The renaissance of Italian men's tennis has pleased no one more than a legend of the sport, Nicola Pietrangeli, who told AFP he believes Jannik Sinner will be in the top five by the end of the year.
Pietrangeli, a two-time French Open champion in 1959 and 1960, said it was brilliant that last year's Wimbledon finalist and world number eight Matteo Berrettini and Sinner -- ranked 13th -- were mixing it with the best in the men's game.
It has been a long time coming. Italy's last male Grand Slam winner Adriano Panatta was crowned French Open champion 46 years ago.
The men had subsequently taken a backseat to the women with Francesca Schiavone winning the 2010 French Open and losing in the 2011 final and Sara Errani, who lost the 2012 final to Maria Sharapova.
Flavia Pennetta then won the 2015 US Open in all-Italian final with Roberta Vinci.
"For 10 years, we were carried along by the ladies, they achieved extraordinary things," 88-year-old Pietrangeli told AFP on the sidelines of the Italian Open which he won twice.
"Now, there is a huge rebound by the men."
Pietrangeli, speaking by the court at the Foro Italico that has carried his name since 2006, said: "I am the only living Italian sportsman to have one named after him... I hope that lasts for a little longer!"
He picks out 20-year-old Sinner as the more likely of the two to break into the top five.
The big-serving Berrettini -- who has also appeared in two Grand Slam semi-finals, the 2019 US Open, and 2021 Australian Open -- is presently out of action as he recovers from a hand operation.
- 'Sinner will get better' -
Sinner was to play later on Wednesday in the second round against 34-year-old compatriot Fabio Fognini, who was at one point ranked ninth in the world.
His rise has been accompanied by that of 19-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, who won the Madrid tournament last week to flag up his form ahead of the French Open.
"Sinner may not be as strong as Carlos Alcaraz (the 19-year-old Spaniard who is the coming man on clay having won in Madrid last Sunday) but he is very good and he will get even better," said Pietrangeli.
"I see him being in the top five by the end of the year."
Pietrangeli -- who holds the record for the number of rubbers played in the Davis Cup (164) -- is content that in a country that is dominated by football two men are thriving in another sport.
Pietrangeli was almost lost to football too after arriving in Italy from his birthplace of Tunisia aged 13.
"I played football better than tennis till I was 18," said Pietrangeli, who captained Italy to their first ever Davis Cup triumph in 1976.
"I played with the youth players at Lazio but one day they wanted to loan me to another team.
"When you play football you are the slave of your team.
"I saw countless trips ahead of me (and opted for tennis).
"Maybe I did the right thing?" he said with a smile.