Adriano Panatta, the Michelangelo of tennis
From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990
Panatta had much in common with Ilie Nastase in that both were under-achievers who never fully exploited their talent but gave immense pleasure and attracted huge followings. The obvious differences between them lay in playing method and conduct. Nastase was the more flamboyant competitor but his behavior was often offensive. Panatta had more power and his deportment was elegantly disciplined as his tennis. He was a heart-throb who milked the role in an engaging way, rather as John Newcombe did. His teenaged fans could admire the man and his tennis without the reservations necessary in Nastase’s case. Panatta was a model of the tall, dark and handsome hero or, to flaunt another cliché, the strong, silent man. At the same time he could be demonstrative in the Italian way and the ladies did not mind at all when he put on his sulky look or tossed back his forelock.
At six feet and almost 13 stone Panatta was a fine athlete, though the professional sportsman was always slightly at odds with his well developed taste for food and wine and the dolce vita. He was a renowned, attractive sportsman who fitted perfectly into fashionable Roman society. When he appeared at the Foro Italico the public’s excitement was so passionately partisan – to the point of conducting matches rather than merely watching them – that players from overseas felt no more popular than early Christians did at the Colosseum. In Panatta’s era the crowd’s hostility towards his opponents was sometimes frightening. Nor was justice consistently evenhanded. But all that was not Panatta’s fault. His presence simply kindled emotional fires that occasionally out of control.
On the other hand one would not wish Italians to be anything but warmly appreciative of tennis players whose brush-strokes respect the nation’s proud artistic traditions. Panatta was not the first.
Two particularly interesting characters 30 years ago were Beppe Merlo and Nicola Pietrangeli. Merlo was a dapper little chap who defied most of the conventions except in his ability to put the ball where his opponents didn’t want it and, often, didn’t expect it. He used a short grip and had no more than a hint of a backswing. No more than a hint of a service, either. He just prodded the ball into play. Merlo’s racket was so loosely strung that his strokes were noiseless save for a muffled plunk. But he was an artful nudger commanding a deceptive variety of spin. Merlo’s tennis was so eccentric, so baffling, that opponents ran the risk of getting their legs knotted.
By contrast Pietrangeli was a classically conventional clay-courter. Born in Tunis of Franco-Russian parents, he could have been a top-class footballer. Instead, Pietrangeli played and won more Davis Cup matches than any other player, took Italy to two challenge rounds with the help of a giant called Orlando Sirola, and twice won the French championship. He played with enviable economy of effort and had such a deft touch that occasionally, like Manuel Santana, he could make a drop-shot spin back over the net. In 1962 Pietrangeli and Nikki Pilic established a Wimbledon record with a 46-game set. Pietrangeli was also an active socialite who often stayed up half the night, arguing that there was nothing much to do in the mornings except sleep.
Panatta first caught ou attention when he beat Clark Graebner in the 1968 Queensland championships in Brisbane. It soon became evident that for all his size and strength and his agility at the net, Panatta was most at ease when using the drop-and-lob routine to design leisurely, almost languid patterns across sunlit clay courts. […]
His annus mirabilis was 1976, when he won the Italian and French championships in three weeks and – with the help of Corrado Barazzutti in singles and Paolo Bertolucci in doubles – brought Italy the Davis Cup for the only time in the competition’s history. It helped that four out of six ties were played at home. Panatta’s individual triumphs in Rome and Paris were remarkable for the fact that in each tournament he came within a point of losing in the first round.
In Rome, Kim Warwick had no fewer than 11 match points. In Paris, Pavel Hutka, an ambidextruous Czechoslovak newcomer to Roland Garros, had only one match point – but the memory of that point is vivid. Silence fell like a pall over the sunny stadium as Panatta prepared to serve. Fault. Both men fidgeted. There was no other movement, no sound. The birds had stopped singing. Hutka clipped the net cord in returning the second ball. Panatta, dashing in, had to break his stride but hit deep and stood towering at the net, waiting to see what Hutka and the gods had in store for him. Hutka’s lob looked a winner but Panatta’s vertical take-off achieved a feeble return off the frame. Hutka’s passing shot looked a formality but Panatta guessed right, flung himself headlong like a torpedo and hit a winning volley – again, off the frame. Whereupon Panatta crashed on to the court, the ground seemed to shiver and the stadium thundered with applause. That was the most amazing point I ever saw.
After that it was all profit. Even Bjorn Borg, champion in the two preceding years, could not cope with the imaginatively adventurous Panatta, who no longer recognized any distinction between the improbable and the inevitable.
Panatta’s arresting presence and artistically macho tennis also gave us memorable hours of pleasure when he was playing on grass, a surface hostile to the graces. And at Wimbledon in 1976, when he was playing Charlie Pasarell, the was an incident that told us much about the man. As Panatta was about to serve, a sparrow twittered away on the grass a few yards behind him. Distracted, Panatta gently olled a ball towards it, but the sparrow could not or would note move. So Panatta strolled back, picked up the fluffy chirper in a strong yet tender hand, and carefully took it across a spectator. Panatta had a way with birds. He had a way with tennis, too. The game was a means of expression, a form of communion with the ghosts of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci.