The last time, the only time, an Italian man made the semifinals of the U.S. Open, the tournament was at Forest Hills on a Har-Tru court. It was 1977 and Corrado Barazzuti found himself up against Jimmy Connors, who dispatched him in three sets.
More than four decades later, another Italian man, 23-year-old Matteo Berrettini, has powered his way into the semis of this U.S. Open with a dramatic fifth-set tiebreak victory over Gael Monfils.
This was five-set tennis at its very best, each player pushed to the brink physically and mentally over three hours and 57 minutes of highly entertaining, highly athletic, highly emotional tennis.
And when Monfils returned Berrettini’s serve long on the 12th point of the tiebreak, Berrettini collapsed to the court in both exhaustion and exhilaration as the Ashe Stadium crowd roared its approval of both his victory and the great tussle the two players put on.
“I was dreaming about this when I was a child,” Berrettini said. “So now I'm doing that. I have to enjoy what I'm doing, but I have to look forward what to do, what I want to do."
Coming from a set and break down, Berrettini won 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (5). The young Italian, ranked 23rd in the world, is making his mark this summer, having reached the fourth round at Wimbledon, where he lost to Roger Federer. Before that he won two ATP tournament at Stuttgart, where he was never broken in 50 service games, and at Budapest.
Berrettini will play second-seeded Rafael Nadal, who beat Diego Schwartzman, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2, in the late quarterfinal Wednesday night.
Monfils, who was trying to reach the semis of the U.S. Open for a second time, held comfortably in the first set and broke Berrettini in the first game of the second. But Berrettini didn’t panic. His big serve and crunching forehand (think Juan Martin del Potro with topspin) were penetrating Monfils’ game and he would win the next two sets.
It appeared that Monfils was gassed after that second set on the most hot and humid day of the tournament. He bent over at the baseline after dozens of points, leaning on his racket. He was likely helped when the stadium roof was closed in the third set because of passing rain drops. It definitely became cooler inside the stadium.
He persevered, found a way to get the crowd roused, and he dug out the fourth set, needing five break points in the fourth game to gain an advantage and ultimately send it to the fifth.
Berrettini broke in the second game, Monfils broke in the third. Berrettini broke again in the sixth game and held a match point at 5-4. He double-faulted and lost the next two points to be broken. Monfils fought off two match points on his serve in the 12th game, sending the match to the tiebreak, where Berrettini prevailed.
“The crowd was amazing,” Monfils said. “They pushed me. They helped me. It was fun. It was exactly what I play for.”
But it still wasn't enough to beat Berrettini.
“He won the match because he was always there, ready to win the match. That's his work,” said Vincenzo Santopadre, Berrettini’s coach. “Then the thing that I see that, to me, this match was he won with heart and head, HH, Double H.”