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Forza Italia: Teenagers steal the show at the Italian Open

ROME (AP) — The fans are missing quite a show at the Foro Italico. Led by teenagers Lorenzo Musetti and Jannik Sinner, four home players have reached the third round of the Italian Open for the first time in more than four decades.

Also into the Round of 16 is last year’s U.S. Open semifinalist Matteo Berrettini, who will play fellow Italian Stefano Travaglia on Friday. “We have a lot of young players. It’s great for Italian tennis,” the 19-year-old Sinner said after upsetting third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas. “Everyone is following their own path. Some of us are arriving earlier than others, some later.”

While Sinner already established himself as one of the world’s top young players by winning the Next Gen ATP Finals last year, the 18-year-old Musetti burst upon the scene this week by following up his victory over three-time Grand Slam winner Stan Wawrinka by beating former U.S. Open finalist Kei Nishikori on Thursday — both in straight sets

“I’m really proud of myself,” Musetti said. “It’s not as easy as it looks. There’s a lot of work behind this. Talent isn’t enough. My junior career helped me a lot.” Unlike Sinner, who turned pro earlier, Musetti developed his game by winning the Australian Open junior title last year after reaching the final of the U.S. Open junior event in 2018.

While Sinner is a steady baseline player, Musetti has shown off a vast array of shots from all over the court — most of which he modeled after his idol, Roger Federer. “He’s better than me in terms of all-around game,” Sinner conceded.

Nishikori might agree -- as evidenced when he applauded Musetti for responding to his overhead by placing an improbable one-handed backhand winner on the line from far off the court to conclude a long rally.

“I don’t know how he’s going play on hard (courts) but for sure he’s going to have a lot of power on the clay,” Nishikori said. “Good backhand, too. Good serve. He can come in well. He can do pretty much everything. That’s a big weapon for him.”

Musetti became the youngest player -- from any country -- to reach the third round in Rome since Fabrice Santoro in 1991. The 249th-ranked Musetti required a wild card just to get into the qualifying tournament, then made the main draw by narrowly beating another highly regarded 18-year-old Italian prospect, Giulio Zeppieri, in three sets.

The last time four Italian men made it this far in Rome was 1979, when Corrado Barazzutti, Paolo Bertolucci, Gianni Ocleppo and Adriano Panatta achieved it. Panatta remains the last Italian man to raise the trophy on home soil, having beaten clay-court master Guillermo Villas in the 1976 final amid fan pandemonium.

The scene has been far different this year, with spectators barred from attending matches due to the coronavirus pandemic. Barazzutti, now Italy’s longtime Davis Cup captain, said the Italian fans will have plenty of occasions in the years ahead to view the crop of new players from up close.

“These young players will climb up the standings and I’m certain the fans will see our players at the ATP Finals in Turin,” Barazzutti said, referring to the year-ending tournament for the top-eight players -- which is moving from London to Turin starting in 2021.

More AP Tennis: https://apnews.com/apf-Tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AndrewDampf

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