Matteo Berrettini’s No. 1 fan finds a way to take part in US Open festivities

    Peter Bodo has been covering tennis for over 35 years, mostly recently for ESPN. He is a former WTA Writer of the Year and the author of numerous books, including the classic “The Courts of Babylon” and the New York Times bestseller (with Pete Sampras), “A Champion’s Mind.”

NEW YORK — Matteo Berrettini will not be consuming his beloved chicken salad and plain pasta (salt and pepper only) at the charming Via Della Pace restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village during this US Open.

That isn’t because of the coronavirus pandemic. The restaurant burned down after 17 prosperous years in mid-February just as COVID-19 was gaining a foothold in Manhattan. The fire happened while Giovanni Bartocci, the East Village establishment’s charismatic owner and head chef, was out at the Nassau Coliseum at the New York Open, energetically cheering for another Italian pro, Paolo Lorenzi.

Via Della Pace enjoyed a moment in the sun last year during Berrettini’s dramatic breakout run to the US Open semifinals. He was one in a cohort of Italian players who, in flagrant disregard of anti-carb nutritionists, dined most nights at the quaint, rustic cafe named for a street in the historic district of Rome (Italy, not New York).

“The night before the second round last year, I had one of the best days of my life,” Bartocci said. “Thomas Fabbiano, Paolo Lorenzi, Lorenzo Sonego and Matteo were all together in my restaurant, eating at the same time. I felt like, for them, it was the feeling of being at home. And that’s what I always wanted from my little restaurant.”

As Berrettini went deep into the tournament, Bartocci became a fixture at the matches. The press discovered him, and before he knew it, Bartocci was a minor celebrity, cooking live on Fox 5 New York.

Bartocci was back cheering on Berrettini again at the US Open on Saturday, bellowing and shouting almost every time Berrettini won a point on Court 17. How was that even possible at this fan-free tournament?

The smallest of the four US Open stadiums, Court 17 juts out, almost peninsula-like, at the extreme eastern margin of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Outside the bubble, Bartocci patrolled the fence that separates the property from Flushing Meadows Park. In the background, kids played soccer and rode bikes, largely unaware of the action inside the United States Tennis Association property.

After Berrettini, 24, handily dismissed Casper Ruud in their third-round tussle, the No. 6 seed was asked if he heard Bartocci’s cries of encouragement: “Yeah, of course. I didn’t think nobody didn’t hear him. He was pretty loud today, louder than others.”

Bartocci, a 41-year-old from Rome with a long, scraggly beard more befitting a religious cleric than the owner of a trendy Italian cafe, was delighted with the result.

“If I’m still surviving at this time, it’s because of Matteo,” Bartocci said. “I am in the seventh month of not working, but one of the reasons I am still here is Matteo. He gave us a lot of credit last year. Our business went up a lot. People knew us.”

Bartocci has worked in the U.S. on a series of five-year “investor” visas, the latest of which is due to expire soon. It might not be renewed because Bartocci might not be able to show that his business generated sufficient money for the U.S. economy.

“I’m really sorry for this guy because his restaurant was everything for him,” Berrettini said. “After all we done together last year, he really got bad luck twice — the fire and the virus.”

Berrettini said he is looking forward to helping Bartocci in some way or another. In the aftermath of Berrettini’s success last year, Bartocci also traveled to London to support his friend at the ATP World Tour Finals.

“When I can, I like to have him by my side,” Berrettini said.

Berrettini would be more than happy to be assigned another match on Court 17. It would give his friend another chance to hear the umpire call Berrittini’s name, the score and perhaps to faintly hear a Berrettini grunt or the squeal of his shoes on the hard court.

“I don’t know if the tournament is going to agree to that. But why not? It would be great, nice to hear him,” Berrettini said of Bartocci with a smile. “Now he’s just like the rest of my team, my parents, following me on the TV. He has had to adjust.”

While his future is unclear, Bartocci said he is prepared to deal with whatever fate brings his way. An amateur boxer who has fought in a few charity exhibitions, he said, “I’m sad, but still fighting. Like Matteo. Always.”

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