This season, there’s been a different spearhead each time for names of challengers for the Grand Slam men’s singles titles. Challengers under 30, that is. Daniil Medvedev, a player then closing in on the World No 1 spot and reigning US Open champion was a favourite at the Australian Open. Then at Roland Garros, 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz had fans and pundits alike claiming he’d dominate the Parisian clay.
At Wimbledon, it’s last year’s runner-up Matteo Berrettini.
For a tournament steeped in tradition, 2022 has been anything but conventional. The build-up to this year’s grass-court Major has been marred by the fact that there are no ranking points on offer. The All England Club – organisers of the event – made a decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players from competing due to the war in Ukraine. The ATP and WTA reacted by stripping the competition off the ranking points it grants players.
Yet the prestige of winning at Wimbledon remains intact. And that’s what has prompted the big names in the sport to descend upon that small corner in South-West London, where the fabled Centre Court celebrates 100 years.
As usual, three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic and second seed Rafael Nadal are the favourites. But Berrettini is not far behind. After all, among the new generation of stars, it’s the 26-year-old Italian who has proven to be most comfortable on grass.
“I don’t know if I’m the favourite as Novak and Rafa are always there. Rafa has already won two Slams and nobody expected him to win in Australia,” he said ahead of Wimbledon.
“I don’t feel like I’m the favourite but I know I can do it.”
Such are the expectations from a man who just recently returned after an injury layoff. Before the grass court swing, the last match Berrettini played was in the round of 16 at Indian Wells, when he lost to Miomir Kecmanovic.
Since then, the Italian had been side-lined for three months after undergoing surgery to fix a hand injury. He returned to the tour earlier this month and won back-to-back titles, first at the ATP 250 Stuttgart Open, and then defending his ATP 500 title at the Queen’s Championships.
“The last thing I expected was to come back from surgery and win two titles in a row,” he said during the trophy presentation at Queen’s.
“I arrived in Stuttgart and was not feeling great. I was not hitting the ball how I wanted and I was like, ‘Guys, I think it is going to be tough.’ But it has gone pretty well.”
To put his return into perspective, he later added, as reported by Tennis.com, “A few weeks ago I couldn’t hold a racquet. Now I’m here lifting the second trophy in a row. I couldn’t ask for a better start to the grass season.”
Since the grass swing last year, the big-hitter from Rome has played at four grass court events, won the final in three and lost only the Wimbledon summit clash to Djokovic. His record on the living surface since 2021 is 20-1, and overall grass record is 32-6.
Game ideal for grass
And with his playing style, it’s easy to understand why he’s so adept at playing on the surface where the ball skids and stays low on the bounce.
The 6-foot-5 World No 11’s big accurate serve becomes harder to return on the faster surface, and it’s aided by a mighty forehand. And he’s a decent volleyer and enjoys to glide up the court to put away the loose returns that his weapons force opponents to make.
For all his attacking pedigree though, his backhand is his weakest shot. In his earlier years on tour, he’d opt to play a safer slice if running around the backhand wasn’t viable. He has become steadier with a two-handed topspin backhand drive, but the shot lacks the menace and consistency he generates on the forehand.
On grass however, his weakest shot becomes a weapon.
“Although his backhand is his weaker shot, Matteo has developed a very good slice, which is ideal on grass,” renowned coach Patrick Mouratoglou said in a social media post. “He uses it to force his opponents to hit upwards, giving him more opportunities to attack with his forehand.”
This year will be the fourth time Berrettini will compete at Wimbledon. In his first sojourn to SW19 in 2018 – then ranked 81 – he lost in the second round to former World No 6 Gilles Simon.
In his second trip he was beaten comprehensively by a resurgent Roger Federer in the fourth round. And last year he lost to Djokovic in the final.
Among the players still in their 20s, World No 1 Medvedev, is not allowed to play and World No 2 Alexander Zverev will miss the tournament due to the horrific ankle injury he suffered at the French Open. Neither, however, have ever gone past the fourth round at Wimbledon.
Stefanos Tsitsipas, the graceful Greek, ranked sixth in the world, is always a player to watch at the Slams, but he has largely underachieved at Wimbledon – he passed the first round just once in four attempts. He did however, win his first grass court title, at the Mallorca Open, on Saturday.
Grass has proven to be an uncomfortable surface to most in the younger guard. In fact, in the top 10, apart from Djokovic and Nadal, only two players have reached as far as the Wimbledon quarterfinal. Current No 9 Felix Auger-Aliassime reached the last eight in 2021 and No 10 Hubert Hurkacz reached the semi-final. Both were beaten by Berrettini, as he made his way to his first Slam final.
The eight seeded Italian starts his campaign against Chilean clay-courter Cristian Garin, and is in the same half of the draw as Nadal.
The Spaniard has reigned supreme in the first two Slams of the year. And Djokovic will be hungry for a Major win this season given that his unvaccinated stance may not allow him to compete at the US Open, as it stands.
But neither can ignore the youngsters knocking on the door. And at Wimbledon, it’s the Italian who threatens to break through.