Adriano Panatta, Rome 1978

Italian Open 1978: Silenzio cretini!

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

The Italians are aware of the suspicion that surrounds their championships; consequently, the difficult task of keeping a match under control is not always entrusted to native umpires. The Panatta-Higueras confrontation will be chaired by Bertie Bowron, a sixty-nine-year-old Englishman with ruddy cheeks and a head of hair as white as a cloud. Bowron is a chipper, independent fellow who has a mailing address in London and lives in his camper throughout most of the spring and summer. He follows the European tournament trail, welcome at every stop because he is a paladin of the game who accepts only expense money for his services; but his impeccable reputation did not prevent Ion Tiriac from grabbing him by an ear and dragging him around the locker room at the Foro one year because of a misunderstanding during a match.

Great expectations fill the Campo Centrale, for Panatta and Higueras are Davis Cup rivals, and their nations hold that competition in highest esteem. The Spaniard cannot match Panatta’s elegance; his service motion is studied and downright unathletic. he prepares for his forehand with a baroque, looping backswing; overall, his style suggests that he is impersonating a world-class player, but his steadiness and accuracy are uncanny. All Higueras lacks is that vital spark of genius that the deity breathes into the most attractive players.

Panatta is nervous again; the grim expression on his face implies that some battle is raging within him. He wins two points in the first game, but then only four more as Higueras, snapping top-spin balls at the lines and passing deftly, takes a 5-0 lead in the first set. The crowd broods as its hero wins only nine points and no games in the twenty-five-minute first set. As Panatta prepares to serve the first game of the new set, the familiar chant is taken up with mounting enthusiasm.
But Panatta cannot respond. When he hits a forehand too deep to give Higueras the first game, he bounces the racquet on its head twice as if to bang some sense into it. Soon it is 3-0, and the prospect of the Spaniard’s winning three love sets become a possibility. Emboldened by Panatta’s struggles, Higueras begins to push his luck. Although he is not a confident attacking player, he begins to press forward at every opportunity. In some players, aggressive play reflects a failure of nerves leading to a premature desire to end the match. With Higueras, a proficient baseline tactician, eagerness undermines his strength.
Panatta finally gets a game, breaking Higueras for 1-3. But the Spaniard breaks back and holds to take a 5-1 lead, four points from a comfortable margin of two sets to none. Panatta holds his service for 2-5, despite three set points for Higueras, and he brushes aside another pair of set points as he breaks Higueras again. When Panatta holds service at love, Higueras finds his margin reduced to a single game. He leads 5-4, and as he prepares to serve the crucial tenth game, the crowd is humming.
Again Panatta attacks. Higueras chips a backhand pass into the net, and the Campo Centrale erupts. The tumult increases through the next point, as Panatta follows a sliced backhand to the net, and it reaches another climax as Higueras misses the passing shot. Now the Spaniard is chagrined. He accepts two balls to serve, but the clamor will bot subside; shaking his head in disgust, he rolls the balls to the baseline.

“Silenzio” Bowron implores. But the crowd has engaged Higueras, who has been proud enough to stand up to it. Now it provokes and bullies him, accepting no plea and giving no quarter.
“Silenzio, cretini!” Bowron commands. The noise abates as the crowd ponders this insult.

Ultimately Higueras gets to set point again, only to see Panatta’s volley eturn the score to deuce. tHe Italian is playing brilliant tennis under extreme pressure. Higueras strikes a good serve, but a let is called. He shakes his head and questions the call, knowing that there is no hope of reversal. Still, he wins the point with a delicious lob that Panatta hits just wide with a backhand overhead. “Vantaggio Higueras.”

All semblance of restraint vanishes from the Campo Centrale when Higueras squanders yet another set point, his sixth, with a forehand error. Jeers and exhortations cascade onto the court. Again Bowron pleads for silence, but this time “per carita” – for pity.

Panatta gains the advantage when Higueras hits a defensive volley and then makes dismal work of Panatta’s equally tentative lob. Boos and whistles echo in the stadium as Higueras prepares to serve; he finally hurls his racquet to the ground, whirls, and hammers his arm at the galleries. This obscene gesture seals his fate. Within moments, a cola can strikes the clay at Higueras’ feet, and a resounding chant of “Buffone! Buffone! Buffone!” rises over the still pines.

There is nobody lingering over coffee on the charming patio now, nobody strolling by the field courts to sample doubles matches or the women’s semifinals. The awful lust of the crowd rules; the uproar has magnetized the Foro, drawing spectators as if they were steel shavings. Excited youths are perched in the trees and even on the shoulders of the statuary.
In the ensuing mayhem, Panatta’s coach takes it upon himself to seize the public address system and plead for silence. He is jeered off the court. Eventually Higueras is allowed to serve. He fends off the break point when Panatta earns another game point with a fluky forehand that skips off the net cord for a winner.

As Higueras starts his service motion, a one-hundred-lira coin strikes him on the ankle. The Spaniard holds up play to summon the tournament referee, who has been lingering near the sideline, to remove the coin. This further angers the crowd.
Higueras’ game has gone to pieces; blinded by rage, he denigrates the lineage of the entire audience and nets an easy backhand approach shot to surrender the game for 5-all in the second set. Panatta wins the next game at fifteen holds a set point of his own against Higueras’ serve. The first ball Higueras delivers is a fault, but Bowron awards him two serves because of the noise. Higueras wins the next point for deuce. The tumult accompanying his subsequent fault again forces Bowron to award the Spaniard two serves. But this time, the referee steps from the shadows to overrule Bowron.
A moment of discussion between the two officals ends with Bowron announcing, “Grazie”. He waves at the crowd and climbs down from the chair, refusing to brook his violation of the rules, which clearly state that the tournament referee can only intervene at the request of the umpire. Bowron is replaced by a Roman, but there will be no more controversy. With the only man who stood for him gone, Higueras capitulates; his two feeble backhand errors give Panatta the game and the set, whereupon Higueras stalks to the sideline, yanks his jacket from the back of his chair, and quits the court.

There is pandemonium in the passageway beneath the stadium. Tournament officials gesticulate wildly at each other. As Bowron tries to make his way through the tunnel to the clubhouse, Higueras catches up with him. “I want to shake your hand,” the Spaniard says. “I want to thank you because you did the right thing.”

Kjell Johanssen, the number-two Swedish player, is in the locker room when Higueras barges through the door and cries, “I had to quit or else I would have killed somebody!”
Later Johanssen said,

“Higueras is the most honest guy in the world. There’s no way he would act the way he did without the best reason. It’s unbelievable! Panatta lost every match, but he’s in the final!”

He shook his head but he couldn’t deny Panatta his due. “It’s incredible how well that guy can play under pressure, isn’t it?”
Breathless reporters and amazed officials continued the debate in the pressroom. Marty Mulligan of Fila stopped by, as excited as the rest of the company.

“I know Borg only plays here because of his contract with the shoe company, but if this kind of thing happens tomorrow, he won’t come anymore. This tournament may be finished forever.”

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