennis compared with black men. In 1975 Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon, but it’s been 25 years since a man of color, MaliVai Washington, reached the Wimbledon final. Meanwhile, there are an impressive number of black women players, from Zina Garrison to Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff, and of course Serena and Venus, who’ve excelled.

The article tells us that there are many reasons for the disparity. Women’s tennis stands virtually alone in that it affords huge financial rewards to its elite players. It also offers the game-changing role models of Serena and Venus. Men’s tennis hasn’t had that kind of transcendent figure since Ashe. No American man is now in the top 30.

Men’s tennis is just one of numerous sports that provide high-end rewards to men. It’s easy and inexpensive for a boy to start playing basketball or football in the neighborhood. Tennis requires a lot of gear, and it costs a small fortune to give yourself the opportunity to rise to the top. Often it’s a 20-year investment.

The article observes that black players have what Washington called “mental guardrails.” Zina Garrison, the 1990 Wimbledon finalist, noted that America’s top black male player Frances Tiafoe “probably has a nice car. And every time he goes out, if he gets stopped by a cop, you’re going to be nervous as hell just because of the color of his skin,” Garrison said. “Those are things that we often have to explain to [non-Black people]. It’s a tricky thing because it affects your confidence in being who you are.”

It was suggested in the piece that representation (i.e. role models) are essential. More minority coaches are needed and college programs need more support.

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