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Tennis Update From Alix Ramsay on Matteo Berrettini • Beats Gael Monfils At the 2019 U.S.Open

It was, according to Matteo Berrettini, the best match he had ever seen. He may have been biased, mind you, given that it was also the first grand slam quarter-final he had ever won and it was the first time he had ever beaten Gael Monfils, but he was mightily impressed with the events of the previous four hours.

“I was playing but I was also watching,” he said. “And it was the best match I ever see.”

He had a point. For three minutes shy of four hours, the 23-year-old Italian and the 33-year-old Frenchman put on a show unlike any other. There was drama, there was spectacular shot-making, there were horrible moments of nerves and tension; there was heat, there was sweat, there were time when both of them looked to be out on their feet, and then there were comebacks and match points and double faults and winners and toe-curling errors. Eventually there had to be a winner and a loser. To Berrettini the spoils; to Monfils the long, slow walk back to the locker room, beaten 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6.

When it was over – finally – the huge man fell on his back with exhaustion, joy and relief. Then he was up and pounding his chest and roaring to his team. This was the stuff of dreams.

“For sure, that’s why I fell down in the court,” he said. “It’s my first semis. I never won a match here in US Open, so it’s my second year in the main draw. I didn’t expect that. I’m pretty, I don’t know, excited for that.

“Also, for the match, I had so many chances. I served for the match. I had two match points and then he did an ace. Was unbelievable fight.

“Yeah, I was tired and I felt to just leave myself on the court. If you’re asking me if I’m not ready for the next match, I would say no. I mean, I will be ready, but you have to enjoy what you’re doing. That’s why.”

It was not that long ago that Berrettini was just another name on a draw sheet in some smaller tournament somewhere in Europe. He started the year ranked No.52 (granted, it was a massive improvement from his starting point in 2018: No.135) and by the time he had lost five tour-level matches on the bounce, he was down to No.55. That was in April.

So he took himself off to Budapest and the Hungarian Open. He may not have expected much when he got there but as soon as his toes touched the red clay, he turned his season – and his career – around. He dropped just two sets on his way to the title and followed that up with a place in the Munich final the following week. Fair enough – he was now an established clay court threat.

But then he moved on to the grass and beat Felix Auger-Aliassime to win the Stuttgart trophy. He was on a roll. He reached the semi-finals in Halle, the fourth round in Wimbledon – there was no stopping him. Well, there wasn’t until a certain R. Federer of Switzerland absolutely thrashed him in SW19, but there are many who have faced that fate.

It was all going so well. Or it was until he hurt his ankle.

Berrettini is a big unit. He is the size of a small house and has a forehand that could kill a yak at 50 paces. But, surprisingly, he has finely turned ankles, a little too finely turned for a bloke standing 6ft 5ins and weighing 198lbs. 

To protect these tender joints, he wears ankle braces when he plays but in practice, he sometimes leaves the braces aside. And in practice, hitting with his coach, he wrecked his ankle after Wimbledon and spent the next three weeks on crutches. As a result, he managed to play – and lose – only one hard court match prior to the Open. 

To make matters worse, he believes that he is basically a clay court player and hard courts are really not for him. Nonsense came the message from his team. Just try and practice on this cement stuff when your ankle feels better and we’ll see what happens. And what happens is that he reaches the semi-finals of the US Open and hoiks his ranking up to No.13 in the world.

It has to be said that Monfils helped him on his way. Oh, yes, the lovely Gael fought with everything he had but what he did not have on Wednesday was a fully functioning serve. A total of 17 double faults, two of them in the fifth set tiebreak, cost him dear. And he knew it.

“I think the key today was I served very poorly,” Monfils said simply. “My serve was very off, a lot of double faults.

“Not at all first serve. That’s I think a key in the match. I was battling with that and with my opponent. So it was tough, you know. I just compete as much I could.

“But it was a big lack of serve today. I did not [come up] short at the end, because I should have served much better to win this match before.”

Not that Monfils was bitter or downhearted; that is not his way. He knew he had been in a hell of a match and he was proud of the part he played in it. And with Elina Svitolina, his other half, already through the women’s semi-finals where she will play Serena Williams, life wasn’t all bad.

“I like it, to be honest,” he said in his usual, charming way. “I’m not a sore loser. I give it all today. I served bad, but I gave my heart.

“You know, the crowd was amazing. They pushed me. They helped me. It was fun. It was exactly what I play for.

“I wish I could win, but I love those matches no matter what. You know, I’m proud of myself, and, you know, I will be happy, I will be happy to cheer for my girlfriend tomorrow. Definitely if it can be one more day here, I’m on it.”

And if Berrettini is on it in the semi-final, anyone standing in his way had better take evasive action.

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