Events History

Internazionali BNL d’Italia…Un po’ di storia del torneo (A Bit Of Tournament History)

By Mark Winters

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Had it not been for Count Alberto Bonacossa, it would be safe to say that the inaugural Internazionali d’Italia (Italian International Championships) would not have taken place at the Tennis Club of Milan in early May 1930.

The Count was an accomplished tennis player who happened to be the club president which gave him the freedom to organize the new tournament. As an athlete and sports administrator, few Italians could match his “Reputazione Esaltata” (Exalted Reputation). 

A long-time advocate for national tennis development, his reputation soared in 1914 when he co-wrote, with Marquis Gilberto Porro Lambertenghi, then published “Il Tennis”, the seminal Italian tennis guide. As skilled as Bonacossa was on the tennis court, he was an even better figure skater, winning 10 national titles during his career, along with three pairs championships with his wife, Countess Marisa Bonacossa.

Count Alberto Bonacossa, Italian skating champion.
Source: skateguard1.blogspot

The fact that Bill Tilden of the US and Lilí Álvarez of Spain were the first singles champions resulted in recognition for the championships. Tilden throttled Italy’s Baron Umberto De Morpurgo 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 in the final. For the 37 year-old Tilden, who had kicked off his season in Monte Carlo in January, it was his thirteenth straight final round victory. By the end of 1930, the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania native had filled his dance card with eighteen consecutive tournament triumphs…The point being – the Milan score line didn’t accurately reflect De Morpurgo’s playing ability.

Born in Trieste, when it was part of Austria, De Morpurgo became an Italian citizen after the first World War. In the 1928, ’29 and ’30 World Rankings, he was No. 9, No. 10 and No. 8. 

(Tilden ranked him No. 10 in 1924 and No. 6 in ’29. Also in 1929, Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini named De Morpurgo the Italian Commissioner of Tennis. Tennis Magazine praised him saying he was “… the Tilden of his country…” Speaking of Tilden, after signing a three picture contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer – MGM – at the end of 1930, the International Lawn Tennis Federation declared that he was a “professional” and could no longer play amateur tennis.)

The tournament’s standing was further enhanced when Tilden teamed with fellow American Wilbur Coen and Álvarez partnered with Milan’s own Lucia Valerio to claim the doubles titles. Tilden and Coen (who had lost to his partner in three of the thirteen singles finals prior to tournament) defeated Placido Gaslini, another of the superb players from Milan, and De Morpurgo, 6-0, 6-3, 6-3 for the Men’s Doubles championship. As for Álvarez, the Spaniard “ran the tournament trophy table…” De Morpurgo helped her achieve a tournament trophy trifecta when they outlasted Pat Hughes of Great Britain and Valerio, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 for Mixed Doubles honors.

(As a historical aside – In 1993, De Morpurgo became a member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.)

Baron Umberto De Morpurgo in 1925. Photo: Bob Thomas/Getty

In the early 1930s, Italy was captivated by Mussolini’s passion to bring about change. Success, along with the resulting notoriety, became a fervent objective. As a result, when Italian players earned accolades, the nation joined the tennis celebration.

Italian women were the headliners at the 1931 championships. Valerio edged Dorothy Andrus, 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 in the singles final then teamed with the New York City resident to lose 6-3, 1-6, 6-3 in the doubles trophy round against her countrywomen, Anna Luzzatti and Rosetta Gagliardi Prouse. Valerio rebounded partnering Hughes, the Men’s Singles champion, to crush Italian Alberto Del Bono and Andrus 6-0, 6-1 for the Mixed Doubles title.

Valerio learned the game on the court in the backyard of her family’s Milan home. Playing in her hometown always inspired her. In addition to her victory, she was a singles finalist in 1930, ‘32, ’34 and ‘35. With all her career accomplishments, she was “ancora più acclamato” (even more acclaimed) for a…loss. At the 1930 Bordighera Championships, in March, she faced Phyllis Satterthwaite in the Women’s Singles final. Reaching match point, her British opponent was not going to be denied…in a storied exchange, reportedly lasting 450 strokes, Valerio finally made an error giving Satterthwaite the championship. (Whoever diligently counted the strokes in the final rally, apparently did not record the match score.)

Rosetta Gagliardi Prouse was also Milanese. Bonacossa, her patron, remembered that she “had grown up at TC Milano…” A multi-talented athlete, she won six Italian National Roller Skating titles. (Given her roller-skating ability, along with Bonacossa’s affinity for ice skating, it is easy to understand why she “also took to that sport…” In the process, she became a close friend of the Count’s wife, Marisa.)

On the tennis court, Gagliardi was the Italian Women’s Singles champion in 1920-22 and in 1924. Her backstory required some sleuthing…which didn’t result in complete clarity. For example, the date when she met George Prouse varies. He was from New Zealand and came to Milan to study bel canto (lyric opera). He also played tennis and was described by the Evening Post of Wellington as an “outstanding” player. Yet, he gained fame as the creator and eventually the manufacturer of what would become the well-respected Italian Maxima tennis racquet. He married Galiardi in 1931 and after giving birth to their son, Giovanni (Johnny), she stopped playing competitively in 1932. 

(Giovanni became the Italian Boys’ No. 1 but he was more interested in academic pursuits. He became a full professor of Mathematical Methods for Engineering at the Milan Polytechnic, specializing in partial differential equations.)

John Prouse with his parents Rosina and George in 1957.
Source: Evening Post Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library

Emanuele Sartorio and Giovanni Palmieri were the first Italians to claim the Men’s Singles title. Sartorio was the 1933 champion defeating André Martin-Legeay of France, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 in the title round. Palmieri earned the coveted prize the next year, downing countryman Giorgio de Stefani, 6-3, 6-0, 7-5. Beyond their tennis results, not a great deal is known about Sartorio or Palmieri’s family backgrounds.

De Stefani is a completely different story. The details about his life could fill a USB Drive. To begin, he was from Verona and played ambidextrously. Because his game was so unusual, de Stefani became accustomed to thinking “outside the box…” He petitioned the International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF) for permission play with two racquets, one in each hand. The request was denied as the practice had been banned in 1931.

The 1930 Inter-Zonal Final of the International Lawn Tennis Challenge took place at Stade Roland Garros. Italy played the US, July 18-20. In the opening match de Stefani faced Wilmer Allison… and set an unenviable record. He collected 18 match points but was unable to convert any of them… Allison eventually escaped with a 4-6, 7-9, 6-4, 8-6, 10-8 victory. The US defeated Italy, 4-1. (The event soon became known as the Davis Cup, though accounts of the date of the official name change differ.)

De Stefani’s unorthodox style befuddled opponents and resulted in 150 singles, doubles and mixed doubles tournament victories during a 30 year career. His best performance was at Roland Garros in 1932. Seeded No. 6, he lost 6-0, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 in the Men’s final to No.1 seed Henri Cochet, another of the Les Quatre Mousquetaires

Benito Mussolini. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

Born in Predappio, a small town in the Emilia Romagna region of Northern Italy, Benito Mussolini was as charismatic as he was dogmatic. These characteristics, in less than five years, led to his transformation initially from a Socialist journalist at the Aventi! newspaper to a political activist to becoming the Italian Prime Minister. 

In January 1915, Mussolini organized the Fasci di Azione Rivoluzionaria (Fasces of Roman Action Revolutionary) summit. By 1919, the term “Fascism” was being used to describe his group’s political agenda which was, regularly, enforced by his Blackshirt supporters called “Squadre d’Azione” (Action Squads). (History gives Mussolini credit for creating the term Fascism. In addition, he shrewdly adopted the Fasces, a bundle of rods wrapped around an axe, that was the Ancient Roman symbol used to portray authority.)  

Never shy about self-aggrandizing, as “Il Duce” (The Leader) became more dominant, he focused on becoming a Twentieth-Century Emperor Augustus. Believing that this was his destiny, he set out to reestablish the grandeur of Ancient Rome by building “la Terza Roma” (the Third Rome). 

The Blackshirt students of the Fascist Academy march in Foro Mussolini in 1937. Photo: Scherl/Sueddeutsche Zeitung

The supposed construction dates of his “New Forum” vary. In one instance, it is said to have taken place between 1928 and 1938. The period between 1931 and 1936 has also been listed. More important than the timeline was the result. Foro Mussolini, in the northern section of Rome running along the Tiber River, was a huge complex created to host athletic, cultural, educational and political events. Mussolini hoped that the “imponente grandezza” (imposing magnitude) of the venue would result in Rome being selected to host the 1940 Olympic Games, a “sognare” (dream) that was never realized.

Stade Roland Garros was completed in 1928 for the staging of France’s first Davis Cup defense. The spectacular Paris stadium, using a design similar to the Saint Andrew’s cross, was a creative masterpiece…Foro Mussolini was even more “la grandiosità” (grandiose) when it came to staging activities. 

“Il Duce” chose architects Enrico Del Debbio, who was 35 years old, and Luigi Moretti, merely 30, to showcase Architettura Razional. (Italy’s Rational Architecture Movement which was based on the unadorned building symmetry found in Ancient Rome). The site’s propaganda value was enhanced by Del Debbio’s Stadio dei Marmi (The Stadium of Marbles), one of the four Foro Mussolini stadiums (Stadio Olimpico, Stadio Olimpico del Nuoto and Stadio del Tennis di Roma were the others). 

The 60 Carrara marble life sized statues of Greek and Roman Olympic athletes were donated by the Italian provinces. Twenty-four of Italy’s most respected sculptors, including Eugenio Baroni, Arolfo Bellini, Aldo Buttini, Silvio Canevari, Nikola D’Antino, Carlo de Veroli, Publio Morbiducci, Bernard Moresakchi and Romano Romanelli, produced the monuments. Originally, 64 were designed but only 60 were displayed.

When the stadium opened in 1928, they appeared to be centurions positioned to oversee what was taking place on the field. Today, 59 remain… (Somehow a marble statue weighing several tons has gone missing.)

Marble statues of athletes surrounding the Olympic Stadio dei Marmi at Foro Italico. Photo: Jonathan Eastland

In 1935, after four years of success at the Tennis Club of Milan, Mussolini appropriated the Internazionali d’Italia from his good friend, Bonacossa and moved the tournament, scheduled to take place, April 16-25, to “His Club…” Foro Mussolini.

Wilmer Hines of the US defeated Giovanni Palmieri of Italy, 6-3, 10-8, 9-7 in the Men’s Singles final. The Women’s Singles title round involved a German married to a Dane, Hilde Krahwinkel Sperling and an Italian, Valero, who, as she had been in 1930, was the finalist. This time the score was 6-4, 6-1.

Jack Crawford and Vivian McGrath, the distinguished Australian duo, prevailed in a 4-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 marathon against Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon, two members of the French Les Quatre Mousquetaires, to escape with the Men’s Doubles title. Evelyn Dearman and Nancy Lyle of Great Britain dispatched the German-American tandem, Cilly Aussem and Elizabeth (Bunny) Ryan, 6-2, 6-4, in the Women’s Doubles final. Harry Hopman of Australia and Jadwiga Jedrzejowska of Poland slipped away with the Mixed Doubles title 6-3, 1-6, 6-3 against Pat Hughes, who teamed with his countrywoman, Dearman. 

Historical Note: The tournament was Ryan’s final amateur event. The cost of international travel, along with the “diminishing ‘perks’ she received as an ageing top player”, made it necessary for her to become a teaching professional in order to earn a living. Born in Anaheim, California, February 5, 1892, she moved to Great Britain around the age of twenty and spent the rest of her life living in the London area. Though she reached four major Singles finals, Doubles was her forte.

Overall, she won twenty-six major Women’s Doubles and Mixed Doubles titles. Five foot, five inches tall and forever spunky, she was “formidably possessive” when it came to her record of having won nineteen trophies at The Championships. In fact, Ryan often said that she hoped she died before the record was broken.

As it turned out – That’s what happened. She attended the 1979 Ladies Singles final, and while watching the Gentlemen’s Doubles final, which followed, she began to feel ill. The 87 year old made her way to the women’s restroom and collapsed. She passed away in the ambulance as it rushed her to a local hospital. The date was July 6, 1979. The next day Billie Jean King teamed with Martina Navratilova to claim her 20th title at the All England Lawn Tennis Club. Navratilova equaled King’s record in 2003.

Elizabeth (Bunny) Ryan in June 1926. Source: Smith Archive

By 1935, the devastation brought about by the Great Depression was still having a worldwide effect. On the Continent, recovery from the first World War also added to the array of problems that countries faced. Two of them, though, took different revival paths. Germany circumvented the economic privation and turned national attention to developing its military might. Italy was even more interested in establishing a presence on the world stage which became apparent when it invaded Ethiopia.

Because of all that was going-on, other than government PR puffery efforts, the first year the Internazionali d’Italia was held at Foro Mussolini…“non era davvero una grande notizia” (wasn’t really big news). Obviously, no one in the game envisioned that this would be the last time the tournament would be played until 1950, (at Foro Italico, as Foro Mussolini had been rechristened).

During World War II, Bonacossa, a former Italian Davis Cup captain, attempted to deal with the challenging conditions tennis faced. In 1943, he decided to name de Stefani the Regent of the Presidential Committee of Tennis. When it became clear that Italy was collapsing, de Stefani fled Rome and joined the Resistance group in Breuil-Cervinia, Northwest Italy. Wisely, he surrendered to British General Harold Alexander and was interned at Montreux until the conclusion of the hostilities. He went on to serve three terms as Chairman of the ILTF – 1955-56, 1962-63 and 1967-’69 – which bolstered his tennis résumé.

The Internazionali d’Italia resumed in 1950 at Foro Italico, though in 1961, the event took place at Circolo della Stampa in Turin to celebrate the centenary of the unification of Italy.

In 1967, Herman David, Chairman of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, convinced the Club to host an eight-man world professional championships, August, 25-28. In January 1968, de Stefani announced that the ILTF would suspend Great Britain in mid-April. (The Championships was scheduled to be played June 24-July 6.) Before it could take effect, the ILTF held a general meeting in Paris on March 30th to vote on one item – Open Tennis – and it passed unanimously. The first Internazionali d’Italia as the Italian Open was held in 1969. In 2002, the tournament’s name changed to Internazionali BNL d’Italia to accommodate its BNL sponsorship deal.

Lilí Álvarez was the first Women’s Singles champion at the event.
Photo: G. Adam/Topical Press Agency

The women played in Perugia between 1980 and ’84 and in Taranto in 1985. The next year women’s competition wasn’t held. In 1987, it returned to Rome. Since 2011, both WTA and ATP 1000 Master events have formed the tournament, which is sometimes referred to as the Rome Masters.

The Internazionali BNL d’Italia has moved beyond the calamitous times of Mussolini. The event’s history is rich, a bit crazy and involves individuals who were unique.

From May 2-15 2022, the seventy-ninth version of the tournament will again showcase the game’s best players, in a unique setting. It will be spiced, enlivened if you will, by a culture not always known for restraint. As is always the case, the entire affair promises to be much more than a tennis championship with Carrara marble as a backdrop… 

Title photo of Rafael Nadal at Foro Italico in 2019 by Andrea Staccioli/Insidefoto

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