Exclusive: “We still have to discover his limits” – Santopadre talks about his “special” coach-player relationship with Berrettini
Vincenzo Santopadre and Matteo Berrettini have been working together for more than a decade. On the eve of his Australian Open semi-final with Rafael Nadal, we revisit this exclusive interview, in which the Italian’s longtime coach opens up about their relationship and what he feels makes Berrettini a special athlete
When Tennis Majors spoke to Vincenzo Santopadre last summer, world No 10 Matteo Berrettini was fresh off his fourth ATP title at the Belgrade Open in Serbia. It was the Italian’s first title since 2019 and served to remind us of what a lethal force he can be – on any surface. Having reached the Wimbledon final in 2021, Berrettini continues to make history for Italian tennis with his run at the 2022 Australian Open and we revisit this interview with his longtime coach, learning how the pair met as well as unique elements of Berrettini’s personality that make him a prime candidate for success on the ATP Tour and, as he’s shown in the past year, at the Grand Slams.
Vincenzo Santopadre, what led you to become Matteo Berrettini’s coach?
He is guilty. I didn’t want to be a coach (smiling). No, I’m joking. I love to teach, to stay with guys, to be among young people. With Matteo, it’s something special. I also worked with Flavio Cipolla, who is a former world No 17. I used to work with him, but not full-time. It’s really a full-time job with Matteo. As the years passed, I’ve tried to understand what he needed. At first, I’ve said: ‘Okay, he needs somebody to stay with him, to travel with him maybe for 10 weeks every year.’ And the question was also for me: ‘Do I want this?’ For me it’s very important to understand what the player needs and then I had to understand also for myself. That was the key. When I said he is guilty of me being his coach, it’s not 100 percent true, but there is a little bit of truth. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know if I’d be here right now. I like to be a coach, I love to be a coach. But the things that happened with Matteo are particular. I worked with him for 11 years. That was a journey that we started together and we found that it was a big opportunity for both of us.
Do you remember the first time you saw him play and what were your first thoughts about him?
I remember that very well, like a lot of work stuff (smiling). His father came to me in the club where I was starting to work, in Rome. He said: ‘I have these two guys’, because Matteo has a younger brother, Jacopo (currently ranked 530th in the world in singles). When they were young, Jacopo had maybe better results than Matteo. They were both good, but not unbelievable players. I knew their grandfather, because he used to work at another club where my parents were, so it’s a special story. They came the first day for a trial. They were young, they were a little bit tight. They were both not 100 percent healthy, they had some flu. We were working on court number 5 at the club, I remember this. I tried to make them feel like at home, to joke with them. That was not a problem for me. I’ve soon realised that they have a good family, their values are good. It was really a pleasure to work with them, because I didn’t have to trouble myself with things I don’t like.
What did the father want from you? To make them pros?
The father wanted them to be the better they could possibly be. I said: ‘Okay, I start to work with them, but I can’t say what they will become.’ First of all, what do you mean by pros? For me, it means Top 100, because then you can live from your work. Nobody can promise this. I could see that they had good values for sport, I knew that I was in a special club, with good coaches around me. But to say it was 100 percent sure, it’s not my way of thinking. I’ve said that I’d try and we’d see what would happen during the journey. Normally I’m optimistic, but to be realistic, when you have a guy who is 14 years old, the probability that he’ll become a pro is slim. If you have to bet on a guy, I’d bet that he won’t become a pro, because it’s so difficult. Then we started to work, day by day.
Santopadre: “I don’t want him to feel that I’m saying something wrong and he stays with me because he is a friend of mine, I really don’t want this”
What were the most important steps between that beginning and now, with Matteo being a Top 10 player?
He understood well that the most important thing was to work with passion and without the pressure of short-term results. That’s a kind of work that is very ambitious. We wanted to grow a man. When he arrived, he was a baby. With the years passing, he is a man. I also had to change my role. It’s very different to speak to a guy that is 14 and to a man that is 24. I had to realise that the best thing for him was changing my skin. At the beginning, I was not a coach, but a maestro, as we say in Italian. I was his trainer and now I’m his coach, that changes a lot of things.
What could you tell him when he was 15 that you can’t tell him anymore and what can you share with him today that you couldn’t when he was a teenager?
My way of working is not really hard, at all. If you’re playing sports at 14, it’s to have fun, to enjoy. You do it with responsibility. If you play five times a week, it’s a lot. You lose something, buy you win something on the other side. When he was younger, I could force him a little more, I didn’t have to explain too much what I was doing. With the years passing, I had to share with him the project. At the beginning, it was mostly focus on tennis, the way he could play and to learn how to play on every situation, to build the kind of mentality that is the best you can have to be a champion. We worked on that. Now I can share everything with him. I can talk about my kids, about family, hobbies, and everything. When we started, I was working with him only on court, at the club. Right now, I’m spending 90 percent of the time with him, when we are in the hotels, at restaurants. The relationship has changed a lot.
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Are you now friends more than coach and player?
Balance is another key in my life. Four, five, six times a year, I tell to Matteo that of course, we have a really good relationship, but I don’t want him to feel that I’m saying something wrong and he stays with me because he is a friend of mine, I really don’t want this. We are working together, it’s a job. Then obviously, we have something more. We have this relationship going for a long time. Our personalities are similar in a lot of ways, we can understand each other very well. It’s very difficult to find this balance. Sometimes there are players with whom I only had a work relationship and I don’t like this. But I don’t like only having a friendship with my player. I’m not just a friend or just a coach, I’m both. To me, this is the best. That’s why I don’t know if I’d be coaching somebody else right now.
Santopadre: “We don’t know what are his limits, we still have to discover it”
How does Matteo behave through good run or rough patches? How is he impacted by his results?
We worked a lot on this, along with his mental coach, Stefano Massari. I think Matteo did a great job and he’s still working on it, because you have to work day-by-day on this. The difference I feel between Matteo and some other young players who are not as good as him right now is that Matteo is sometimes very disappointed when he loses, but every time, he learns something. The idea for me and for him is that when you are losing, you have a big opportunity. Because your opponent is showing you that you have something that you have to do better. Understanding the value of losing a match, it’s something unbelievable.
And you feel that he is better at this than most players of his generation?
I think so, especially with Italians. In Italy, most of the time, and I don’t like that, you’re a champion if you win and you’re a loser if not. It’s not like this. For me, Stefano Massari and the team, because people joined us through the years, we don’t change our mental approach if he wins or loses a match. He is like this too. He likes this way of thinking. Of course he is really happy when he wins and disappointed when he loses, because when you do this kind of profession, in sports, you have to be disappointed. Something it’s missing if not. It’s normal. Inside a man, there is a little child still living. When you’re a child, you are happy and you smile if you win, and you cry if you lose. So this child has to continue to live, but in a man.
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He finished the 2019 season in the Top 10, something that was pretty unexpected at the time. When did you understand that he had it in him?
It evolved unbelievably fast. That was not at all predictable, because he was not that kind of player that you were saying that he will become Top 50 for sure, when he was 18 or 19. Nobody could say this. Instead, a lot of people didn’t even pay attention. Maybe it was good for him. He has his own story, his own journey. But every day, he wanted to be better than the day before and that’s an important key to me. He is very ambitious. He solved the problem pretty fast during the last years. We don’t know what are his limits, we still have to discover it, I hope so. He has some years in front of him to reach them. He just arrived, he is a new-born Top 10.
Santopadre: “He forces us to be better, as a team”
Did he clearly state to you that this was his goal to reach that ranking?
He’s not the kind of guy who’s talking too much about this and I love that. To me, the facts are more important than the words. He’s talented, because I know that if I say something to him today, when we are on court, if I ask in three months if he remembers what I said to him during that match or that practice, he will remember for sure. If you really want something, you’re right there, in the moment. When he was young, I was not suggesting things to him, I was saying: ‘Matteo, do 10 minutes of warm-up’, and he was doing it. Now he is aware of what he does. If I say something to him, he thinks about it and he will do it if he feels this is important. Once is enough with him, I know he will do it for the rest of the years.
You even said that he helped you become better as a coach…
Of course. First of all, he was so ambitious that I found out what I was missing when I was a player. I was happy to become exactly No 100 in the world, to play in the Davis Cup. I was maybe a little bit too happy. I needed to be more ambitious. To be a coach, you have to be like a player, to be better every day, to talk with other coaches, to listen, to read. I’m very happy because together with him, it’s something special. He forces us to be better, as a team, because he is growing day-by-day. We had to wonder what he needed now, so we had to evolve, in a natural way. Then I was very lucky. I suggested people to join the team, people that I knew very well. The mental coach, Umberto Rianna, and the other people that are working with Matteo and me are really nice people. Everybody is giving something to the other.
Santopadre: “In a certain way, Matteo was already ready for this period, with Covid”
Can you remember rough patches when Matteo and you had to work together to overcome a tough situation?
It’s like the second or the third time that someone asks me this, and you know what? This is really special. I thought about it, and I really can’t say. Not because I don’t want to. We are both very calm. We never fight. We are both lucky. I feel he is a nice guy, he likes to work a lot and I like this. He feels that it’s the same for me, I love this job, I have passion. It’s easier for us to solve the problems, to not have troubles.
But if you had to pick one down moment in your player-coach relationship, what would it be?
Maybe the worst moment was when he was injured. He suffered a lot of injuries and these moments were special. I won’t say that they were negative, even if they were not happy, of course. These moments were an opportunity to ask ourselves what we can do. In a certain way, Matteo was already ready for this period, with Covid, because he dealt with a lot of injuries during his career and each time he saw them as an opportunity to be better. When he was in trouble with his left wrist, we started to work a lot on his backhand slice. When he was bothered by his knee, he stopped playing for six months, not a week, and we started to work on his upper body. Every time, when he was coming back on court, he was much better than when he stopped. Maybe it’s this kind of way of thinking that helped us not to have many difficult moments.