The week—March 16, 2015. An 18-year-old native of Rome was in the infant stages of pursuing a professional tennis career. Having lost his opening six main-draw matches at ITF Futures events, the hopeful Italian came into Antalya, Turkey searching for his first ATP ranking point.
Matteo Berrettini remembers the scene all too well. Coach Umberto Rianna was by his side when time permitted—a shared resource provided by the Italian tennis federation. In qualifying, players traded groundstrokes on a court akin to any backyard setting, for lines were the responsibility of competitors to call. Berrettini always found that situation strange but worked his way through it, ultimately progressing to the quarterfinals. His efforts resulted in collecting two ranking points, eventual debut at No. 1674 and paycheck of $292 before taxes.
“I remember that it was tough, it was different. But I felt like I was looking forward to going, to win as many matches as possible,” Berrettini told TENNIS.com. “I really had the anger that you have to have when you're younger. And now I kind of question myself, ‘would I be able to do the whole process again?’ I mean, probably yes.”
Berrettini’s connection to Antalya grew deeper six months later, when he went 7-2 at consecutive Futures in contesting his first pro final. That fortnight served more than another rankings booster for the teenager who was unable to build momentum over a trying four-month stretch. Unsuccessful in applying his game at the Challenger level, Berrettini traveled solo in his return to Antalya, and after his semifinal run at ITF Turkey F35, was joined by coach Vincenzo Santopadre for ITF Turkey F36 in week two.
“That period, I was struggling before those two tournaments, I was struggling a bit in the court,” Berrettini recalled. “I graduated from high school, and I was really tired in summer. And I was struggling to get my best mindset during the matches.
“We had a chair umpire and one line umpire, and there were some weird calls. But now I'm playing [on] exactly the same court. So, it's good memories. Obviously, Vincenzo was there [then], he's still here.”
The “village” Berrettini references has experienced a significant upgrade this week by hosting an ATP 250 event, one of two men’s tournaments to launch 2021’s amended season calendar. For his part, Berrettini has evolved with time as well, a far cry from the 752nd-ranked player who last stepped foot at the venue. In 2019, he delivered one of his tour’s breakout seasons in going 43-25. Along the way, Berrettini picked up two ATP titles, reached the semifinals of the US Open, qualified for the season-ending Nitto ATP Finals and rose to No. 8 in the world.
Regrettably, the toll of the intensified workload soon caught up. Berrettini was unable to carry over his confidence in 2020, hindered by a prolonged groin/hernia problem. While the season was consolidated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, numbers still don’t lie. Excluding Roger Federer, who didn’t appear after the 2020 Australian Open, Berrettini’s remaining eight year-end Top 10 members put in an average of 40.6 matches (Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem tied for the fewest at 34). Berrettini played just 15, finishing a modest 9-6.
“Maybe in 2019 there were too many. That's why I got injured a lot,” Berrettini said. “In general, from the first day of my career, I got injured a lot. I was actually surprised in 2019, I just twisted my ankle once, after Wimby. But during the year, I was pretty healthy. And I was surprised. I was happy about the work that I've done. But the amount of matches and the level of matches that I played during 2019, maybe my body wasn't ready to figure it out.”
With that unforgiving lesson top of mind, Berrettini set out to mitigate history repeating itself heading into the most recent off-season. He had one chief goal in mind ahead of his training block: to be injury-free before preparing for 2021. The patience and prudence of beginning when he felt ready led to positive work being put in, triggering a reinstated sense of self-assurance.
“Now I'm feeling ready to play best of five, or whatever it's gonna take. So that's what I tried to feel during this pre-season,” he said. “I really believe that now I'm better physically, I'm stronger. I'm doing a lot of rehab things.”
The top seed at the Antalya Open, Berrettini has sailed through his first two matches without much resistance, albeit against opponents ranked No. 446 and No. 298. While he recognizes managing his programming is an ongoing education, Berrettini isn’t overlooking the teachings competition can provide in the early goings of this year.
“It's good to be healthy and to be here,” Berrettini said. “I hope to play as many matches as possible before the Australian swing, especially because before that we have two weeks quarantine. So it's good to play a lot now.
“I'm pretty heavy, I'm big. So I have to figure out how many matches, how many practices I have to do because sometimes also the conditions are changing a lot. Here, for example, the balls are really heavy and the courts are slow. So that's something that you learn during the process, during the years.”
When Berrettini touches down in Melbourne, he like everyone else, will be confined to a hotel room for 19 hours a day over a 14-day period. During the first week of the strict quarantine period, players are limited to practicing with a single peer. Berrettini will link up with world No. 21 Felix Auger-Aliassime, a flourishing shot-maker the current No. 10 has plenty of comfort with given their frequent hitting sessions in Monte Carlo.
“He's really a good friend of mine. He's a really serious guy on the court and we have a little fun off the court,” Berrettini said. “The coaches spoke and Vincenzo just asked me, ‘you want to practice with Felix?’ And I was like, ‘yeah, of course, he's a nice guy.’ Obviously, the first days with a jet lag and stuff [are] gonna be tough. But I always had great practices with him and I really enjoy spending time with him. So it's going to be fun.”
Fun might not be the first word that comes to mind when discussing the upcoming requirements Berrettini will meet Down Under. Yet, it’s not surprising to see the now 24-year-old down play the conditions, as he would presumably accept them over having to call balls in and out again on the court where his ATP career was officially born.
“It's good to see how everything changed. Maybe I got a little bit spoiled now,” he acknowledged with a grin.