Italy's men are starting to matter in tennis like its women

Matteo Berrettini, of Italy, returns the ball to Alexander Zverev, of Germany, at the Italian Open tennis tournament, in Rome, Tuesday, May, 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

After four decades of dormancy, male tennis players in Italy are finally showing signs of becoming as good as the women have been

ROME — After four decades of dormancy, male tennis players in Italy are finally showing signs of becoming as good as the women have been.

Marco Cecchinato got things rolling by reaching the French Open semifinals last year — the first Italian man to reach the last four of a major since 1978. Fabio Fognini followed by becoming the first to win a Masters event by beating Rafael Nadal en route to the Monte Carlo title last month.

And players like Matteo Berrettini and Lorenzo Sonego are in the process of breaking through, while teenagers Lorenzo Musetti and Jannik Sinner represent a bright future.

All that success has resulted in record ticket sales at this week's Italian Open — and some of the Italians could make a run at the French Open, which starts May 26.

"The men haven't reached this level in 40 years. So people are not coming only to see (Rafael) Nadal or (Serena) Williams, they're coming to root for the Italians," Italian Tennis Federation president Angelo Binaghi said. "It's one thing to have 10,000 spectators. It's another thing to have 10,000 fans.

"This boom in men's tennis is the next step in a process that began with the golden age of the women followed by the development of SuperTennis," Binaghi added, referring to the federation's highly successful TV channel . "A minute after Fognini won Monte Carlo I called the ticket office and they had already noticed a jump in sales."

The women's golden age that Binaghi was referring to includes the four Fed Cup titles that Italy won between 2006 and 2013 with a team featuring Francesca Schiavone, Flavia Pennetta, Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani. Schiavone (2010 French Open) and Pennetta (2015 U.S. Open) also won Grand Slam titles, while Vinci (2015 U.S. Open) and Errani (2012 French Open) were Grand Slam finalists.

Corrado Barazzutti captained those winning Fed Cup teams and remains Italy's Davis Cup captain. He's also Fognini's personal coach and played on the 1976 Italy team that won the Davis Cup — making him the link between generations.

"A lot of it is because the skill level of our coaches has improved," Barazzutti said. "We're growing together with the players. And the federation is doing its part by assisting these coaches and players."

Berrettini, who recently won the Hungarian Open and reached the BMW Open final in Munich, Germany, in consecutive weeks, upset fifth-ranked Alexander Zverev on Tuesday before a raucous, soccer-like crowd at the Foro Italico.

Sonego, who is 23 like Berrettini, came through qualifying to reach the quarterfinals in Monte Carlo.

Musetti won this year's Australian Open boys' title at the age of 16 — and he's not even the country's most promising young player. That title belongs to Sinner, the only 17-year-old in the top 400 of the rankings at No. 263.

In Sinner's first Masters Series match on Sunday, he rallied past American veteran Steve Johnson in three sets. That made Sinner the youngest player to win a match at the Italian Open since Goran Ivanisevic 30 years ago.

"He's the real deal," said Riccardo Piatti, Sinner's coach.

"I've coached a lot of players and he's certainly one of the best I've seen," Piatti told The Associated Press, adding that Sinner has "similar potential" to top-ranked Novak Djokovic and Richard Gasquet, who he also coached to the top 10. "But we need to give him some time."

Piatti attributed the success of the home players to the proliferation of Challenger and Futures tournaments — the level just below the pro tour — around Italy.

At No. 12, Fognini is within striking distance of becoming the first Italian man in the top 10 since Barazzutti achieved the feat in 1979.

"Fabio has always been a talented player and now he's got another component: He's got a Grand Slam champion in his family," Piatti said, referring to Pennetta, Fognini's wife. "Flavia understands him, assists him and encourages him. It's definitely a favorable situation."

Fognini and the others are attempting to become the first local man to win the Italian Open since Adriano Panatta in 1976.

"I'm coming in here with a bit more confidence, which is what I lacked in past years," said Fognini, who is also known for his temper. "I'm a bit calmer. Winning a big tournament like Monte Carlo put me a bit more at ease."

The Italians' rise has also coincided with the addition of two big tournaments.

The Next Gen ATP Finals, a year-ending event for the world's top 21-and-under players, has been held in Milan since 2017. And from 2021-25, Turin will host the ATP Finals for the season's top eight singles players and doubles teams, taking over from current host London.

"I think this will change the whole thing in Italy," coaching great Nick Bollettieri said in Rome. "When you have three or four young ones that will inspire the other young ones to keep going."

When Turin was recently awarded the ATP Finals, Binaghi announced that he expects an Italian to be competing in the tournament come 2021.

"We've got players in the right position to make it there," Barazzutti said. "Why not?"

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More AP Tennis: https://apnews.com/apf-Tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AndrewDampf

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