With the Rome Masters 1000 starting this week, we took the opportunity to make a top 10 of the most outstanding personalities of Italian men's tennis.
1. Adriano Panatta
Difficult to determine who out of Pietrangeli or Panatta represents the greatest success of Italian tennis... The honour nonetheless goes to the younger of the two who, back in the seventies, faced much stronger competition. The son of the Parioli Tennis club caretaker did the best he could, including managing the feat of beating Björn Borg twice at Roland Garros - the only times the Swede competed at the French tournament without lifting the trophy at the end of the fortnight! Panatta took advantage of it in 1976 and won the event after dominating the American Harold Solomon in the final, thanks to his lucky underpants. Very superstitious, he kept the same pants and socks in the last three games: "I washed them every night at the hotel and hanged them by the window. I was convinced that without my underpants, my strength would vanish." 1976 was a good year for the hefty Italian, leader of the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas, winner of Chile in the final in Santiago. The only Italian victory in the event, despite contesting seven finals.
2. Nicola Pietrangeli
Here’s another great figure of Italian tennis. Less well-known than Panatta due to his age, Nicola Pietrangeli has an even better track record, with two French Open titles to his credit, won consecutively in 1959 and 1960. Unofficially ranked number three in the world in this pre-ATP tour era, he could not prevent the Italian team from suffering defeat in both the 1960 and 1961 finals of the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas against Australia in their grass garden. "Nicky" made up for it years later by being the captain of the winning team against Pinochet's Chile in 1976. It was thanks to his sustained pressure that the Italians were able to go there at all, since the government was against it to show its opposition to the dictatorship.
3. Corrado Barazzutti
Junior world No. 1 in 1971, Corrado was never really able to make an impression afterwards on the ATP tour. In solo, his best performance is - as always with the Italians - at Roland Garros in 1978 with a defeat in the semi-final against the invincible Borg. He also took part in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas victory two years earlier in Chile which means that, like the others, he still awaits his engraved "1976 Davis Cup" Rolex. Asking them upon their return from South America what prize they wanted, the federation had accepted the gift, but ended up giving them something else. The Rolexes were too expensive... Since then, Barazzutti has probably been able to buy his own, becoming a key figure of Italian tennis in recent years and taking charge of both the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas team and the Fed Cup team, with which he was successful three times in 2006, 2009 and 2010.
4. Andreas Seppi
Today's best Italian, had a slow but relatively smooth maturation: pro debut in 2001 at age 17, first breaks into the top 100 in 2005, followed by a slight dip two years before kicking-on in 2008 to reach the top 50, four years of consolidation and now integration in the top 20 in recent months. A charming presence on the tour, Seppi is known for his passion for AC Milan. Unfortunately, he doesn't have the same prize list as his idols, including poor results in Grand Slam tournaments, his best performance being a place in the last sixteen in Melbourne earlier this year. Can he still improve? Time is running out, he turned 29 in February...
5. Paolo Bertolucci
Bertolucci: This name evokes more the Boot’s cinema heyday with the masterpieces of the great Bernardo such as The Last Emperor, Last Tango in Paris, The Sheltering Sky or The Conformist. The masterpiece of this Bertolucci is the conquest of the 1976 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas with his mates Panatta and Barazzutti. And all while wearing a red shirt – then the colour of the Chilean opposition - during the doubles rubber with Panatta. Panicked, he told his compatriot before the match: "Adriano, in the best case, they shoot us. At worst I can't even imagine." At the end of the day, they won the match and the Cup. His favourite tournament? The late Florence Open, which he won three times. He also has a Masters title in his trophy cabinet, Hamburg 1977 and, as often in Italy, the greatest players also make great coaches. Bertolucci was no exception, taking the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas team, against all odds, to the final of the 1998 edition (1-4 defeat against Sweden).
6. Fabio Fognini
He's not the best player of the tour at the moment, and probably won't ever be, yet Fabio remains very popular... the reason? He's really handsome, in the Mediterranean style, with a charming smile. He's also a great showman, capable of the best and the worst on a tennis court, replaying all the classics of the Commedia dell'arte, from tragedy to farce. In 2011, "The Fog" miraculously passed the rounds at Roland Garros, despite repeated angry outbursts ("He spent his time in the locker room insulting everyone", said Monfils defeated previously) and despite a record of 12 foot faults during his match in the last 16 against the Spaniard Montanes. All that to end up eliminated in the quarter-finals through a withdrawal, as the previous rounds wore out all his strength. Yeah, Fabio is quite a character, the classic Italian in all his splendour and excesses.
7. Filippo Volandri
Another recent personality of Italian tennis who divides opinion. When he's in good shape, Volandri is able to beat the best, such as when he eliminated Roger Federer in straight sets in the third round of the 2007 Rome Masters, concluding the performance with a lap of honour as if he had won the tournament! But the Volandri story was tinged with controversy when, two years after this feat, he was found guilty of doping and suspended by the International Federation (ITF). He was cleared after a few weeks but the harm was done: he was never again able to return to the level that allowed him to climb to 25th place in the ATP rankings.
8. Gianluca Pozzi
Pozzi's career is amazing. For its longevity first, since he lasted for 20 years on the professional tour, from 1984 to 2004. For its late blossoming too, since he reached his highest ranking, 40th, in 2001 exactly ten years after his only ATP title (Brisbane 1991) and when he was 36 years old! Pozzi has gone through two decades of tennis in relative anonymity, punctuated by a few prestigious victories against Lendl, Agassi or Federer. He will have great memories to tell his grandchildren.
9. Federico Luzzi
More than his prize list, Federico Luzzi marked the history of tennis with his Italian playboy style, his fiery personality and his tragic destiny. 92nd in the world in his heyday, the Italian is remembered now for his 200-day suspension. Guilty of betting on tennis matches - which is forbidden to players - 273 times between 2004 and 2007, without trying to influence the match scores, he was also fined 50 000 dollars. In 2001, he faced Arnaud Clement, World No. 7 at the time, in the electric atmosphere of the Rome Centre Court. The audience openly booed the French without the Italian finding anything to say about it and he took the opportunity to eliminate the seeded player and sign a tremendous achievement in his young career. Disgusted, Clement left the court sending ironic kisses to the public: "I had to contain myself during the match to not give them the finger and tell them that they were all assholes." But Luzzi is first-and-foremost a champion gone too soon. In October 2008, he went to the emergency room with a high fever; the doctors realized that he had a deadly leukaemia. He quickly fell into a coma, and died three days after his admission, only 28 years old...
10. Gianni Clerici
With one appearance in the professional tour at Wimbledon in 1953 and no major title, no one can say that the sporting career of Gianni Clerici was spectacular. Although he failed to make ann impression with a brilliant forehand or a devastating backhand, the man had a really big mouth, which he never hesitated to open. So he quickly managed to convert into a famous TV commentator. With his sidekick Rino Tommasi, they’ve been for over 30 years an unavoidable duo of brawlers in the press box. Sometimes outrageous, often off-topic, Clerici can also be very funny, like when he said, after an exquisite volley by John McEnroe at the U.S. Open: "If I were a little gay, I would like to be caressed by this shot." Following the punch line, an Italian homosexual association gave him a membership card and invited him to the Gay Pride.
By Régis Delanoë