Bjorn Borg, Rome 1978

Italian Open 1978: Borg defeats Panatta

From Inside Tennis, a season on the pro tour by Peter Bodo:

Borg is broken in the first game. In the second, Panatta gets the benefit of a close call at love-30. “Now the robbery begins,” an Italian friend of mine whispers. However, Borg breaks back. At 15-30 in the next game he suddenly strikes his head with his racquet and walks calmly to the sideline. He has been bitten just above the right eyebrow by a bee. When they continue after a five-minute delay, Panatta runs out the first set, 6-1, by taking the pace off the ball at every opportunity. He has lured Borg into the forecourt, the place the Swede likes least, with succinct dropshots from the backcourt. Panatta has served well and volleyed precisely, ending many points before Borg could force him to rally. It is a highly conceived strategy.

Each player holds his first service game of the second set. In the third game, Panatta departs from his touch game and begins to rally with Borg. He is promptly broken. In the next game, a crucial one for Borg, he reveals the remarkable fifth gear that none of his opponents possesses. He hits heavily top-spun balls that pound the clay and hop out of reach. Each successive stroke has more pace and less margin of error; after three or four such shots, Borg is in the groove and soon he finishes the sizzling rally with the easy placement offered by the final, desperate retrieve of his opponent; Borg leads, 4-1.
At break point against Borg in the next game, Panatta casts himself into the air and strikes a miraculous forehand drop volley off the frame, just wide of the sideline. but there is no call of out; borg looks at the spot where the ball fell, as does Panatta. The umpire makes a quick gesture indicating the ball was good. Borg bows and quickly rolls the spare ball in his hand to the umpire’s stand. He begins to change court. This act of complete surrender is so disconcerting that Panatta starts to hedge. He asks the linesman to come out and verify his call by examining the mark. The official insists that the ball was good.
Thus far the crowd has been subdued. Borg’s reaction to this first loaded moment has been so swift, so cool and effective, that there is no reaso no challenge him. A puzzled murmur runs through the galleries. Borg’s acquiescence has either disarmed the audience or intimidated it. The lean blond has self-control that would be a credit to the most accomplished of assassins.
Back in the match at 4-2, Panatta returns to his coy, artistic game plan and plays brilliantly to hold for 3-4. The crowd rallies to him now; the chant rises, swamping the cheers of a small cluster of Swedes high up in the cheap seats. But Borg is right on the mark. He wins the next two games to even the match at a set-all. Panatta clings to his strategy through the third set, but a flurry of forehand errors he cannot afford against a player like Borg gives the set to the Swede, 6-1.
Panatta‘s ambitious strategy continues to pay dividends in the fourth set; when he breaks Borg in the fourth game, the crowd is on its feet again, singing his melodious name. Another stunning game gives Panatta a 4-1 lead. passive play by Borg increases Panatta’s margin to 5-2 but Borg breaks him for 3-5, with the italian serving for the set.
Borg waits in the deuce court. He spits air onto his hands four or five times and swoops into his crouch. His feet shuffle on the clay as he rocks from side to side. Panatta is about to toss the ball for his first serve when Borg pulls up and raises his palm. He bends over, picks up a coin tossed from the stand, and flips the money to the foot of the umpire’s stand. He goes back into his crouch and proceeds to win the game at 15, striking unanswerable winners as he glides across the court.
Now Borg can serve to even the fourth set, but he falls behind 30-40 on the strength of Panatta’s volleying. At break point, Panatta hits an imperfect dropshot that Borg reaches easily and sends toward the far baseline with a vengeful forehand. Panatta gets to the ball and sends a backhand skimming over the net, past Borg, and deep into the backcourt. In or out? An agonizing moment of hesitation by the linesman is broken when Borg nods toward Panatta and turns his back to the net, signifying that he is yielding the point, game, and set to his opponent.

The final set begins with Panatta holding the first two service points, but then Borg strikes, swiftly as a thunderclap. He wins eight straight points; when his heavy strokes are not pounding the clay, he walks with his head bowed, his hips swinging in cadence to his fastidious steps. He is putting greater effort into his serve now.
Borg playsa few unexpected drop shots and touch volleys in the next game, but Panatta, imprevious to them, holds with relative ease; The players change ends, with Borg leading 2-1/ Borg leans forward, bounces the ball, and plans his serve, but then he pulls up. He takes a few steps toward the sideline, stops, and inspects the court. He heard the light clink of a coin striking the clay, and he will not be content until he locates it. When he does, he carries it over to the umpire’s stand. Then he approaches Bergelin, who is standing in the portal just behind the umpire.

“If they throw more things, I will stop to play,” he says.

The Swede does not return to court immediately. He stops by his chair, towels off carefully, and takes a long slug of San Pellegrino. He moves at his own pace, oblivious of the crowd. When he goes back out, he loses the first point, but then reels off the next four to lead 3-1.
Panatta will have to play catch-up for the rest of the match, with Borg clinging to his margin with conservative tennis. He does not exert himself much against Panatta’s serve and holds his own so deftly that he keeps the tension from accumulating. Working with the precision of a surgeon, he cuts the heart out of the contest and leaves the crowd with no target. He has not uttered a superfluous word or given the Roman crowd the least sign that it does, in fact, exist. Soon he leads, 5-3.

It is match game, Panatta serving. The score reaches 40-15, but then Borg turns it back. He wins three straight points to reach match point, but the talents that have sustaiened Panatta are still intact. Four times the Italian has advantage, four times Borg brings the score back to deuce. The crowd is tense and breathless – there will be plenty of time to shout should Panatta hold the game and force Borg to serve for the match at 5-4.
But it will not happen. Eleven points go by with Panatta holding off Borg’s onslaught with a series of flying volleys, delicate dropshots, and crackling ground strokes. but then, at yet another deuce, he double faults, presenting Borg with his second match point. Panatta strikes a good first serve, but Borg’s pendular backhand snaps it up and spits it back, crosscourt.
The Italian’s backhand volley strikes the top of the net and dies there. Borg has won the title.

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