While the 70th edition of Internazionali BNL Italia is taking place this week, at its beginning, during the seventies, the competition was the most dreaded stage of the ATP for international players. The reason? Its stadium, the Foro Italico, was welcoming at the time thousands of chauvinistic tifosis, all as overexcited than childish. They only wanted one thing: to break the Italian athletes’ opponents, especially those of Adriano Panatta, the country’s prodigal son. WeAreTennis goes back on one of the hottest tournaments in history, between verbal abuse and beer cans.
Sixty classic monumental statues encircle the scene, all carved in Carrara marble. Each statue represents a sport, each was funded by an Italian province. We owe the tennis one to the province of Parma. Its author? Libero Andreotti, sculptor, ceramicist and personal friend of Benito Mussolini. "I realized the dream of the Duce, boasts this artist in his comments excerpts from the Dizionario biographical degli Italiani. Mussolini wanted his own forum, surpassing those of Caesar and Augustus. The Foro Italico is a typical and well preserved example of the exploitation of sport as part of the fascism ideology and its master race." It was in 1927 that Mussolini laid the foundation stone of the Foro Italico in the north of Rome, in the district Della Vittoria. The idea? To build the biggest sports complex at the time, at the service of fascist youth and aiming, according to him: "to promulgate the regeneration of the masses by physical education and cult of the body". An Olympic stadium, an athletics track, water sports, fencing halls and a dozen of tennis clay courts were built to materialize these delusions of grandeur. Since 1930, the site hosts Rome's ATP stage. Local legend Nicola Pietrangeli was victorious there twice: since 2010, the new Central is even named after him. But Adriano Panatta is the last Italian to have won here in 1976, despite a chaotic journey and 11 match points saved in the first round. "I owe this victory to the fact that I’ve stopped smoking and drinking a few weeks before," said the interested party who reached the final of the tournament again in 1978 against Björn Borg.
« They were throwing coins in my face »
This time around, the match was everything but a cakewalk. The Swede had just made the break in the fifth set and was leading two games to one and 30-15 on his serve. That was the moment chosen by the audience to come into play while the spectators took advantage of his static position to start throwing coins at him. Not to distract him, but to hurt him and make him lose. "I’ve received many coins in the face, which did hurt me very badly. I started running around to pick up the coins and stuffed them in my pocket, as a kind of ironic mockery, which made the spectators laugh a lot" he said in his autobiography My life and game. The Nordic champion, who never was at loss when it came to humour, even pushed the joke up to win the match and the tournament: his last victory at the Foro Italico. No hard feelings. 25 years later, he said in his book that: "the worst spectators are the ones who are bored."
Hyperbolic but lucid, Jimmy Connors also had his own a theory on the place: "There are two great love stories in the history of tennis: the one between New York’s public and me. And the one between Rome’s public and Adriano Panatta." Indeed, in the seventies, when the latter was setting foot on the Central court of the stadium, a jingoistic sweet madness was invading the hearts and the stands. A rational explanation? "Even if the Roman public always supported every Italian players, especially during the Davis Cup, Adriano always remained the favourite" said Victor Pecci in the Gazzetta dello Sport. "This behaviour may be a little extreme, but it’s part of Italian culture, and besides, don’t forget that Panatta was also a great tennis player. He was able to get the audience behind him thanks to his attacking style of play and his charisma. When he was going up on the volley, the whole Foro Italico was on fire."
« A godforsaken place»
A passion which made the tifosis put so much pressure on the referees, linesmen and opponents of Panatta that some never wanted to come back. "The Italians will soon only have their own representatives in these championships," once said David Gray, secretary general of the International Tennis Federation (ITF). Even the Italian pundits started to have a go at it, asking the public to make even more noise to encourage Panatta. Under these conditions, difficult for Harold Solomon to keep the momentum going. In 1976, the American received so much hassle in the Roman Central that he decided to abandon the match. His mistake? Having discussed the decision of a linesman. In 1978, while the Spaniard Jose Higueras was crushing the hero of the peninsula, the audience went on the offensive: they started to throw beer cans at him, leaving him no choice but to leave the court. But rare thing in tennis, the referee Bertie Brown, shocked, had to do the same. "I played on the Central of the Foro Italico against Panatta too. I lost. It seemed the best thing to do" summarized Bill Scanlon in his book Bad News for McEnroe. Vitas Gerulaitis said the same thing in his very own words: "These people are animals. Rome is a godforsaken place."
Today, the city may be a godforsaken place, one thing is certain: its tennis tournament is a tournament like no other. The Internazional BNL Italia has lost its former glory. And there are no more Italian players - or any players at all- able to set the stadium on fire as some of their elders could do. Federico Luzzi (who died in 2008 from leukaemia, ed) may be the last witness of a time when tennis fans competed, even a little, with those of team sports such as football or rugby. In 2001, the spectators helped him beat Arnaud Clement in the first round of the tournament. Booed throughout the match, which he left sending ironic kisses to the crowd, the French was in a mood at the press conference: "I had to restrain myself not to give them the finger and tell them that they were all complete twats... The Romans really are crazy!"