What’s Next?

As Caleb Pereira wrote a few months ago, Matteo Berrettini is great. He’s great at serving and forehanding. He’s great at hiding or papering over his weaknesses. When he has a lead, he’s great at closing, and when he’s behind, he’s adept at mounting comebacks. His game is in the mold of a grass or fast hard court specialist — big serve, big forehand, subpar backhand and movement — but he’s done very well on clay, making the Madrid final and Roland-Garros quarterfinal in 2021 (he had to skip the entirety of this year’s clay swing due to a right hand injury that required surgery). In the past year, the only players he’s lost to at majors have been Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. It is difficult to do much better than that on the ATP Tour unless you actually are one of the two aforementioned GOATs.

It must be said that Berrettini’s style of play is limited. He’s not cut out for all-court rallies or incredible defense or strong returning, all of which are invaluable assets in this era of tennis. (To give you an idea of how poor his returning is, he didn’t even produce a break point against Nadal until midway through the second match and sixth set they had played against each other.) When Berrettini comes up against an opponent who can neutralize his serve — take Nadal at the Australian Open this year, or Djokovic at the U.S. Open in 2021 — he’s in major trouble, because in an even rally against a world-class baseliner, he’s vulnerable to having his backhand pummeled. Errors ensue. Berrettini is able to avoid such dynamics against the vast majority of opponents, though. Besides Djokovic and Nadal, only Carlos Alcaraz has really made Berrettini look helpless recently. He’s had other losses, sure, but other than matches against that thin layer of the elite, the Italian has a good chance to win against anyone. His serve and forehand are so imposing that few players can even find his backhand, let alone expose it.

Berrettini is currently ranked 10th in the world, which is a little low due to him being unable to defend any of the points from last year’s clay season, but his ranking typically demonstrates exactly how good he is. He tends to beat anyone below him in the rankings, laying waste with his serve and forehand. Against those capable of surviving his initial two shots (these players also tend to be above Berrettini in the rankings, not by coincidence), he tends to lose. The last time he beat a player ranked higher than him was over a year ago.

One of Berrettini’s most impressive wins (considering Alcaraz’s violent rise to the top of the ATP, it looks more impressive every week) came at this year’s Australian Open, where he held off a fierce push to beat the young Spaniard in five sets.

You usually know what you’re going to get with Berrettini, which is valuable considering the current landscape of the ATP. Djokovic and Nadal’s results are predictable in the best way, but besides them, the men’s tour is layered with inconsistency. Daniil Medvedev, the current world #1, is significantly better on hard court than on grass or clay. Alexander Zverev, the world #2, is a hugely problematic figure for reasons outside of tennis — he’s been credibly accused of domestic abuse and came within inches of breaking an umpire’s ankle earlier this year. When he is playing, he can’t summon his A game for more than a couple tournaments a year. Stefanos Tsitsipas is electric at his best, but hasn’t been at his best for about a year now, and really struggles on faster courts. Felix Auger-Aliassime is still developing, as is Carlos Alcaraz (though his consistency already goes beyond anyone not named Djokovic or Nadal). Berrettini might not be winning big titles, but he’s as reliable a player as there is on tour right now. Excluding Roland-Garros this year and the Australian Open last year — tournaments Berrettini didn’t play and couldn’t finish, respectively — he has made the quarterfinals or better at the last four majors. He’ll consistently avoid upsets, make deep runs, then push a player better than him before eventually losing to them.

Berrettini has been doing his thing for a while now. It’s impressive, but it also means he’s in a bit of a holding pattern. His career-best result at a major was last year at Wimbledon, where he made the final and took a set off Djokovic. The natural next step would be to win the whole thing, but if he meets the Serb on the lawns again this year, he will lose again. He hasn’t improved sufficiently in the past year to make the jump; there is a gear he does not possess that remains well out of his reach. He’s primed to make another very good run at Wimbledon — fresh off his return from the hand injury, he promptly won Stuttgart and is currently advancing through the draw at Queen’s — but if Djokovic doesn’t lose to someone else, Berrettini won’t win the event.

This is a highlight video, so you’ll only see the best points — which are rarely representative of a match as a whole — but in this match, despite Berrettini’s knife-like backhand slice, the balance of a point tended to tip against him almost immediately when the ball went to his backhand side.

Even suggesting that Berrettini might win Wimbledon, I think, puts an excessive layer of pressure on him, and it’s not that I think he’s incapable of lifting the trophy. Progress is just much less linear than players (and writers) would like to pretend. As straight-faced as I was when I wrote The natural next step would be to win the whole thing in the previous paragraph, I know it’s not that simple. Daniil Medvedev was a set away from winning the U.S. Open in 2019; the next year, Dominic Thiem straight-setted him in the semifinals. In 2020, Zverev was two points away from winning the U.S. Open (Thiem standing in the way yet again); in 2021, he lost to Djokovic in the semifinals. Tsitsipas was a set away from winning Roland-Garros last year and this year he crashed out in the fourth round. Things don’t look much better for Casper Ruud, the newest NextGen major finalist. He’s a great player, yes, but do we really think he’ll be ready to beat Rafa at Roland-Garros in 12 months, presuming the living legend is still active on tour? Professional tennis isn’t a book. Sometimes the truth is ugly; sometimes you are simply not good enough at a given moment.

Berrettini, to take the ugly-truth stance, is currently not good enough to win a major title. His arc begs the question, then, of what comes next. Is he recreating David Ferrer’s career — a tough out, someone who makes you earn a win and is always in the later rounds but is rarely a threat to the best of the best — just with a much bigger serve-forehand combo and slimmer calves? With Djokovic and Nadal set to age out, will Berrettini win majors despite lacking the gear that the legends have? Will he improve in future years — he’s 26, so he could have as many as 10 good years on tour lying in front of him — to the extent that he does obtain that elusive, legendary level? Tennis is unpredictable, and Berrettini’s consistency makes projections only slightly easier. Maybe he will continue to suffer from injuries. Maybe Carlos Alcaraz will have swallowed the entire world by the time I revisit this piece in a year or so to measure Berrettini’s progress.

If I had to say, I’d guess that Berrettini will remain very consistent, especially at the majors, racking up more deep runs and even a title or two once Djokovic and Nadal mercifully descend into their cryogenic chambers (to emerge even stronger in a couple decades, probably). Winning a major is freaking hard, and most who try — even those who have a realistic chance — fail. Call me an optimist, though. I find myself encouraged by the consistency Berrettini has been able to refine over the past couple years, even if that final giant-killing edge to his game is missing. He’s fun to have around, and for now, that’s enough.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

2 thoughts on “What’s Next?

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Watched both of his losses to Nadal & his last two losses to Novak. He just can’t beat the guys at the top because they can explore his weakness easily. In the first two sets at the AO SF against Nadal this year, his backhand was taken to the cleaners & at every critical point, that was the target. Don’t know how far a great serve & big forehand can take him in slams against the best, but to win a slam, he must improve the backhand shots immensely.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Prince. I totally agree about the top guys; they’re experts at breaking down his backhand, which is a weak enough shot that it doesn’t always take much to break it down. I do think that if he gets a kind draw at Wimbledon one of these years, he could win the tournament as he is now. His serve and forehand are just that good, and if he can avoid playing an elite returner — considering that many of his peers are also poor at returning — I could see him lifting the trophy.

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