Just days after Italy won its first Davis Cup since 1976 — led by former Next Gen ATP Finals presented by NEOM champion Jannik Sinner — two more Italians are set to compete at this year's 21-and-under showcase in Jeddah.
Flavio Cobolli leads the charge, looking to cap a breakout season in which he debuted in the Top 100 of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings and won his second ATP Challenger Tour title. The 21-year-old, joined in Jeddah by countryman Luca Nardi, will hope to continue the success for Italian tennis this week.
Long before he watched Sinner's 2019 title run at the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan, Cobolli grew up idolising another Italian: Fabio Fognini, whom he now calls a good friend.
"My biggest idol is Fabio, and Nole [Novak Djokovic]," Cobolli told ATPTour.com. "I grew up with Fabio's matches and I tried to improve my game watching him, so I remember a lot of his matches. I usually don't like to watch matches, but I love to watch his matches.
"When Fabio is playing, I'm on the TV. When he's not playing, I'm not."
Cobolli fondly recalled a 2014 Davis Cup match between Fognini and Andy Murray, when a Fognini win sparked a final-day comeback to send Italy to the semi-finals. After growing up as a fan of the stylish shotmaker, Cobolli now has a strong relationship with Fognini both on and off the court.
"We are good friends. If I have some problem I speak with him always," he said. "I also work with him because he has a management company, so he is like my manager also. I'm not working with him because he's still playing, but I work with his agency. So I spend a lot of time with him, and if we are in the same tournament we are always together, at dinner or for some practice. I cheer for him in his matches and he's the same for me."
Even with great examples like Fognini and Sinner to follow, Cobolli is eager to fashion his own path on the ATP Tour: "I want to create my own game, my own road," he said.
Aided by strong support from the Italian Tennis Federation, he picked up four tour-level wins this season, including two in a Munich quarter-final run. On the ATP Challenger Tour, he won a title in Lisbon and reached a final in Olbia, Italy — both in October, leading to a career-high Pepperstone ATP Ranking of World No. 95.
"It was of course special, because this year I worked a lot," Cobolli said of his Lisbon trophy run. "I played 36 weeks, a lot. I was tired but I think that title means a lot for me and for the season. But I don't want to stop now. I want to push more for the goals of 2024."
Sustained success across that busy schedule has earned Cobolli the fifth seed in Jeddah. But this is not his first experience at the Next Gen ATP Finals. At the 2021 event in Milan, won by Carlos Alcaraz, the Italian was on site as an alternate.
"It was a big experience for me because it was one of the first times that I hit with the biggest young players in the world, like Alcaraz, [Juan Manuel] Cerundolo and [Hugo] Gaston," he reflected. "I learned a lot from those practices. I think that week did a lot for my tennis."
Now it's time for Cobolli to compete amidst the pageantry in Jeddah. Looking at the big picture, it seems the Italian won't be satisfied until he's added his own new chapters to his nation's rich tennis history.
"I don't want to stop," he said, discussing his breakthrough into the Top 100. "I want to be in the future of tennis."