I never thought I'd be writing the words, “Before Andreas Seppi, there was…” But after today, and Seppi’s second straight dramatic, three-set win in front of a delirious home audience in Rome, I really have no choice. Seppi held off six match points to beat Stan Wawrinka in three tiebreakers on the fabled, marble Pietrangeli court at the Foro Italico. So it seems fitting to look back at another epic that took place inside that same cauldron of clay, and which was won by the city’s all-time favorite tennis son, Adriano Panatta.
Panatta, a native of Rome, was one of the most artistic players in tennis history, both acrobatic—he was a serve and volleyer who loved to launch himself off the ground in pursuit of the ball—and stylish. His touch, his service motion, and his one-handed backhand, especially the long, flashy slice, were things of beauty. His really was a game that's hard to imagine being developed with anything other than a wood racquet. Like most artists, though, Panatta, couldn’t do his work on command. He needed, it was said, to make a match a contest of emotions before he could play his best. As Peter Bodo described him in 1978, he was, “elegant, soulful, and irascible—the perfect hero for Italy.”
For all of his extravagant talents, Panatta would win just one Grand Slam title, the 1976 French Open, after saving a match point in the first round. It was part of his peak season. That year Panatta also won the Italian Open—he saved a whopping 11 match points against Kim Warwick in the first round there—led Italy to its first Davis Cup title, and finished No. 4. He won his two singles and the doubles in the Cup final against Chile. Still, Panatta will likely be remembered for one thing: He was the only man to beat Bjorn Borg at the French Open, in 1973 and ’76 (Borg beat him in the semis there in ’75). The second of the clips above is some slow-motion highlights, complete with tinkly, piano-bar soundtrack, of his ’76 win over the Ice Man in Paris.
Of more interest today may be the first clip, of Borg and Panatta in the Italian Open final two years later. By this point, Borg was at his invincible best, but the crowds at the Foro had created a storm of chaos every time Panatta had played and helped whirled him into the final. In the semis, they had showered “Ahhh-dri-aaaano”’s opponent, the beleaguered Jose Higueras, with boos and taunts and whistles and even a few coins. Higueras finally snapped, threw down his racquet, and, to put it bluntly, gave the crowd the finger. Pandemonium ensued, a coke can landed an inch from Higueras’s feet, and cries of “Buffone!!!” resounded. The chair umpire, unable to quiet the audience, finally resorted to insulting them: “Silenzio!” he cried to start. When that didn’t work, he tried again: “Silenzio, cretini!” The word confused the Roman crowd for a second, before they were off jeering and taunting and throwing things again.
A few games later, after splitting sets with Panatta, Higueras walked off court and retired in disgust. “I had to quit or I was going to kill someone,” he said.
This was the backdrop for the Panatta-Borg final, and the match didn’t disappoint. Borg, as usual, started catatonically, losing the first set 6-1. But eventually he came through in five, 1-6, 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3—ice, in the end, outlasted art. Along the way, a few coins landed in Borg’s vicinity. Each time he silently picked them up and deposited them at the umpire’s stand. He gave the crowd no reaction, nothing to work with, which ultimately left them with nothing to jeer.
Afterward, Panatta arrived in the interview room wearing a blue silk shirt and beige cardigan. He lit up a cigarette as he answered questions.
“Do you feel you played well today?”
“I played well, yes,” Panatta said between slow drags, “but Borg is Borg even when he isn’t playing well.”
The second clip, as I said, is from the 1976 French Open. I’ll point out two things.
First, the racquet spin that the two players were still doing in those days. Borg and McEnroe were still doing it before the 1980 Wimbledon final as well. I’m not sure when the coin toss replaced it.
Second, the walk that Panatta takes off court after his upset win over Borg—after doing what would come, in later years, to seem impossible. Towel over shoulders, lank hair flopping over his face, he smiles, takes a swig from a bottle, and looks up at the crowd one more time before disappearing. We wonder why we still gravitate to the glamour of tennis in the 70s. That victory walk should tell you why.