This past January, when everyday life felt a bit more normal, 2016 Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber began her campaign for a second title at Melbourne Park by starring as a night-session closer. Her opponent across the net, Elisabetta Cocciaretto, was dealt her major main-draw debut on Rod Laver Arena, of all places, after battling her way through three qualifying rounds.
On that Tuesday evening, Kerber would advance, 6-2, 6-2, though Cocciaretto provided a glimpse of the potential her uncompromising ball-striking presented when six successive winners netted a pair of games at the tail end of their meeting.
Nearly seven months later, Cocciaretto’s wait for a crack against another Top 25 opponent was finally over, offered up at a tournament in her home country. Playing the WTA’s first event back since the COVID-19 pandemic closed the tour’s doors for five months, the teenager came into her second-round clash in Palermo against world No. 24 Donna Vekic with her first Top 100 victory in hand, a straight-set win over 45th-ranked Polona Hercog. Cocciaretto and Vekic tussled and toiled vigorously in Wednesday's final encounter, each denying the other any inclination of momentum. The wild card wiped away the third break point against her serve to hold for 3-2, and when she got up to change ends, noticed the match duration on the clock: 40 minutes had already passed.
“My tennis is aggressive and I try to do that on the serve and return,” she told TENNIS.com in a Zoom interview just after midnight local time. “I was concentrated and motivated.”
Cocciaretto’s boldness was most evident when she was the receiver. Against Vekic, the current No. 157 positioned herself well inside the baseline against her opponent's second-serve offerings, a stand she refused to back down from as she worked to take time away from the flat-hitting Croatian. Her aggressive temperament—anchored by her forehand—didn’t always pay off, as one might expect with a player inexperienced at this level.
On this occasion, rally ball misses and overcooking approach shots were negated by her commitment to pressing the issue, one that appeared to take Vekic by surprise. Two final blows rocketed past the No. 6 seed to end proceedings, sending Cocciaretto through to her first WTA quarterfinal.
“Australia this year was a great experience for me,” Cocciaretto reflected. “I qualified and then I played first match against Kerber on Rod Laver Arena. I took one lesson: when I go on court, I don’t have to think who I have on front of the net, or everything around me. I have to just play my tennis, do my job and then the match will go how it will go.
“(Donna’s) one of the best players in the world. I tried to improve my tennis game after game. I think I did it and I’m so happy about that.”
As a child, Cocciaretto first picked up a racquet when she was five. There wasn’t a robust family connection to the sport: her father played, her mother “not so much.” Cocciaretto recalls her initial interest taking shape when she attended a renowned under-12 junior event in Porto San Giorgio.
“It’s one of the most important in Italy,” she says. “One day I went to see the boys and the girls playing, and my father asked me, ‘do you want to play tennis?’ I answered. ‘yes.’ After three or four months, I started to play.”
Balancing interests in swim and dance, tennis emerged as Cocciaretto’s favorite by the time she was eight. There was plenty of inspiration to draw from within her own borders, as she watched Flavia Pennetta, Francesca Schiavone, Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani establish a dynasty in bringing home three Fed Cup titles over a five-year stretch. The Ancona, native was also captivated by what Caroline Wozniacki brought to the table: “She was one of the best tennis players and athletes that I know.”
At 14, a back injury forced Cocciaretto to take an extended break. A day before her 17th birthday, she achieved her best major result as a junior by reaching the semifinals at the Australian Open. Her run notably included a win from a set down over then 13-year-old Coco Gauff in the first round. In 2019, Cocciaretto began the year ranked No. 710. By year’s end, she had climbed all the way up to No. 167, punctuating her season with a pair of her biggest titles to date, ITF W60 triumphs on clay in Paraguay, where she outshined Errani, and Chile.
Scholarly by nature, Cocciaretto has balanced her tennis pursuits with studying law at a university in Camerino. She’s sat for three exams already this year, and though admits it’s “a lot,” the now 19-year-old asserts she her passion for studying remains the same as it did in adolescence.
There’s still homework to be done this week—on the court—but as the past has already shown Cocciaretto, respecting the journey is an important part of the process.
“Three years ago, I started again from zero,” she says. “Now, I’m here playing with the best tennis players in the world.”