The Internazionali BNL d’Italia began in 1930 at the Tennis Club of Milan. It was contested there each spring until 1934 when Mussolini moved the championships to Foro Mussolini (now known as Foro Italico) in Rome. The “ambiente spettacolare” (spectacular setting) featured Carrara Marble statues of Greek and Roman Olympic athletes.
The sports facility, where the ATP and WTA 1000 – Roma is staged, was designed to be a propaganda tool for Il Duce so he could have, in effect, his own Roman Forum. He wanted to glorify the country’s past. World War II made sure that the past would not be repeated. But Foro Italico remains.
The storied ambience serves as a backdrop for a tournament that is delightfully confusing. It regularly seems to be an accident waiting to happen but since it takes place where it does, the reaction to the constant faux pas is “Oh, it’s Rome…This is the way it is and the way it has always been…”
Given this attitude, the Carrara Marble statues, contributed by the provinces, tower over the disarray of experiences that unfold each year. They may seem to be a bit out of place, but in truth, aren’t. They add to the overall flair by turning the bizarre annual happenings into captivating remembrances that make the Internazionali BNL d’Italia an adventure that could lead almost anywhere.
From an Italian perspective, performances at the championship have been “curious” or more to the point, “di volta in volta…” (from time to time). Emanuele Sartorio was the first Italian to win the men’s singles. He did it in 1933. Countryman Giovanni Palmieri triumphed the next year and also won the doubles with George Lyttleton-Rogers of (and yes this is true) the Irish Free State. (Palmieri scored the only men’s “Un Doppio” claiming both the singles and doubles titles in the same year.) That was it for the Italian Pre-War Show.
After 1935, thanks to World War II, the tournament wasn’t played again until 1950. Fausto Gardini was the first post-war Italian to capture the men’s title in 1955. Nicola Pietrangeli followed in 1957 and again in 1961. Fifteen years pasted before Adriano Panatta, an artistic performer, who tennis journalist Peter Bodo called “elegant, soulful and irascible – the perfect hero for Italy”, won his country’s singles title.
Since Panatta’s 1976 victory there hasn’t been an Italian men’s champion. Antonino (Tonio) Zugarelli was a finalist in 1977 and Panatta was in the same position in 1978. In addition, eight other Italians have finished in the runner-up position.
Lucia Valerio was the first Italian woman to take the singles title in 1931. Between 1930 and ’35, she carried the flag being a four-time finalist. Annelies Ullstein-Bossi returned her country to the winner’s circle capturing the trophy in 1950, the resurrection year.
Thirty-five years would pass before Raffaella Reggi became the champion’s in 1985 and she didn’t stop there. She teamed with Sandra Cecchini to defeat another Italian combo, Patrizia Murgo and Barbara Romano in a three set final and that’s been it… More important, she is the only Italian female to have scored “Un Doppio”. (As an aside, Sara Errani was a singles finalist in 2014.)
For a tennis championships that has been played more than 70 times, the Internazionali BNL d’Italia stands alone for having invented a truly Italian results category. Just look at the Men’s Doubles. In the 1960 final, Pietrangeli and Orlando Sirola, the Italian tandem faced Australian compatriots, Roy Emerson and Neale Fraser…and ended up sharing the title.
With the outcome, the tournament introduced – Abandoned. Which is how the 3-6, 7-5, 2-6, 11-11 was termed. There was never an explanation offered…about the stop “cause”. So, there has been speculation…did the players have dinner reservations, a plane or train to catch or something of that sort?
Abandoned was the call again in 1965 when Australian stalwarts John Newcombe and Tony Roche shared the trophy with Brazilians Ronald Barnes and Thomaz Koch when the score reached 1-6, 6-4, 2-6, 12-10. In 1969, Tom Okker of the Netherlands and Marty Riessen of the US shared the trophy with Newcombe and Roche 4-6, 6-1 (Clearly, the Aussies are the game’s leaders in Abandons.)
In women’s doubles Abandons are a nonexistent result. There are only two “Differents” – A walkover in 1974 and a retirement in 2014.
In the tournament’s illustrious history, there have been Italian “and partner” victories three times in both men’s and women’s play. “Home” doubles winners have been – Anna Luzzatti and Rosetta Gagliardi Prouse in 1931; as mentioned, Cecchini and Reggi in 1985 and Errani and Roberta Vinci in 2012.
Though they never won an Internazionali BNL d’Italia championship, Pietrangeli and Sirola are doubles legends in Italy and not because they were Carrara Marble like. In fact, they were a 5’10” (Pietrangeli) – 6’7” (Sirola) combination that other than sharing the 1960 championship, they were six time were finalists. Yet, they have always been treated as if they were trophy winners.
But, when it comes to doubles in Rome, Silvana Lazzarino and Lea Pericoli are unrivaled. They were “in” before “in” was a Social Media “like” because they were so stylish. As a matter of fact, Pericoli first wore a frock designed by Teddy Tingling, (who turned tennis fashion into haute couture), at Wimbledon in 1955 then later she performed in a fur-lined outfit in 1964.
Pericoli was a tennis fashionista before fashionista became the singular word to use to describe “tasteful”. Always wonderfully candid, she told the Sunday Mirror in 2001, “I became famous because of my clothes, not my playing…” She added, “I didn’t make any money from tennis, but if I’d been born 30 years later, I would have become terribly rich like Anna Kournikova”.
No matter the city nor the country where a tournament is held, tennis audiences are often fervent – passionate may be a better word to use – when it comes to supporting a player from where they call home. Crowds are loud, audacious and bold and from time to time, frighteningly more than that. Then there are those who attend the Internazionali BNL d’Italia. Though there is no such phrase, we are making one up – Beyond Partisan.
Stories abound, memorializing opponents of Italian players who have been subjected to jeers, whistling, been pelted with coins, along with verbal abuse and even flagrant, unmistakable cheating on line calls. In his book “Jan Kodes: A Journey To Glory From Behind The Iron Curtain” discussed his 1974 second round match against Zugarelli, who is from Rome. (The year before, the Czech Republic talent had been the Wimbledon men’s winner and was the Roland Garros titlist in 1970 and ’71).
In those days, the first two rounds of the tournament were the best two out of three sets. Zugarelli took the first, 7-6. Kodes evened the count winning the second, 6-3. In the final set, serving at 4-5, 30 all, he hit a winning volley. The line-judge signaled the shot was good…But, the chair umpire said, “Advantage Zugarelli”.
Initially, Kodes was startled, then began to protest and here is where the story becomes richly Internazionali BNL d’Italia… In his book, he remembered the chair umpire responded to his unhappiness with the call saying, “The referee says that it was out…” Naturally, the crowd began to express its feelings in spirited fashion. Kodes continued to plead and finally walked around the net to check the mark on the other side of the court. He found the spot that showed that it was, indeed, good but even with evidence, the chair umpire would not alter the call.
The official began to lose his patience as the haggling continued. He finally told Kodes that he was the Tournament Referee, and he could do what he wanted… This led to the two trading shoves. The farce was brought to an end dramatically when Gianfranco Cameli, the Tournament Director who was sitting in a courtside box, stood up and bellowed, “Game, set, match, Zugarelli.”
(That catastrophe gave birth to the ATP Tournament Supervisor position.)
When he was playing, Bjorn Borg was renowned as much for winning multiple Roland Garros and Wimbledon championships as he was for his stoic on-court behavior. Yet he told the Associated Press on May 28, 1978, following his five set final round victory over Panatta, “I was very irritated with the crowd. If they had thrown a few more coins, I certainly would have retired. The center court in Rome is the most difficult place to win against an Italian.”
Nick Kyrgios’ behavior can be Vesuvius like from time to time. In 2019, he was defaulted in his second-round match against Casper Ruud of Norway. During the third set of the contest, he lost his poise when spectators moved during games. He fell off the mental edge when fans decided to change seats while he was serving. He complained loudly and was finally penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, which cost him a game point.
Earlier in the match, he had been called for ball abuse. The sum and total of his actions resulted in a third code violation and his default. Raving, because of what had happened, Kyrgios closed his act by smashing his racquet, kicking a water bottle and rather than observing the “basta, basta” (enough is enough) rule, he grabbed a chair and threw it into the middle of the court.
As many remember, Novak Djokovic’s passion resulted in his being defaulted at the 2020 US Open after he hit a ball that struck a linesperson. Two-weeks later in Rome, his distemper shots had evidently not taken effect, so he destroyed a racquet during the second set of his quarterfinal 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 victory over Germany’s Dominik Koepfer. Having confessed after the New York incident that he would become more controlled, the Serbian, following the Rome incident, returned to confession admitting that he did not want to break racquets but when it comes…it comes, and he will probably do it again.
Neither Kyrgios nor Djokovic are Italian though they behave like they could be from time to time. Roger Federer is definitely not an Italian but as only can happen at the tournament, he was caught up in the Internazionali BNL d’Italia being the Internazionali BNL d’Italia. In 2019, Federer had not planned to play the tournament, but he lost early in Madrid and decided to compete in Rome to prepare for Roland Garros.
Taking full advantage of having a 20-time Grand Slam winner and a fan favorite in the draw, it was decided to “double the price of tickets for Wednesday, the day Federer would play.” (He let it be known that he was not happy with the situation but then…Rome is Rome.)
Enrico Del Debbio, the architect who designed Foro Mussolini, didn’t play tennis. Luigi Moretti, who finished the forum, didn’t either, but, as it turns out, there exists a Luigi Moretti. There is no information about the 21-year-old from Salerno being related to Mussolini’s architect but he was a member of the Montreat College tennis team at a school in North Carolina in the US.
True to his character, Mussolini played at the game. He called tennis “string ball” because he hated using English and/or French terms. His approach was typically dictatorial. Supposedly, he enjoyed doubles but he was rooted to his spot on court and rarely moved as he attempted to hit every ball off the forehand side.
Truly strange, but this is just a portion of what makes the Internazionali BNL d’Italia so entertaining.
As it turned out, this year’s tournament was – So Roma! As an example, the 10:00 p.m. COVID-19 curfew brought about a 20 minute suspension of play during the Dominic Thiem of Austria, the No. 4 seed, and Lorenzo Sonego contest. Fans were evacuated with the score one set apiece so they missed seeing one of Turin’s favored sons claiming the final set, 7-6. In his next match, he edged No. 7 seed Andrey Rublev of Russia, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3.
The defending champion Djokovic was next up…and the No. 1 had his “Emotion” game on full display. Playing Taylor Fritz of the US, he wasn’t wearing his big boy shorts. Bothered more and more with the increasing drizzle, he berated the chair umpire constantly in the later stages of his 6-3, 7-6 second round victory. Against Sonego, the first Italian to reach the tournament semifinals in 14 years, he remained chirpy while winning 6-3, 6-7, 6-2.
But the “Bravos” rained down when he outlasted Stefanos Tsitsipas in a sprinkle-interrupted quarterfinal 4-6, 7-5, 7-5. Forever assertive, he filibustered for the match to be halted and finally got his wish. The Weather Man tirade led a renowned tennis photographer to tweet – “It was complete BS to see the male #1tennis player get to stay in the locker room because the court conditions in Rome were too dangerous for play but the same conditions were deemed fine for the female #1. Hypocrisy personified!”
(At the same time, World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty was playing Coco Gauff of the US and had won the first set 6-4 and was up 2-1 in the second set when she experienced some shoulder tightness and decided to retire.)
On Terre battue, Rafael Nadal is formidable. He is also a men’s fashion trendsetter when it comes to his on-court style. His lavender/lilac and fuchsia outfit was right off the palette of an Impressionist artist. The Spaniard’s performance in the men’s final was artistic as he won his tenth Internazionali BNL d’Italia championship 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 over Djokovic.
In recent years, Karolina Plíšková has been a regular women’s singles final participant. The Czech Republic star, who lives in Monte Carlo, was the champion in 2019. The next year she appeared in the trophy round again but a leg injury in her match against Simona Halep of Romania resulted in a 6-0, 2-1 Retired defeat. Entering the 2021 final, the No. 9 seed had a 14-8 singles record.
She faced Iga Swiatek, the subtly captivating performer who came to the tennis world’s attention winning her first ever championship at Roland Garros last fall. Seeded No. 15, the Pole entered the final with a 18-5 record for the season. Nothing, however, predicted what would take place. Facing Plíšková, she was merciless winning 6-0, 6-0 in 46 minutes.
(Never before had there been such a cataclysmic women’s title round result. Only three conquests can be found in the tournament record book that even come close. In the 1959 championship, Christine Truman of Great Britain was 6-0, 6-1 better than South Africa’s Sandra Reynolds in the final. Chris Evert swamped Martina Navratilova by the same score in 1975. Hungary’s wonderous Andrea Temesvari notched the third 6-0, 6-1 final round defeating Bonnie Gadusek of the US in 1983.)
This year, Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic have defined consistency. The Croatians did it again claiming their sixth title of the season (and their third Masters 1000) defeating Rajeev Ram of the US and Joe Salisbury of Great Britain, 6-4, 7-6 in the men’s doubles final.
While Swiatek’s score was surprising, one word is appropriate to use in describing Sharon Fichman and Giuliana Olmos’ women’s doubles triumph – “Scioccante” (Shocking)! The Canadian/Mexican partnership survived being down two match points to escape with a 4-6, 7-5, 10-5 decision over Kristina Mladenovic of France and Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic.
Adding to the surreal win (their first on this level) was the fact they entered the tournament as Alternates and had to earn a 6-3, 6-2 semifinal victory over the Japanese tandem Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara of Japan before taking on Mladenovic and Vondrousova for the championship.
The 2021 Internazionali BNL d’Italia lived up to its reputation, being thoroughly entertaining. Arrivederci, Roma!
Title photo by Rob Prange