Lorenzo Musetti Rediscovers His Mojo In Monte Carlo

Lorenzo Musetti in action.

Fittingly for a tournament that boasts the single most beautiful court in all of tennis (the centre court that literally overlooks the Mediterranean), Monte Carlo has begun the European clay court season in style. In addition to Andrey Rublev finally winning the Master’s title that his talent so richly deserves, there were multiple sub-plots, including the magnificent semifinal between Holger Rune and Jannik Sinner. Rune eventually won that match, with the contest probably proving that they are probably the two main contenders to the crown of Carlos Alcaraz, the young king of tennis. But perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the whole week was the long-awaited return to form of another brilliant young Italian, Lorenzo Musetti.

Musetti’s Season Has Finally Begun

It felt as if Musetti’s season finally began in Monaco. That is because he has had, by any measure, a terrible start to 2023. An early exit at the Australian Open was followed by a sustained run of poor form, such that he had not won two games in succession this calendar year going into Monte Carlo; indeed, he had barely even won one game in succession. Fortunately, however, for Musetti and all fans of the single-handed backhand, that all changed last week.

In total, Musetti won three games in succession in Monte Carlo, all of varying difficulty and importance. His first-round match was against yet another gifted young male player (the gerontocracy of The Big Three seems to have given way to a potential Big Ten), Serbia’s Miomir Kecmanović, who had excelled the week before in Portugal by making the final of the Estoril Open. Given Musetti’s woeful lack of form and that he was playing a player in such fine form, Kecmanović was probably the favourite for the match. Nevertheless, Musetti won in straight sets, edging a first-set tiebreak before running away with the second set for a straight-sets win, 6-1 6-0.

Having achieved one bagel against Kecmanović, Musetti went one better against his even younger compatriot, Luca Nardi. (Nardi is only 19, whereas Musetti is a grizzled veteran of 21.) And in both those matches, he obviously regained at least some of the confidence that he had lost earlier this year and that is so vital for a player of his flair and imagination. Nevertheless, nothing could have prepared him or indeed the tennis world for what might be called “The Musetti Upsetti”.

Downing Djokovic – And Possibly Exorcising A Few Demons, Too

Musetti’s match in Monte Carlo’s last 16 was against Novak Djokovic, the current World No.1 and the man who had inflicted probably the most painful and damaging defeat of his career so far. That had come at Roland Garros in 2021, when Musetti played superbly to reach the fourth round, where he met Djokovic. Remarkably, Musetti went two sets up against Djokovic at Roland Garros, playing tennis of an ability that bore comparison with that of his great compatriot and double-French Open winner, Nicola Pietrangeli.

That was until his relative lack of fitness compared to Djokovic (then again, everyone looks unfit compared to Djokovic, even Olympic athletes) meant that he had to retire in the fifth set, which he was trailing 0-4, after Djokovic had fought back to level the match at two sets all. The rematch in Monaco between the two men was obviously only over three sets, rather than five, but it will hopefully allow Musetti to exorcise some of the demons and remove some of the scar tissue caused by the 2021 French Open loss to Djokovic.

The first set was fairly routine, in that Djokovic eventually won it 6-4, but in the second and particularly the third sets Musetti showed conclusively that he is capable of playing at the level of an Alcaraz, Rune or Sinner, only with perhaps even more imagination and sheer feel, especially around the net, than those players can produce.

Musetti was simply magnificent in his victory over Djokovic, making him truly “Must-See” Musetti. Djokovic is probably the best defender in the history of men’s tennis, but even he was powerless at times against some of the shots that Musetti produced, at least a couple of which were so good that most other players couldn’t even conceive of playing them, let alone executing them. One example was a cross-court drop shot, hit from the baseline, which somehow just floated over the net for a winner.

The win against Djokovic was a reminder of the seemingly boundless potential that Musetti possesses and indeed has always possessed. A former-junior world #1, he had first shown that potential in the professional ranks during his thrilling run at Roland Garros in 2021; he did so again in Hamburg last summer, when he beat Alcaraz in the final; and he made it a hat-trick of superb performances in recent years by beating Djokovic in Monte Carlo.

Consistency Is The Next Challenge

The challenge for the mercurial Musetti now is to add some consistency to his fine serve, fabulous shot-making and perhaps unmatched hand skills. Ever since breaking through at the French Open two years ago, he has been largely inconsistent. He barely won a game for the rest of 2021 after losing to Djokovic in Paris and even last year he went up and down the rankings, notwithstanding his summer triumph in Hamburg and another title win later in the year in Naples. And this year, of course, he had been not so much in a slump before Monaco as a sucking sink-hole.

The challenge to be consistent, match after match and tournament after tournament, was beyond Musetti last week in Monaco, when he followed up his fabulous victory over Djokovic with a fairly limp straight-sets loss to another compatriot, Jannik Sinner, in the quarter-final. However, after winning the biggest game of his life against Djokovic, which, as he admitted on court afterwards, had virtually reduced him to tears, he can be forgiven for not being immediately able to back it up the following day.

He will have no such excuse for the rest of the European clay-court season, which of course culminates at Roland Garros. Musetti has the natural ability to compete with the favourites for the French Open: Rafael Nadal (if he is fit); Djokovic; and Alcaraz. Now he must show that he has the consistency, professionalism and sheer ability to grind, especially on clay (his favourite surface but the most physically demanding surface), to do so.

Main photo credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports