LONDON -- For the first time in Wimbledon history, Italy has a contender in the men's singles final. Matteo Berrettini was struggling for words on the court as he attempted to contemplate what he had achieved. First, there was the exhaustion and relief from beating the valiant Hubert Hurkacz in four sets 6-3, 6-0, 6-7 (3), 6-4. Then there was the emotional significance, both on a personal and national level.
Berrettini's journey to the final means Sunday is going to kick off a monumental day for Italian sport, with its men's football team competing in the Euro 2020 final against England later in the day.
"This is something nobody expected in tennis," Berrettini said Friday. "And then in football, we didn't qualify for the 2018 World Cup, but after that, the effort they put in, they deserve this final."
It was one match too many for Hurkacz, who had beaten Daniil Medvedev in five sets and Roger Federer 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-0 to reach the semifinals in what itself is a monumental career-enhancing feat. But Berrettini, 25, controlled the pace of the match, with his deadly serve, and there was enough there on Centre Court on Friday to cause just a dab of doubt as to whether this men's singles final will go as anticipated come Sunday with many coronating Novak Djokovic before the championship even started.
Berrettini was superb on Centre Court. As he tried to pick through where things went well for him, his memory drifted back to his first match on this famous patch of grass, against Federer in July 2019. Things didn't go according to plan that day as he lost in three sets. Berrettini should have displayed the same domination to rush through in straight sets in Friday's match, but instead he needed just one more set to overcome Hurkacz, who never managed to tame his serve.
The Italian finished with 22 aces -- the fourth time in this fortnight he has hit 20-plus aces in a match -- with a further 50 unreturned. He won a remarkable 86% of points on his own first serve, and pinged one down at 137 mph. That's enough to give Djokovic a headache entering the final.
He was also disciplined, rationing himself to just 18 unforced errors, but then you factor in his blink-and-you'll-miss-it forehand, which caused Hurkacz all sorts of trouble. He hit 24 winners off the forehand side, leaving Hurkacz with 18 unforced errors on that side. It was a commanding performance.
The decisive spell came midway through the first set, as Berrettini broke Hurkacz to make it 4-3, and he then went on a remarkable run, winning 11 straight games, to also take the second set. He was dancing around Centre Court, and even when the ball kissed the top of the net, it'd drop neatly for the eventual victor. Hurkacz shanked a couple of returns -- one that leapt so far into the sky it would've made astronaut Tim Peake proud as he watched on from the Royal Box -- and the third set looked like it would be a formality for Berrettini.
But as Hurkacz proved at Wimbledon, his defensive game is supreme. He rediscovered his serve and played his way back into the third set to force the tiebreak. There he dominated proceedings, getting three mini breaks, but Berrettini broke back in the first game of the fourth set to retake control. He had told himself in that break between sets that he was "feeling better and stronger" than Hurkacz -- don't mistake that for arrogance, though. It is just the confidence he has instilled in himself that has seen him win 23 of his past 25 matches on grass, including taking the pre-Wimbledon Queen's title. Friday's victory means he has now gone one step further than he did in the 2019 US Open, when he was knocked out in the final four by Rafael Nadal.
The work he's done on his mental and physical strength with his longtime coach Vincenzo Santopadre, whom he has worked with since he was 14 years old, has now paid dividends. In recent form, he's the most dominant player in the ATP on grass, and he also has this ability to close out leads -- he has a 19-0 record in matches where he's taken the first two sets.
"I feel I fully deserve to be here, and I want to enjoy my first final," Berrettini said. "It's a really unbelievable feeling."
It has been a long time coming for Italian tennis.
Berrettini has been standing on the shoulders of Italian giants here and has referenced the influence Flavia Pennetta, Sara Errani, Roberta Vinci and Francesca Schiavone all had on him. Their feats allowed his mind to drift and wonder what might be possible in the sport, but reaching a Wimbledon final was previously a step too far.
"I never dreamed of [reaching the final] because it was too much," he said afterward.
But the feat brings an end to the 45-year wait for Italian men's tennis to have someone in a Grand Slam final -- the last was Adriano Panatta in the 1976 French Open. Berrettini uses Panatta as an informal adviser, and the two spoke after his win over Felix Auger-Aliassime. This feat means all eyes in the sporting world will be on Italy this weekend as it looks to rewrite the script and interrupt the sense of predestination behind both Euro 2020 and Wimbledon.
There were little reminders of Sunday's Euro 2020 final dotted around Centre Court. Berrettini has watched the Azzurri in the players' bio-bubble in central London and has drawn inspiration from the feats of Roberto Mancini's men. Then, there were the occasional attempted chants of England football's biennial anthem "Three Lions" breaking out in the stands, while David Beckham was there in a pristine cream suit in the Royal Box. Berrettini now has the chance to land the first blow for Italian sport on Sunday, with the Euro 2020 final later that evening.
"For Italian people in general, it's going to be a tough Sunday," Berrettini said. "We deserve it; it's going to be a great day of sport. Together with football, I hope we're now one of the biggest sports in Italy. I will tell people in Italy to buy a nice TV, as it's going to be a big Sunday for us. Obviously I'm going to think first about mine, and then if I have the chance, I'll watch them."
Berrettini needed a couple of hours to comprehend exactly what he had achieved on Friday afternoon. He'll continue fine-tuning his preparation for Sunday's final, but he will head into it knowing he has the serve and power to deliver a Grand Slam singles title for Italian men's tennis for the first time in 45 years.