Curse the indifference of the tennis ball. It doesn’t care where you are, who you are, or even what you’ve done. All that matters is how you treat it in the present moment and attempt to solve the single problem at hand. And deep into his opening match at the Western & Southern Open, an ATP Masters 1000 event in Cincinnati, Matteo Berrettini found himself face-to-face with a problem he likely had not anticipated. The last time he’d competed was over a month ago, in the finals of Wimbledon. There he’d put on a fine display before losing in four sets to Novak Djokovic. Surely, if you could talk to the tennis ball, those grand efforts should count for something.

But the ball didn’t care about Wimbledon. The ball didn’t care that there had been two long rain delays before this match got underway. Nor did the ball care that Berrettini was in the third set of a tight battle versus 49th-ranked Albert Ramos-Vinolas and was about to hit a second serve at 4-5, love-15 versus an opponent who had conspired with the ball in showing little regard for Berrettini’s superb run at the All England Club.

Now, though, three points away from a big win, Ramos-Vinolas blinked, lining a makeable backhand return into the net – the kind of miss that’s not merely an error, but in its tentative qualities, a sign of major weakness. Like a shark smelling blood, Berrettini cracked open the match, winning 12 of the next 15 points to earn a 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-5 victory. “I’m happy for the win,” said Berrettini.

The swift finish hardly did the journey justice. For long stretches, Ramos-Vinolas had dictated play, his excellent court coverage giving him the chance to run Berrettini corner to corner with sharp and deep lefty forehands and backhands. The Spaniard's bread and butter—his lefty crosscourt forehand—was finding the Italian's slice-happy backhand.

In addition to being at the mercy of Ramos-Vinolas’ proficiency, Berrettini’s sluggish tennis might well have been the result of taking two weeks off the courts after Wimbledon. He’s also just recovered from a left thigh injury suffered in the Wimbledon final that forced him to stay home rather than participate in the Tokyo Olympics. Having taped it this evening, Berrettini is hoping such a precaution won’t be necessary in his next match.

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Not all wrists are created equal. Berrettini creates a safe haven of spin by dropping his racquet head far below the ball.

Not all wrists are created equal. Berrettini creates a safe haven of spin by dropping his racquet head far below the ball.

Neither player dropped serve in the first twelve games of the opening set. As the tiebreaker began, Berrettini’s big serve and forehand theoretically seemed deal-breakers, particularly after he captured the opening point on Ramos-Vinolas’ serve. But it didn’t go that way at all. Ramos-Vinolas won four straight points to take a 4-1 lead. And though Berrettini caught up, at 5-all, Ramos-Vinolas was the one who better commanded the court space, eventually eliciting an error from Berrettini’s weaker backhand. A fine forehand at set point put Ramos-Vinolas in the lead. “My strokes from the baseline weren’t working the way I wanted to,” said Berrettini, “but I knew it from the beginning.” Berrettini also noted that the statistics revealed he’d covered more court than his opponent, a rare disparity.

Berrettini’s serve kept him alive in the second set. Serving at 2-all, he fought off two break points with aces. Extricated from that jam, Berrettini’s versatility surfaced in the next game. With Ramos-Vinolas serving at 2-3, 30-all, Berrettini smoothly mixed up his slice backhand and powerful forehand to draw a backhand error. A long forehand at 30-40 put him up 4-2.

But even then, Ramos-Vinolas wasn’t finished, taking a love-40 lead when Berrettini served for the set at 5-3. Once again, though, Berrettini brought his weapons into play, including an ace, a concussive untouchable down-the-line forehand and, on his first set point, another ace. By the third set, Berrettini was far sharper than he’d been in the first.

All told, Berrettini hit 25 aces this evening. While that number still won’t make the tennis ball pay attention, it certainly hits home with his opponents.