Lorenzo Musetti has a small regret from the biggest victory playing in the biggest tournament of his home country.
“I wasn’t lucky that there was no crowd,” the Italian said. “I couldn’t enjoy more.”
This was September 2020 at the ATP 1000 Italian Open in Rome, where an 18-year-old, his flappy hair resting neatly under a white inverted cap, came through the qualifying rounds to upstage three-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka 6-0, 7-6(2) in the first round. Musetti became the first player born in 2002 to win on the ATP Tour, having played all of one Tour-level match heading into the tournament.
Musetti backed up the win against the then 17th-ranked Wawrinka by beating world No. 35 Kei Nishikori in the second round, flaunting shots even the Japanese was compelled to applaud. He lost in the following round, but not before being the youngest player to compete in the third round in Rome since an 18-year-old Fabrice Santoro in 1991. The new Italian kid on the block had begun making waves on the big stage; no matter the absence of eyeballs amid the pandemic.
“It was the first time for me in Rome, first win against a top-20 player, first win in the ATP tour. From the qualifiers, beating a champ like Stan was fantastic. By far, it is one of the greatest matches that I’ve played in my career,” Musetti said in Pune, where he has made the quarter-finals of the ATP 250 Tata Open Maharashtra after beating Australian Aleksandar Vukic 7-6(3), 3-6, 6-3.
There was more to come. In his next tournament, Musetti lifted his maiden Challenger title in the Italian city of Forli, beating four top-100 players on the bounce along the way. A run to the semi-final of the ATP 250 event in Sardinia followed the next month. Starting out in Rome ranked 249th in the world, Musetti ended 2020 as the No. 127. He crossed the top-100 bridge in March next year, and ran into the bigger names more often: Marin Cilic in Miami, Aslan Karatsev in Monte Carlo, Felix Auger-Aliassime in Barcelona, Stefanos Tsitsipas in Lyon, Novak Djokovic in Paris.
The last one stood out. Dispatching three top-100 players in the first three rounds of Roland Garros, Musetti faced the Djoker juggernaut in the round of 16. The 19-year-old – with that cracking forehand raising the speed guns and crafty one-handed backhand turning the clock – took the first two sets in the tie-breaker, raising murmurs of one of the most spectacular upsets. But Musetti’s body gave up after two sets, while the top-ranked Serb pressed on. Musetti retired 0-4 in the deciding fifth set.
That match did two things for the young Italian: transformed his life and helped him understand the level needed to match the more established players on a consistent basis. On his day – like he’d shown over the course of the previous year – he sure had it in him.
Musetti knows his opponents are aware of that. “If I play my game, if I play good, if I trust myself, I think I can confront myself with them. I had the chance to beat some top-10 guys, won two sets against Djokovic when he won French Open. So if I’m in the right mood and the right attitude, I can be at that level,” he said. “They have to be, I mean, worried; it’s not an easy match for them, for sure.”
It has not been an easy few months for Musetti after the Djokovic duel. After his French Open run, he made five straight first-round exits, lost in the second round of the 2021 US Open and opening round of the 2022 Australian Open. He’s been unable to string together two consecutive match wins since then; the world No. 66’s quarter-final in Pune on Friday will give him a chance to do that.
Those uplifting moments in Paris did come with a slight slide. “For sure, it changed my life. Being two sets up with the No. 1 in the world in the centre of Philippe Chatrier (court) at the French Open at 19 years old, you know, it is pressure to manage it,” he said.
“I had some issues outside the tennis court that didn’t help. But I’m young, I need to do mistakes, I need to fall down and then rise up. Because I think it’s the better way to understand the mistakes. And that’s what I am doing. I am trying really hard to be more consistent – in matches and even in practice, which is not an easy thing for me. I’ve been working with the mental coach. I want to play, win matches and get the experience. That’s what I need,” he said.
Yet to get out of his teens, Musetti is the youngest addition to the Italian high sweeping elite tennis; the likes of Matteo Berrettini, 25, and Jannik Sinner, 20, being the prominent others. The 2019 junior world No. 1 has taken the fast lane to find a place there. “I was lucky to be fast in my growth,” he said. “Not everyone is like this.”