Matteo Berrettini targets a brighter 2023 after a stop-start year

Matteo Berrettini targets a brighter 2023 after a stop-start year
Matteo Berrettini is in Saudi Arabia this week competing in the Diriyah Tennis Cup. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 12 December 2022

Matteo Berrettini targets a brighter 2023 after a stop-start year

Matteo Berrettini targets a brighter 2023 after a stop-start year
  • ‘I’m ready to compete again,’ Italian star says, looking back on injury-plagued year

After a stop-start 2022 campaign that saw Matteo Berrettini miss two of the four tennis grand slams due to injuries and illness, the Italian is hoping he enjoys a healthier 2023 as he targets a return to the world’s top 10.

Berrettini, who is in Saudi Arabia this week competing in the Diriyah Tennis Cup, was ranked a career-high No.6 early this season after reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open.

A right-hand injury that required surgery ruled him out of the entire clay season before he made an impressive return to the tour, winning back-to-back grass-court titles in Stuttgart and London. Bad luck struck again, however, as he tested positive for COVID-19 on the eve of Wimbledon and the 26-year-old sat out the action, knowing he was considered one of the favorites for the title.

Last month, a foot problem he picked up in Naples stopped him from playing singles for Italy in the Davis Cup finals, where he took part in just one doubles match before wrapping up his season.

“Mentally, it was really tough,” Berrettini told Arab News, reflecting on his 2022 campaign.

“I was at my best ranking, I was playing good, I had a good run in Australia, clay season was coming and grass season was coming, which are the ones I love the most, and then that injury happened so it was tough to deal with that.

“At the same time I tried to take that time in order to come back stronger, with more energy. Because, obviously, the tour can be really tiring in some ways, so I was like, OK, I have to stop and get surgery, but I’m going to try to use this time to get better, to maybe do something I wouldn’t able to do when I’m on tour. Just invest some time to do stuff I never had the time to do and I helped myself like that.

“It worked out because when I came back I was feeling ready, I was feeling good. Obviously after I got COVID in Wimbledon everything went a little bit downhill, but it’s ups and downs and, hopefully, next year there are going to be more ups.”

Berrettini admits it is tough getting back to being fully focused on tennis, and not spending too much time worrying about his body and his physical problems.

He said that he is feeling better and is “ready to compete” with an eye on having another strong run in Australia next month.

The Rome native explains how he tries to bring an intensity to his practice sessions to mimic match conditions in order to regain that match toughness he was lacking while dealing with injuries. He believes a healthier body can help relieve some of the pressure he has been feeling at tournaments lately.

“In general, I would like to be healthier. I played I don’t know how many tournaments this year and I felt like each tournament I played I had to perform and get points, otherwise my ranking would drop even more and having that kind of pressure is not easy to deal with,” said Berrettini.  

“So being healthy would mean also to be less stressed about that, so that’s one of the goals for sure (in 2023). Obviously I’d like to come back to the top 10, because I think the tennis is there, I just have to be more consistent.”

A former Wimbledon finalist with a devastating serve and forehand combination, Berrettini has shown great consistency at the grand slams over the last few years. He has made at least the quarterfinals in each of his last five major appearances, losing to Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal in four of them.

The men’s game is going through a generational change right now and players such as Berrettini are no longer focused only on chasing Djokovic and Nadal at the biggest events. The current world No.1 is Spanish teenager Carlos Alcaraz and Berrettini senses a shift in mentality on tour now that a 19-year-old is at the helm.

“It feels unbelievable if you think about it, what he achieved in such a short time,” Berrettini said of Alcaraz.

“I remember playing him in Australia at the beginning of the year and I played him Rio as well, and I felt he is a great player but what he did is still impressive for his age. The physicality he already has and everything, also mentally it’s not easy to deal with everything that he dealt with, so it’s impressive.

“At the same time we know that tennis it’s really tough, but it’s not impossible, we all know we can play our best tennis, I have to say it was a weird year with Novak not playing most of the slams, it was kind of a little weird. But Carlos deserves the world No.1 and I think everybody now is like, OK, he did it, yeah maybe it changed (our mentality) a little bit, it’s like maybe we can do it as well.

“Before world No.1 was Novak and Rafa, Daniil (Medvedev) already did it, which was impressive, but now, even Casper (Ruud) had the chance to be No.1 after the US Open.”

Away from the court, Berrettini has had an eventful year, full of new experiences. He became one of the faces of the fashion label Boss, alongside TikTok star Khaby Lame and supermodel Hailey Bieber. He attended the Cannes Film Festival and has been followed by cameras all year as one of the protagonists of the Netflix tennis docu-series that will be released early next season.

“It’s been fun,” he said of being part of the Netflix project.

“At the beginning I was like, what is this? Obviously when you win it’s always easy to have people around you and stuff but then when you lose, it’s tougher, you want to be by yourself, you don’t want to be bothered. But I was like, if I’m going to do this, I want to do it the right way. And that’s what I tried to do. I think it’s going to be really interesting to show people behind-the-scenes the stuff you don’t usually see.”

Berrettini lost his Diriyah Tennis Cup opener on Thursday to Stan Wawrinka. The Italian kicks off his 2023 campaign by representing Italy in the United Cup mixed team event in Brisbane, Australia, starting Dec. 29.


Madrid snatch derby victory against Atletico to reach Copa semifinals

Madrid snatch derby victory against Atletico to reach Copa semifinals
Updated 13 sec ago

Madrid snatch derby victory against Atletico to reach Copa semifinals

Madrid snatch derby victory against Atletico to reach Copa semifinals
  • Vinicius netted at the death to send Los Blancos through to the final four for the first time since 2019
  • Athletic Bilbao won 3-1 at Valencia to join  Barcelona and Osasuna in Monday’s semifinal draw

MADRID: Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior’s extra-time strikes earned Real Madrid a 3-1 win over rivals Atletico Madrid on Thursday to reach the Copa del Rey semifinals.

The spiky, gripping derby clash turned against Diego Simeone’s side in the additional period when defender Stefan Savic was sent off.

Atletico took the lead through Alvaro Morata after 19 minutes but Rodrygo’s sensational slalom run past three defenders and slick finish pulled Madrid level with 11 minutes remaining.

After Savic’s 99th minute red card, Benzema tucked home from Marco Asensio’s pass and Vinicius netted at the death to send Los Blancos through to the final four for the first time since 2019.

The buildup to the derby was tainted when a crude effigy of Vinicius was hung from a bridge near Real Madrid’s training ground, which the club described as “a disgusting act of racism, xenophobia and hatred.”

Madrid fans had planned to sing Vinicius’ name in support in the 20th minute, matching his shirt number, but were stunned into silence by Morata’s goal moments before.

Atletico, hitting their best form of the season, conjured a brilliant move to break the deadlock, with Morata tapping home after Koke’s dink allowed Nahuel Molina to stroke a first-time cross to the back post.

Eder Militao might have equalized but headed over from point-blank range, the ball deflecting slightly behind his leap to make the chance harder.

Antoine Griezmann was moving with freedom between the lines, relishing his new deeper role and pulling the strings for Atletico as they dominated the first half.

Madrid added another name to a long injury list when Ferland Mendy had to be replaced before half-time, with Eduardo Camavinga slotting in at left back and Dani Ceballos coming on.

Along with injuries for Dani Carvajal, David Alaba and Lucas Vazquez, it left Madrid without any natural full backs.

Benzema was not far away from reaching Fede Valverde’s flick-on from Nacho’s drive, as Madrid started the second half strongly.

Jan Oblak produced a fine save to deny the French forward, with Vinicius unable to react quickly enough to finish from the rebound.

At the other end, Axel Witsel sent an overhead kick narrowly wide and Thibaut Courtois tipped a vicious Griezmann free kick over as Atletico tried and failed to kill off the game.

Rodrygo levelled with 11 minutes to go with his jinking solo effort and subtle near-post finish, taking the game to extra-time.

Atletico defender Savic foolishly handed Madrid the edge when he was sent off for two yellow cards in two minutes.

The first came during an argument with Vinicius and the second for fouling Camavinga.

Madrid immediately began to capitalize when Vinicius crossed for Antonio Rudiger, who headed narrowly wide.

Benzema struck lethally after 104 minutes when Vinicius miskicked Marco Asensio’s cross and the ball traveled through to the striker.

Madrid, who last won the Copa del Rey in 2014, kept Atletico at bay in the final 15 minutes before Vinicius dribbled through and fired home to clinch the victory.

Earlier, Athletic Bilbao won 3-1 at Valencia to join record 31-time winners Barcelona and Osasuna in Monday’s semifinal draw.


Disappointment for captain Ronaldo as Al-Nassr lose 3-1 to Al-Ittihad in Saudi Super Cup semi

Disappointment for captain Ronaldo as Al-Nassr lose 3-1 to Al-Ittihad in Saudi Super Cup semi
Updated 27 January 2023

Disappointment for captain Ronaldo as Al-Nassr lose 3-1 to Al-Ittihad in Saudi Super Cup semi

Disappointment for captain Ronaldo as Al-Nassr lose 3-1 to Al-Ittihad in Saudi Super Cup semi
  • The winners will face Al-Feiha, who recorded a surprise 1-0 victory over Al-Hilal in day’s other last-four clash, in Sunday’s final
  • Al-Hilal will now shift their focus to the opening game of their FIFA Club World Cup campaign, against Wydad AC of Morocco, on Feb. 4

Cristiano Ronaldo will have to wait a while to lift his first Saudi silverware, after Al-Nassr fell to a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Al-Ittihad in their Saudi Super Cup semi-final on Thursday. The victors will meet Al-Feiha, who recorded a surprise 1-0 victory over Al-Hilal earlier in the day, in the final on Sunday.

Ronaldo, who was handed the captain’s armband for his second game with the league leaders, could have no complaints about the result. Al-Ittihad scored twice during an impressive first-half performance, and Nuno Santo’s side managed to hold on fairly comfortably after Anderson Talisca pulled one back for Al-Nassr midway through the second half.

Al-Ittihad took the lead after 15 minutes with almost their first attack of the game. Abdulrahman Al-Aboud exchanged passes with Abderrazak Hamdallah on the left side and then delivered a perfect low cross that Romarinho slotted home past goalkeeper Agustin Rossi, on loan from Boca Juniors and making his debut as a stand-in for the injured David Ospina.

Romarinho celebrates scoring his team’s first goal. (@ittihad) 

The Tigers visibly grew in confidence following the goal and looked like adding to their lead as they cut through the Al-Nassr back line time and time again. The Riyadh side struggled to bring Ronaldo into the game but then, just before the half-time, it looked as if the former Real Madrid star would open his Al-Nassr account.

A cross from the right found the skipper in the area and though he climbed high above the Al-Ittihad defense, his header from close range was straight at goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe.

Seconds later, Al-Ittihad extended their lead. Pity Martinez was robbed of possession on the right side and Romarinho broke free to float a perfect cross to the far side of the area. Hamdallah sent an equally perfect header back the way the ball had come and into the corner of the net.

Al-Nassr improved in the second half but still struggled to create clear chances. Ronaldo came close after 65 minutes but the five-time Ballon D’or winner sent his free-kick from just outside the left corner of the penalty area narrowly over the bar.

Shortly thereafter, Talisca put the Riyadh side back in the game as he fired home Luiz Gustavo’s low cross from the left. The Al-Nassr onslaught that might have been expected following the goal never really materialized, however, and Al-Ittihad sealed their place in the final in injury time thanks to a breakaway goal from Muhannad Al-Shanqeeti.

In May Al-Hilal lost the King’s Cup final to Al-Feiha after a penalty shootout. In Thursday’s game they did not even get that close.

The only goal of the game came after 21 minutes. Victor Ruiz had the ball in the middle of the Al-Hilal half and his perfect reverse through-pass split three defenders allowing Paulinho to run into the area, where the Brazilian calmly placed the ball to the left of goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf.

Paulinho celebrates the winning goal against Al-Hilal.  (@Alfaihaclub)

Just four minutes later, Al-Hilal were handed a perfect chance to get back on level terms. Abdullah Al-Hamdan, given a rare start by coach Ramon Diaz, dribbled into the right corner of the penalty area, where he was tripped by Ricardo Ryller. Up stepped Salem Al-Dawsari but he slammed his shot against the base of the left-hand post, though goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic, who did so much to help his team to victory in the King’s Cup, seemed to suggest he got a hand to it.

Al-Hilal had perhaps an even better opportunity immediately after the restart but, with the goal at his mercy, Al-Hamdan lifted the ball over from the edge of the six-yard box. Shortly after, the unmarked Saleh Al-Shehri headed wide from a good position. The blue wave continued to push forward but to no avail.

“Losing and saying goodbye to our chances of winning the Saudi Super Cup is painful,” said Al-Hilal striker Moussa Marega. “We must learn from the defeat and put it right in the future.”

Al-Feiha now have a chance to claim their second major silverware, while Al-Hilal must quickly shift their focus to another knockout tournament; the Asian champions will kick off their FIFA Club World Cup campaign against African title-holders Wydad AC of Morocco on Feb. 4.


Record-chasing Mbappé has Cavani’s PSG mark in his sights

Record-chasing Mbappé has Cavani’s PSG mark in his sights
Updated 27 January 2023

Record-chasing Mbappé has Cavani’s PSG mark in his sights

Record-chasing Mbappé has Cavani’s PSG mark in his sights
  • Mbappé's tally of 196 goals for PSG means he is only four behind Edinson Cavani's record for the club
  • Cavani is still idolized by fans, many of whom were angry at the club for letting him leave in 2020

PARIS: Kylian Mbappé can close in further on Paris Saint-Germain’s all-time scoring record when his team host Reims on Sunday.
Mbappé’s tally of 196 goals for PSG means he is only four behind Edinson Cavani’s record for the club. Cavani is still idolized by fans, many of whom were angry at the club for letting him leave in 2020.
Mbappé has taken longer to win PSG’s supporters over, especially when relations became frosty during the on-off transfer saga with Real Madrid.
But his exploits for France at the World Cup in Qatar increased his popularity all over the country, and since returning he’s been applauded at every away ground — although that might not be the case when PSG visit bitter rival Marseille twice next month.
The World Cup’s top scorer is in clinical form heading into Saturday’s match at Parc des Princes after netting five goals in a French Cup win on Monday, albeit against an amateur side.
Mbappé’s attitude in that game stood out along with his crisp finishing. He took the match very seriously and spoke of his respect for the non-league teams afterward.
“It’s a reminder for us that we all come from amateur football and it’s important to keep this link,” he said. “Even if it’s only for one game.”
Neymar has been largely anonymous for PSG since his World Cup heartbreak with Brazil, so PSG coach Christophe Galtier needs Mbappé to maintain his form.
“Kylian is among the greatest strikers, the world class strikers. He’s one of the best,” Galtier said. “He’s conditioned to score. That’s Kylian, a man of statistics and numbers. I don’t even need to encourage for him to break records.”
He is the league’s top scorer with 13 goals this season, one more than Lorient’s Terem Moffi and Lille’s Jonathan David, and it’s only a matter of time before Cavani’s record tumbles.
In far quicker time, too.
While Cavani notched his 200 goals in 301 games, Mbappé has taken just 241 matches to reach 196.
While his best season’s haul of 42 goals overall is less than Cavani’s best total of 49, Mbappé is already on 25 goals in 24 games so far in this campaign.
With half of the league campaign still to play, he could realistically hit 50 if PSG goes far in the Champions League and the French Cup.
That might be tough, however, since PSG face Bayern Munich in the round of 16 and are away to Marseille in the cup’s last 16.
A hectic schedule sees PSG playing seven games next month, including a league game at third-place Marseille that promises to be intense, and eight if they reach the cup quarterfinals.
Mid-table Reims are a hard team to beat, too, and are on an 11-match unbeaten run which includes holding PSG to a 0-0 draw at home in October.
PSG’s away form have been a concern recently, with consecutive defeats at Lens and Rennes allowing second-place Lens to close the gap to three points after 19 rounds.
So, PSG need a morale-boosting home win to get their confidence back, and help Mbappé close the gap on Cavani.


Vinicius effigy hung from bridge before Madrid derby

Vinicius effigy hung from bridge before Madrid derby
Updated 26 January 2023

Vinicius effigy hung from bridge before Madrid derby

Vinicius effigy hung from bridge before Madrid derby
  • The Vinicius effigy was described as a "racist attack" and "serious threat" against the Brazilian forward by Spanish media
  • Police sources told AFP they were investigating the incident, without offering further details

MADRID: A dummy dressed in a Vinicius Junior shirt was hung from a bridge near Real Madrid’s training ground ahead of the Copa del Rey quarter-final clash against Atletico Madrid on Thursday.
“Madrid hates Real,” read a banner draped on the bridge close to Valdebebas overnight Wednesday.
The Vinicius effigy was described as a “racist attack” and “serious threat” against the Brazilian forward by Spanish media.
Police sources told AFP they were investigating the incident, without offering further details.
The slogan is one which has been used by Atletico Madrid ultras in the past.
“Such acts are absolutely repugnant and inadmissible and shame society,” said Atletico in a statement.
“Our condemnation of any act that attacks the dignity of persons or institutions is categorical and unreserved.”
Atletico fans were filmed aiming racist chants at Vinicius in September before the Madrid derby at the Wanda Metropolitano in La Liga.
However, in December Spanish prosecutors closed an investigation into the chants, saying it was not possible to identify those culpable.
“We condemn the hateful actions against Vinicius,” wrote La Liga on Twitter.
“Intolerance and violence do not fit within football.”
Real Madrid’s 22-year-old winger is a divisive figure in Spanish football, with opponents sometimes angered by his flair and playing style, and his propensity to go to ground easily.
On the other hand, Vinicius is often targeted and hacked by opposition defenders to try and put him off his game, with no player in Europe fouled more this season.
“We have to protect him,” urged Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti on Wednesday in a news conference.
“Football needs him, he’s got an extraordinary talent and we have to protect him physically and in a mental aspect too.”
Real Madrid host rivals Atletico at the Santiago Bernabeu later on Thursday.


‘New teams, new brand’: Formula E CEO Jamie Reigle looks ahead to Diriyah E-Prix double-header

‘New teams, new brand’: Formula E CEO Jamie Reigle looks ahead to Diriyah E-Prix double-header
Updated 27 January 2023

‘New teams, new brand’: Formula E CEO Jamie Reigle looks ahead to Diriyah E-Prix double-header

‘New teams, new brand’: Formula E CEO Jamie Reigle looks ahead to Diriyah E-Prix double-header
  • Reigle talks exclusively to Arab News about Season 9, the new Gen3 car and what the future holds for the all-electric series

In the end, it proved all right on the night.

Almost 40,000 raucous fans turned up to welcome Formula E’s Gen3 era in Mexico City two weeks ago, and this weekend Riyadh will host the Diriyah E-Prix double-header.

“Mexico was fantastic,” Formula E CEO Jamie Reigle said. “I guess I have to start by saying there’s no denying that there was a pretty high degree of anxiety as we came into the race, for a host of reasons. First of all, it’s the first race to the season, so inevitably it’s a mix of excited emotions and anxious emotions.

“We’re talking top tier sport drivers, team principals, the manufacturers that want to win — so good that sense of anticipation, but this year that was ramped up, because it’s a brand new car, Gen3, which is a big leap forward.

“And we really push the limits in terms of the car,” he added. “We reduced the weight by 60 kg, we increased the power by 100 kilowatts, a lot of changes under the hood, so to speak, as well as new tires and a new battery. So there were some pretty well cataloged challenges that the teams faced in the testing period.”

After four successful years of Gen2, Formula E seems to have been given a reboot.

“From a purely commercial perspective, we launched our new brand identity,” Reigle said. “We had three new teams coming in, you had Maserati joining, in partnership with Monaco Sports Group, you had McLaren coming in, and then Cupra, coming back with the ABT team. New teams, new brands, just everything was new, and it was really successful.”

On Friday and Saturday the action moves to Saudi Arabia with rounds 2 and 3 of Formula E Season 9 taking place under the lights in Diriyah, increasingly a favorite destination for the drivers.

“I was at dinner last night — we did a charity fundraiser, gala dinner, and I was at the table with Andre Lotterer (of Avalanche Andretti),” said Reigle. “I wasn’t trying to tee him up. We had a group of guests and I asked ‘Andre, so what’s your favorite circuit in Formula E and motorsport?’ This guy has won Le Mans three times and raced in a lot of places. Without skipping a beat, he said Diriyah. It’s fast, high-speed corners, it’s really challenging to drive. The setting is amazing and it’s a night race, and sport, especially the electric cars and motorsport, just looks cool at night.

“The drivers love it.”

Reigle’s first race as CEO was Diriyah in 2019, and he has overseen the sport’s growth in the ensuing three years, which, of course, included the COVID-19 pandemic.

The future, he says, “is electric.”

Reigle added: “If you think about sports that didn’t exist 20, 30 years ago, and are big today, there’s very, very few. There’s really only one that has broken into the top, top tier, and it’s probably UFC. It was started in the 90s, kind of bubbled around, and then it got bigger and bigger.

“And Formula E has that opportunity,” he added. “We’ve got the top drivers, we’ve got a lot of the top manufacturers and teams — all the conditions are there. We’ve got these great venues. The question is do we have the fan base?”

The turnout in Mexico — “a big moment” — as well as the Gen3 car and changes in racing format, would suggest that increasingly, Formula E does.

Then there is the stellar lineup of drivers.

“People want to watch the best compete against the best,” Reigle said. “The good news for Formula E is that we already have a very high caliber of stars. Because of the way we grew up, we don’t have pay drivers, we don’t have guys whose dad owns the team. It’s all top tier professionals — guys who have won Le Mans, who have been in Formula One, who have won in DTM and who built their careers in Formula E.”

Reigle highlighted the career path of Dutch driver Nyck De Vries — Formula E champion in 2021 and now signed to Formula One’s Scuderia AlphaTauri — as an example of the high standards in electric racing. Other examples are Mitch Evans and Jake Dennis, the winner in Mexico City.

“Last year we did Indonesia for the first time and we had 60,000 people,” said Reigle. “MotoGP, that’s their only really international sporting event, now we’re adding to that. So you’ve got these big opportunities in emerging markets.

“This year we’re adding Hyderabad, Cape Town — we’re heading to Sao Paulo and Portland. Those are big markets that we’re going to open up, which is really exciting.

“If in three years, we’re not adding a few more cities, I’ll be disappointed.”