As the 2021 Internazionali BNL d'Italia kicks off, it's been seven years since an Italian player reached the final in Rome (Sara Errani in 2014) and five years since an Italian woman was ranked in the WTA Top 10 (Roberta Vinci in 2016).
But though the heyday of the country's "golden generation" - Errani, Vinci and Grand Slam champions Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta - has passed, a new era is emerging. One of the leaders is 20-year-old Elisabetta Cocciaretto, who enters Rome as a wildcard perched at a career high of World No.111.
Cocciaretto's rise since graduating from the junior ranks as been rapid, and shows little sign of slowing. In 2019, she shot from World No.750 to World No.215, and started 2020 by qualifying for her first Grand Slam at the Australian Open.
The Covid-19 shutdown was only a brief pause in Cocciaretto's ascent. In the first tournament back, she scored her first Top 30 win over Donna Vekic to reach the quarterfinals at home in Palermo, and followed that by making her first WTA 125 final in Prague.
This year, she has been a semifinalist in Guadalajara and was instrumental in Italy's Billie Jean King Cup play-off victory over Romania, winning two singles rubbers to send her country through to next year's qualifiers. In an interview with wtatennis.com, Cocciaretto reveals how important the inspiration of the previous generation has been to her, and why self-belief won't be enough as she seeks to emulate them.
What are your memories of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia?
Cocciaretto: When I started playing when was five or six, I was watching this tournament and dreaming to play in Rome just once in my life. And three years ago, I played my first time here after I won the pre-qualifying tournament to get a wildcard, and it was an incredible experience.
I was always turning on the TV to watch the Italians. I remember all the matches I watched. I remember when Sara Errani played the final against Maria Sharapova and I was dreaming to play one time the final, like her. And also to play against her one day, because she was my idol.
In 2019, not only did you play Errani, but you beat her 6-1, 4-6, 6-0 to win your first ITF W60 title in Asunción.
Cocciaretto: That was maybe the best tournament in my life. Not just because I won against her, but because the points got me into Australian Open qualifying - my first Grand Slam.
How important was it to see that "golden generation" of Italian tennis in the public eye and achieving such great things as you were growing up?
Cocciaretto: For us, it was like all of them were an idol. There was not just one that did a lot of big things at one tournament, there were four. A lot of girls started to play tennis because of them.
Sara has given me a lot of advice. If I have a problem or if I have some questions, I can ask her because she's very, very nice. She's not just a good tennis player, but she's a very, very nice girl. I remember my first advice from her was in the Billie Jean King Cup in 2018. I was so scared, but she was also young on the tour like me once, and she had the same problems I did. She helped me a lot every time I asked her something.
I don't know Vinci, Schiavone and Pennetta very well - we say hi but nothing else - because they retired before I started to play tournaments. But I remember when I was young that I always watched their matches. I watched Pennetta and Vinci in the US Open final. The things they did in the past, it's a dream for me - so I will do my best to do what they did.
The four of them had really good camaraderie off court as well - and at the Billie Jean King Cup, you also seemed to have great team spirit with your squad. Does it help to have players like Jasmine Paolini and Martina Trevisan on the rise with you?
Cocciaretto: Yes. We are very, very good friends. I have played doubles also with Martina and we trained in the Italian Tennis Federation centre for three years. They are older than me by four or five years, but we have the same process in this moment. For me, it's important to share this process, to share this life with good people like Jasmine and Martina. So I'm happy about that.
You posted something interesting on your Instagram recently - that it wasn't enough to have self-belief. What did you mean by that?
Cocciaretto: You don't have to believe in yourself. This thing, my coach Fausto [Scolari] taught me. I used to say, "Yes, I have to believe to do it!" And he said, "No, you don't have to believe. You have to do it."
Because if you just believe and think, you will not do it. It's just words. You need to do it in the moment, and you will improve to do it again. Not to think, but to do.
How long have you been working with Fausto?
Cocciaretto: From March 2017, so it's four years. But I've known him since I was 13 or 14 because he was the coach of another Italian girl. We started together when I was a junior with no ranking so this is a very, very good process that we are doing - him as a coach and me as a player. We are growing up together.
Also off the court, not just in the court. I became a good person off the court because of how he helped me in the court. It is the most important thing for me, because if you're just a tennis player you're not well-rounded. He taught me that you don't just have to be a tennis player, but also a good person off the court. This can help me a lot when I finish my career, but also during my career.
Talking of life after tennis, you're also a law student at the University of Camerino. Is that a future career path for you?
Cocciaretto: I don't have one job I want to do after tennis. But I was good at school and I like studying, so I wanted to continue to university. I wanted to know more about the culture of government and how things work. But I don't like maths, so I didn't want to study economics. And I don't want to go into politics - my mother is in politics, and I don't like the lifestyle. I have a good memory, so that helps with law. I'm preparing for my public law exams now - it's very hard, but I will do my best!
How did you get started in tennis, and what do you like most about the sport?
My father was playing. Not playing tournaments, just playing. There was an U12 tournament in Porto San Giorgio, and one day I went to watch the boys and girls playing there. I was five. And I said, "Papa, I want to play." And my father said, "OK, you will play in October." The coach said I was good and I could do well, and I started at seven, eight, nine to play little tournaments. And then the passion grew every day.
I just like playing, and I like so much the fight - if I lose or if I win. In every match now there is a fight because of course, in this level you will not be playing 6-1, 6-1. You will play third sets or a tight match. It will not be easy with anyone. And I like that.\
Most people first saw you play for the first time against Angelique Kerber at the Australian Open in 2020. You lost, but came up with some amazing winners. What lessons did you take from that match?
Of course, that was a very tough match. I mean, it was a very great opportunity to play a former World No.1 in the Rod Laver Arena in the night session. It was a very, very emotional match. But I said after this match, I'm not so different in the tennis, but in the physical and mental ability.
She stayed in all the points. Her resistance, her rapidity was better than me. And of course, the mentality to stay in every point, to play every point. Me, I made a lot of unforced errors, a lot of ups and downs. And that's the difference between a very good player and me in that moment - the ups and downs.
I think that the thing that I have to improve most is not to play up and down, but play every point. I will lose, I will win, that's not important - but to play every point and not to have so much ups and downs, like very, very good and then so, so bad, is important.
Apart from your law degree, what do you like to do off court?
I don't like so much watching Netflix or series. I prefer watching films. But I like so, so much listening to music. Latin music, Italian music but especially '80s music.
I didn't know so much the music of the '80s before, but my coach taught me about it. I think that is the real music, not the ones we listen to now.
What songs do you like best from that era?
I like 'Wind of Change' by the Scorpions, and 'Hotel California' by the Eagles.