NEW YORK — Matteo Berrettini describes his mental coach as a big help and a best friend. They’ve been speaking on the phone before and after every match during Berrettini’s run to his first Grand Slam semifinal.
They had plenty to chat about when it came to this latest victory.
Berrettini, a 23-year-old from Rome, gave Italy a spot in the final four at the U.S. Open for the first time since 1977 in dramatic fashion, double-faulting away his initial match point and then needing four more to finally put away 13th-seeded Gael Monfils of France 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (5) after nearly four hours in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Wednesday.
“He told me, `I need to thank you, because I thought that everyone is born once and dies once. But during that match, I was born and died 15 or 16 times,”‘ Berrettini said about his conversation with the mental coach he’s worked with for several years. “I collapsed and got back up. I collapsed and got back up. That match point. Those other chances. I was down then I came back. It’s a great source of pride for me.”
In truth, the denouement was hardly a thing of beauty, with both men, clearly spent, fighting themselves and the tension of the moment as much as the guy on the other side of the net.
Monfils finished with 17 double-faults but managed to avoid any throughout the entire, exhausting fifth set until he served at 6-5 – and then he had three in that game, plus another two in the deciding tiebreaker, often doubling over between points to rest and catch his breath.
“A very bad day for me, serving,” Monfils said.
Berrettini acknowledged the obvious afterward, too, saying he felt “a little bit tight.”
It all was a bit of a whir.
“Right now, I don’t remember any points, just the (last) match point, you know?” he said. “I remember also the double-fault; I have to be honest.”
Berrettini, who is seeded 24th, will get a day to recuperate: He will face No. 2 Rafael Nadal or No. 20 Diego Schwartzman in the semifinals Friday. The other men’s semifinal that day is No. 5 Daniil Medvedev against unseeded Grigor Dimitrov, who beat an injured Roger Federer in five sets on Tuesday night to become, at No. 78, the lowest-ranked semifinalist at the U.S. Open since 1991.
Nadal, the last member of the Big Three standing because Federer and Novak Djokovic are out of the draw, was to meet Schwartzman on Wednesday night. That followed the last women’s quarterfinal, in which No. 15 Bianca Andreescu reached her first major semifinal by defeating No. 25 Elise Mertens 3-6, 6-2, 6-3.
Andreescu, a 19-year-old Canadian, improved to 31-4 this season, including 13-3 in three-setters. She takes on No. 13 Belinda Bencic on Thursday, when the other semifinal is Serena Williams against No. 5 Elina Svitolina.
Bencic also reached her first Grand Slam semifinal, following up her upset of defending champion and No. 1 seed Naomi Osaka by taking the last four games of a 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory over No. 23 Donna Vekic.
“I felt like I couldn’t get three good points together,” Vekic said. “I was, like, playing one point good, then bad.”
Berrettini-Monfils began on a muggy afternoon and concluded with Ashe’s retractable roof shut after rain came during the third set.
Monfils, who is 10 years older, fell to 2-7 in major quarterfinals and could be forgiven for wondering how many more chances he’ll get.
Berrettini, meanwhile, is on top of the world at the moment. With Corrado Barazzutti, Italy’s only other male semifinalist at the U.S. Open, back in 1977, in the stands Wednesday, Berrettini used his big forehand to produce 24 winners. He’s found an Italian restaurant he loves on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, so has been eating there throughout the tournament, and even had the owner there in his guest box, wearing a shirt festooned with the word “Carbonara.” (For the record, Berrettini’s dish of choice has been a simple pasta with olive oil and parmesan.)
The first match point came while Berrettini served for the win at 5-3 in the fifth. Two more came and went when Monfils served at 6-5. A fourth was erased by an ace by the Frenchman in the tiebreaker. But on the fifth, Berrettini’s serve was returned long by Monfils.
Berrettini stared at the ball as it descended, making sure it did, indeed, land out, so that he would, in fact, be moving on. He dropped to his back, spreading his limbs, then ripped off his hat as he rose to pound his chest.
He then proceeded to say “Grazie!” over and over during his postmatch interview, thanking “my family at home, my mental coach – they care about me a lot.”
And then, perhaps also as a reminder to himself, he told the fans who were pulling for him in the stadium: “The tournament is not finished yet, so be ready for the next match, guys.”