In tennis, more than anywhere else, the mind is a major factor in the game. It is not rare to see a player batter his opponent, only to crack psychologically on the very next point. It's called: choking! The Italian Adriano Panatta, the only man to steal a victory over Bjorn Borg at Roland Garros, was kind enough to talk to us about this existential question.
A little bit of history: let’s start with 1982 at Roland Garros. You’re playing the Romanian pair Nastase / Tiriac with your compatriot Paolo Bertolucci. The famous story of the black cat ...
I am, by nature, very superstitious and Nastase, who is like a brother to me, knew it. A few months before the match, we crossed a black cat together in Monaco, and I really wished we could have avoided it. So he decided to take advantage of this weakness and the day of the match he brought one court-side (at the command of Nastase, and for 100 dollars, a young lad sat in the front row of the court holding the animal). At first, nobody understood anything!
How did you react?
We burst out laughing! The public did too. It really relaxed the atmosphere. I think I insulted him, like "are you really daft or what?" while laughing. It still remained a friendly atmosphere.
Honestly, it didn’t shake you at all?
No, absolutely not. With Ilie, I was always expecting these kinds of jokes. But in this case, it didn’t weaken me. It’s just a black cat, no! Let’s just say that if I can avoid crossing one, so much the better, but I'm not afraid to the point of hiding under a table.
But if this were the case, would you have been able to ignore it still?
Of course. The mental aspect in tennis is essential, perhaps even more than in other sports. You must have an empty mind, not thinking of anything else, otherwise you’ll lose your game. I've always been a bit whimsical. If, before I get on the court, I bumped into someone unfriendly, it could really put me in a bad mood!
To the point of losing control of your game?
Maybe it sometimes had an influence, yes. However, I always faced my opponent with determination. Something really important had to happen before the game for me to lose my focus.
Once, my son had a fever. He stayed home. Inevitably, I had to think about it.
Back in 1976, the Roman public threw coins at your famous opponent, Bjorn Borg: did this help you?
Not at all! Quite the opposite, seeing as he won! When I played in Rome, the public was always behind me, because it’s my home-town. For my opponents, it was never easy, and some would really struggle. This behaviour, though, was plain stupid. Borg started to pick up the coins and told the referee: "If this continues, I stop." However, I knew that he wouldn’t actually do it. I took the microphone to tell the people to stop, that it wasn’t cool. In any case, at the end of the day, I lost.
Maybe it was you that your fans unbalanced?
To be honest, I think I would have lost that one, with or without the coins...
Have you ever tried to undermine the focus of an opponent?
At Roland Garros in 1976. The final against Harold Solomon was about to begin, with only him and me in the hallway. To have a laugh, I called over to him and asked him, very seriously: "Hey, Solo, how are you going to win when you're so short?" He was nearly 6 inches shorter than me. This time, I won!
Has it ever happened to you to win a match against a stronger player than you, only with the mind?
Yes, many times! As I said, the mind is very important. Tennis, it's not like football. In football, if you are 3-0 down with ten minutes to go, it's over, there’s nothing you can do about it. However, in tennis, you can save a match point, and then win the match.
It sounds like you are speaking from experience!
Of course! In Rome, in 1976, in the first round, I saved 11 match points and went on to win the game. I was galvanized for the rest of the tournament and I won it, beating Guillermo Vilas in the finale. A few months later, at Roland Garros, I saved a match point with an incredible jump against the Czech, Hutka, and, again, won the tournament. I also remember that at the Foro Italico in Rome, in 1978, I won a match after trailing 5-0 in the first set…
Who was the opponent with the greatest mental strength that you faced?
Undoubtedly Jimmy Connors, whom I beat in the final in Stockholm in 1975. Mentally, he was a monster. He never let anything go. Ever.
Me neither, I never let anything go. But sometimes the mind was just not enough, and I had to resign myself to that. It’s also that the thing about being strong mentally: knowing how to accept defeat.
Interview by Victor Le Grand et Eric Maggiori