GettyImages-1321915063

Roland Garros is the home of French tennis, but so far this year the men’s event has had a distinctly Italian flavor. At the same time that France’s aging Musketeers were fizzling out early, three fresh faces from Italy, Jannik Sinner, Matteo Berrettini and Lorenzo Musetti, were making their way into the second week. Tennis fans know these names well, of course, but the rest of the world will know them better after Monday. That’s when Sinner will play Rafael Nadal, and Lorenzo Musetti will take on Novak Djokovic. Berrettini was scheduled to face Roger Federer in the same round, but he’ll move into the quarterfinals now that Federer has withdrawn from the tournament.

“There have been rumblings about them for a while,” says Craig O’Shannessy, a strategy coach who consults for Italy’s tennis federation. “But this will put them in a bigger spotlight, the young guys especially.”

We have now many, many Italians,” Sinner said this week, “and everyone is playing in different ways…We can stay here one hour talking about every Italian player.

Advertising

Why Italy? Why now? This is a nation that has never had a top-ranked ATP player, and has produced just one men’s Grand Slam champion in the Open era, Adriano Panatta, whose title run at Roland Garros happened in 1976. As of this week, though, Italy has 10 men in the Top 100, including Lorenzo Sonego, another player whose star has been on the rise over the last year or so. Berrettini is already in the Top 10; most expect Sinner to join him there soon; Musetti has reached the round of 16 in his first appearance in a Grand Slam main draw.

We’ve seen these national eruptions many times in the past: from Steffi Graf and Boris Becker in Germany; Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin in Belgium; Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic in Serbia; and Bianca Andreescu, Milos Raonic, Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime in Canada. Usually it’s difficult to pinpoint a reason for these surges, and on one level that’s true of Italy’s as well.

Each of these young players grew up in a different place, worked with a different coach, and plays a different type of game. Sinner is from South Tyrol, on the Austrian border; Musetti is from Carrara; Berrettini from Rome, and Sonego from Turin. While Musetti and Sonego compete with the charismatic expressiveness that we typically associate with Italian players, the 6’5” Berrettini has a gentle giant’s demeanor, and Sinner plays with an icy calm (South Tyrol is known for luge).

Jannik Sinner plays a much different way than compatriot Lorenzo Musetti, but they've ascended—along with other Italian men—at the same time.

Jannik Sinner plays a much different way than compatriot Lorenzo Musetti, but they've ascended—along with other Italian men—at the same time.

Their styles of play also vary. Sonego’s best shot is his rifle forehand, while Musetti’s is his versatile one-handed backhand. Berrettini has a muscular baseline game. Sinner flows through his flat ground strokes with some of the purest timing in the sport.

“We have now many, many Italians,” Sinner said this week, “and everyone is playing in different ways…We can stay here one hour talking about every Italian player.”

On Friday, the New York Times ran an article about the phenomenon under the headline, “Young Italian Men are Taking Over the French Open. They Have No Idea Why.”

But O’Shannessy, who began consulting with the country’s federation four years ago, believes there are good reasons for Italy’s success. Those reasons start at the top, with the open-minded, forward-looking approach of high-performance director Michelangelo Dell’Edera.

“Michelangelo is the pied piper,” O’Shannessy says. “He’s very, very driven, and a real leader.”

Advertising

Craig O’Shannessy, one of the sport's biggest analytical proponents, has worked with Novak Djokovic and Italy's high-development tennis team.

Craig O’Shannessy, one of the sport's biggest analytical proponents, has worked with Novak Djokovic and Italy's high-development tennis team.

When O’Shannessy started working with Dell’Edera, the Italian told him he was looking for a “new pathway,” one that would involve scouring the tennis world for the leading minds in every aspect of the sport, from fitness to coaching to tactics to psychology. O’Shannessy’s area of expertise is using analytics to develop strategic game plans against specific opponents, a job he also did for Novak Djokovic from 2017 to 2020.

“Not everyone is open to what I do, or using metrics in tennis,” O’Shannessy says. “But Michelangelo wants to use every resource he can. He felt like this was going to be a new revolution in tennis.”

Dell’Edera’s ambition has helped create a tightly organized system of high-performance coaches, camps and tournaments.

“There’s camaraderie among everyone,” O’Shannessy says of the high-performance team in Italy. “No jealousy or backbiting. Everyone wears the same clothes, and we feel like we’re part of the same team.”

That no-drama vibe extends to Berrettini’s camp. In 2017, O’Shannessy began working with his coaches, Vincenzo Santopadre and Umberto Rianna, who felt like a tactical plan—especially one for his return of serve—was just what their talented but raw charge needed.

“There’s no egos there,” O’Shannessy says of the Berrettini team. “Matteo is the nicest guy you could possibly meet. We analyzed his return, and his return direction, and the results came fast.”

Advertising

WATCH: Lorenzo Musetti visits the Tennis Channel desk at Roland Garros before his fourth-round match against Novak Djokovic.

Musetti and Sonego are also on board, though Sinner, who has worked with veteran coach Ricardo Piatti since he was 13, goes his own way. O’Shannessy first saw Sinner as a 15-year-old, in a practice session with Djokovic.

“A coach pointed Jannik out and said ‘keep an eye on this kid.’ You could see he was comfortable hitting with Novak even then.”

What about the Italian women? The fact that the current system hasn’t produced a female version of Sinner or Berrettini yet may be evidence that champions are, in some sense, anomalies. Since Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone retired, a new generation has yet to follow in their major-title-winning footsteps. Camila Giorgi is the highest-ranked Italian woman, at No. 80.

On Monday, the men will take center stage, when Sinner and Musetti take on the two best players in the world. Who knows exactly why they, along with Berrettini and Sonego, have come out of the same nation at the same time, and who one knows how long this Italian eruption will last. For now, all the country’s long-suffering men’s-tennis fans can do is enjoy it.