DarDarCH, licensed under CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Another Grand Slam week, another Italian tennis player in his early twenties emerges from the depths of anonymity to dazzle on one of the sport’s biggest stages. This time, we are not talking about Jannik Sinner. The world number 4’s solid start to the Australian Open has been impressive, but equally unsurprising after the latter part of the 2023 season, seeing Sinner finish runner-up in the World ATP Finals and bring home his first Masters 1000 trophy. This, coupled with Lorenzo Musetti and Matteo Arnaldi’s disappointing but not unfathomable second-round knockouts meant that it was a new face that grabbed the tennis headlines: Flavio Cobolli, on his Australian Open debut, beat 18th seed Nicolás Jarry and then Pavel Kotov in another upset in the second round, before being defeated by top-10 player and home favourite Alex de Minaur. Two wins in a Grand Slam may not seem like an achievement about which most professionals would boast, but more significant than Cobolli’s individual results is what his unexpected victories prove in their context—after Sinner (22 years old), Musetti (21) and Arnaldi (22) all became household names in giving Italy their first Davis Cup since 1976 in November, with his powerful forehand and gritty playing style once again we see yet another u-22 Italian tennis player demanding the world’s attention. Over the past 5 years, Italy has produced growing talents for this sport in the men’s game at an unprecedented rate, never before seen in the country’s history. This is without mention of the older—but still sub-30!—Lorenzo Sonego, also part of the winning Davis Cup team), and Matteo Berettini, the first Italian to ever reach the Wimbledon final in 2021. The natural questions to ask are why this sudden Italian influx of prodigies, and why now? Equally, why is it that on the women’s side—which for so long was the pride of Italian tennis, boasting the likes of Francesca Schiavone, Sara Errani, Roberta Vinci and Flavia Pennetta—no comparable phenomenon has taken place?

These issues have been addressed elsewhere in a variety of depth, but without any confident conclusions. Two New York Times articles from 2019 and 2021 raise the possibility that Italy’s strength in the Gentlemen’s Singles is down to the increased amount of challenger tournaments in the country, which allow young Italian players to be offered wildcards and compete against quality opponents, all without having to incur the prohibitive costs of abroad travel and accommodation. This is certainly a factor, and indeed inspired by the golden generation of Italian women’s tennis which culminated in the all-Italian final of the 2015 US Open, eventually won by Pennetta against Vinci, the Italian Tennis Federation has made an effort to grow the number of lower-level tournaments. The 5-10 years preceding that has definitely proved a turning point for the overall sport in the country, leading to a surge of investments in its facilities. However, it is the state of women’s tennis which casts doubt over the hypothesis, with the highest-ranked Italian women’s player being Jasmine Paolini in 31st position of the WTA standings. Wouldn’t, then, the increase in challenger tournaments for both sides of the sport also have improved, or at least maintained, the level of the women’s game? 

The other theory that the level of coaching for Italian players has improved is also valid, but equally only tells part of the story. Sinner has worked with the famous Riccardo Piatti, teacher of the likes of Novak Djokovic, Milos Raonic and Richard Gasquet. Musetti’s childhood coach already had national coaching experience. However, the truth is that while good coaching certainly helps the player improve more quickly, these coaches do not impart their wisdom to just anyone. They are highly sought-after, and only dedicate their time to those who have the traits to make it far in the game. A player’s talent and passion for the sport, therefore, must precede any high-level instruction.

One only has to look at the sports pages of national newspapers to see that tennis has vastly gained in popularity in Italy. More popularity means a greater number of players, which translates to a higher chance of producing top-quality talent. It seems that to answer what has created this Italian tennis renaissance, one must look at the reasons underlying the increased fascination with the sport, something which better coaching and improved facilities can only partly answer. As already mentioned, the success of women’s tennis in the 2010s cannot be overlooked as a contributing factor, but I would like to suggest another theory which could explain the lop-sided improvement of Italian tennis, favouring the men’s side. The last two decades or so have seen another change in Italy’s sporting world, and that is the fall in importance of both its men’s national football league, the Serie A, and its men’s national football team. Italy’s greatest footballing achievement in recent memory is undoubtedly the triumph in the 2006 World Cup, which saw them lifting the trophy after beating France in the final. Since then, and probably as a result of the Calciopoli scandal in which several clubs were involved in selecting biased referees, Italy’s performances in international tournaments have been failures in comparison, almost without exception. 2008 and 2016 saw them knocked out in the Euro quarterfinals; in 2010 they were not able to get out of the World Cup group stages, a situation which presented itself yet again in 2014; this was also the last time Italy even participated in the competition, having failed to qualify for the 2018 and 2022 editions, an unprecedented debacle. They were runners-up in the Euros 2012 but proceeded to be dealt the heaviest final defeat in the history of the competition by Spain, a game which emphasised the gulf between the two footballing nations. Hope was briefly restored during the 2020 Euros, where they defeated Belgium, Spain and England at Wembley on their way to winning the trophy, but the enthusiasm was quickly crushed by their loss to North Macedonia a few months later, depriving them of a World Cup spot. Italy will be present at the next Euros, but the feeling around the national squad is not brimming with optimism, with the team having limped their way to qualification as second placed in their group. 

This provides a stark contrast to the 90s and early 2000s, when Italian football, both domestically and internationally, was one of the powerhouses of the European scene. It is difficult to overestimate the effect that such recent lack of consistent footballing achievement has had on the Italian sporting consciousness. As an Italian born and bred, who spent his childhood in Verona in the north-east part of the country, I can vouch with my own experience that football plays a fundamental role in the forming of any young (mostly male) individual’s identity during their formative years. Friendships and rivalries are built around footballing affiliations, social hierarchies around ability on the pitch and a negative result at the weekend can compromise the whole ensuing week, especially if suffered at the hands of a team supported by a classmate. Football provides structure, motivation, and aspiration to the vast majority of the lives of young boys and, increasingly, young girls in the country.

Now imagine a generation which becomes disillusioned with a national team that does not live up to the expectations and cannot supply the joys with which it had previously provided its fans. The sport, although still the prominent feature of the headlines, ceases to create the usual stir and enchantment. Suddenly, that generation loses interest in a sport that cannot meet its desire for excitement and triumph and is thus unable to grab their passion or interest. However, the desire remains, and the youngsters shift their attention elsewhere in the hope of finding another pursuit that might fill that hole. The footballing disappointment creates a void in their lives into which another sport can seep.

This, I suggest, is exactly what happened to Sinner and his cohort. Being born at a time very close to the World Cup win of 2006, making it an irrecoverable or faded memory at best, these young boys, perhaps subconsciously, were diverted away from their country’s dominant sport which could no longer stir their imagination. Instead, they turned towards a different activity, which had provided equally special moments in the distant past, and was now undergoing a revival driven by the racquet blows of the various Schiavones and Erranis. Even the CONI (National Italian Olympic Committee) directly catalysed this diversion. This body assigns a series of prizes each year to the athletes who achieved important feats in their sport. CONI has yet to assign the highest honour, which is the Collare Atleti, to any contemporary footballer since 2006. In the meantime, from the world of tennis, this prize has been presented to Schiavone, Errani, Vinci, Bolelli, Fognini, Pennetta, Burnett, Knapp and that’s only up until 2015. Football retains its relevance, but even on an institutional level it is clearly presented as reaping less fruits than other sports and as currently less worthy of national recognition. 

There is also, of course, a natural cyclicality to every country’s sporting achievements: Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka are still waiting for a Swiss successor, while Coco Gauff has given America a victory to celebrate after the dominion of Serena Williams, a feat which the men’s game has not been able to replicate since Agassi and Roddick’s 2003 wins. Similarly, I’m sure it is only a matter of time before the Ladies’ Single has its next Pennetta. However, the coincidence between the fall of Italian fortunes in the sport that has hegemonized the country’s sporting consciousness for so long and the unprecedented rise in men’s tennis talent should not be dismissed—they should be correlated. This new generation has loaded the responsibility of Italian sporting pride on its shoulders. Italian tennis stars are no longer the Fabio Fogninis of this world, eccentric and controversial generators of viral courtside antics. They have not only managed to win trophies of a calibre which has rarely been matched in the nation’s history, but have also managed to win over hearts whose previous sporting heroes had gradually vacated since 2006. It may be too soon to call it the dawn of a new era, but it is indisputable that with football relegated to the shadows, it is the men’s tennis turn to bask in the limelight.