There Was But One Gianni…

By Mark Winters

Share this article

“…Coming on court in a pinafore after she had been burped…
Here comes the Baby Jesus in drag…”

Gianni Clerici told fellow Italian television broadcaster Rino Tommasi as Tracy Austin walked on to Centre Court at The Championships

Passings in the tennis world result in a “Look Back Festival…” The individual’s career is scrutinized… Glowing tributes and recollections of experiences, either shared or heard about, are offered. Intertwined are revealing “one-offs” that broaden the understanding about the departed.

Giovanni Emilio “Gianni” Clerici left on June 6th from Bellagio, Italy…and we still had another set to play in our “Best of Life” five setter.

Almost everyone in the game has a Clerici story to tell. Categorizing him as a “Polymath…” only turns the faucet to “drip…” in an effort to explain who he was. A marvelous athlete, he left football (soccer) to concentrate on tennis because of the inventiveness the game required. He had been a luminary Italian junior who later was good enough to play Slam competition.

He transitioned to journalism where he set a standard that few will ever equal. As good as he was describing tennis matches and people in the sport, he surpassed that level of greatness by becoming a standalone novelist and poet.

His indigenous understanding of the game, and more important, life, always had “Full Screen” impact whenever he worked as a television commentator. His wide-ranging taste was further evidenced in the tennis art collection he assembled.

He was a “Hall of Famer”…in every sense of the term, which is why the “Vatican of Tennis” in Newport, Rhode Island honored him in 2006. His induction is a “Must” watch (see below).

Gianni Clerici giving his 2006 International Tennis Hall of Fame induction speech. Photo: ATP Tour

Members of the 2006 International Tennis Hall of Fame induction class also included: Arthur Gore, Marion Jones Farquhar, Karel Koželuh, Herbert Lawford, Simonne Mathieu, Hans Nüsslein, Patrick Rafter, Gabriela Sabatini and Nancy Wynn Bolton.

Patrick Rafter, Gabriela Sabatini and Gianni Clerici.
Photo: International Tennis Hall Of Fame
Gianni Clerici. Photo: International Tennis Hall of Fame

Clerici and I were long-time tennis travelers…having covered many of the same tournaments for eons. I still think about putting on my Down jacket whenever I remember the 1998 ATP Year-End Championship in Hannover, Germany. Standing in a sheltered area out of the nightly snow dump, waiting for the shuttle bus to collect the journalists and take us back to the tournament hotel, it was bitter cold. The almost daily delays…Set the stage for Clerici and his ever guilty and irrepressible partner, Tommasi, whom he called “Rhino”, to serenade those huddling, alternating between “Opera Seria” (dramatic) and “Opera Buffa” (comedy) as we became human ice cubes. (As a music critic I must add – They stayed on key and their voices blended together much as they – the voices – did when they were commentating.) 

Tommasi, who had been a decent tennis player, was a “stats freak”. If asked how many times Nicola Pietrangeli or Adriano Panatta or even Raffaella Reggi played a particular opponent, he would give the specifics, often adding where the match took place and more than likely include what the day’s weather had been. At one time, he had been a boxing promoter…then he became an authoritative tennis writer.

(In an interview, with an American journalist, Tommasi told him that he wrote for Milan’s La Gazetta dello Sport and for Rome’s Il Tempo under the pseudonym Tom Salvatori. Asked about his industry status, he responded, stating what he felt was obvious – “…I am the two best sportswriters in Italy.” It must be added – In 1993, he received the ATP Ron Bookman Media Excellence Award.)

Like Clerici, he was “diverso…” (different). I remember a Friday afternoon at the US Open, when Tommasi dashed past me on the way to the creaky elevator in the old Louis Armstrong Stadium. I quickly asked – “Where are you going…? He stopped and said, as if it wasn’t something everyone would do, “To Las Vegas for a heavyweight fight…I will be back tomorrow. See you then…”

Rino Tommasi and Gianni Clerici at Roland Garros. Photo: la Repubblica

Once when asked how good a player Clerici was, Tommasi (without pausing), said he had no doubt that he was better…

They first met when Rino played a tournament in Como, Gianni’s hometown, but Rino couldn’t actually prove how much better he was after grudgingly admitting they had never played a competitive match…

In June 2018 before Roland Garros I asked Clerici about playing the Junior Boys’ event. He offered, “I am not counting the years, but I remember that in 1948 or 49 I went to the semifinal of the juniors. I lost to the Swedish player (Sven) Davidson. In the first round, I defeated the French junior (Robert) Haillet. Everybody became a better player than me, but I learned how to write, at least in Italian…”

(Adding to the look back facts – Kurt Nielsen of Denmark was the Roland Garros Boys’ champion in 1948 and Jean-Claude Molinari of France was the winner the following year. Davidson became the first man from his country to earn a Grand Slam trophy when he claimed the 1957 Roland Garros Men’s Singles title. In 1965, the stylish “adidas Robert Haillet” tennis shoe was introduced. In 1971, the company changed the signature name. Since then the Stan Smith has become “The Classic…”, one of best-selling tennis shoes of all time.)

Gianni Clerici with his daughter Carlotta, a playwright and theater director, and her daughter. Photo: Mark Winters

Clerici’s on court skill was surpassed by his ability to downplay almost all of his accomplishments on and off the court. It turns out, he won two Italian Junior Boys’ Doubles titles, with Fausto Gardini in 1947 and ’48. In 1950, in addition to being the Italian Junior Boys’ Singles finalist, he was the champion at Vichy’s Coppa de Galea and at Monte Carlo’s New Eve Tournament. Two years later, he triumphed again at the Coppa de Galea.

In 2000, The Championships opened the Millennium Building, which houses a number of the tournament’s offices, along with the work areas for the media and television personnel. I had a desk second from the end of the row where the US journalists sat…Next to me was Clerici.

The seating arrangement was based on country grouping. So all of those who worked for Great Britain publications were in one section. The French and German were in another as were the Italians and the Spaniards. Clerici wanted nothing to do with his countrymen so he requisitioned the desk next to mine… “because you are nothing like them (the Italian journalists)…I know…”

Laurie Pignon, Bud Collins, Mark Winters, Gianni Clerici and Alain Deflassieux in the Millennium Building’s Media Centre at The Championships in 2006.

We went on to develop a “una stretta amicizia” (a close friendship). Not only did we have birthdays in late July (his on the 24th and mine on the 29th) but we also looked at tennis from an eclectic, and to some, an erratic perspective.

I must admit, all the years we sat next to one another, depending on the situation he was attempting to describe, occasionally it took me a while to fully grasp what he was trying to tell me.

Over time, I discovered the reason…which I should have realized early on – He thought in Italian but depending on what was going through his mind at the moment the words came out in an English, French and Spanish amalgamation… He spoke “Gianni”…to me. That was our “lingua franca”.

Filip Bondy, in a June 29, 2009 blog for the New York Daily News, took readers on a Clerici “Magic Carpet Ride…”

“WIMBLEDON – Gianni from La Repubblica had his wallet stolen near Big Ben. He now has been the victim of a record-setting five such thefts – two in London, one in Madrid, one in Lisbon, one in Bangkok.

‘The one in Bangkok was my fault,’ Gianni said. ‘I was in a brothel, smoking opium. Long time ago. The one in Madrid, I saved a woman who was falling into the train tracks. Then in the mob, they got my wallet.

‘Never save another human.’

And there you have it, the moral of the day, straight from the Wimbledon press center. Let them perish…”

I was a spectator at both of The Championships wallet losses as police officials attempted to get specifics from Clerici, in between his Italian television work and column writing for La Repubblica. (Both of which could be thrown off track by assorted other intrusions such as his inability get his computer connector plugged into the socket at his desk or connecting to the tournament internet system.) He was the reality of Hubert Alyea, the character in Samuel W. Taylor’s short story that Disney turned into the hit science fiction comedy movie call “The Absent-Minded Professor”.

(Unbeknownst to most but because of my seat-sharing confidences with him, there were several other supposed “wallet disappearances” but, on those occasions, he discovered that he had simply left the “disappeared” wallet on a table in the bedroom of the house he rented during his stay in SW19.)

Gianni Clerici, Francesca Cicchitti and some of their Italian cohorts at The Championships Media Dinner. Photo: Mark Winters

In the July 8, 2002 issue of Sports Illustrated, Richard O’Brien wrote “Tennis, Italian Style Gianni Clerici And Rino Tommasi, Italy’s Bawdy TV Duo, Make John McEnroe Look Like Limp Linguini”. (Gianni and Rino started their tennis commentating on Telecapodistria, moved to Tele + and concluded on Sky Sport.)

Speaking of McEnroe, O’Brien pointed out that in a US Open match in the mid-80s, he hit a touch volley that left Clerici explaining, “If I was a little more gay, I would wish to be caressed by that shot…” According to O’Brien, Tommasi responded, “Notice he didn’t say, ‘If I were gay…He said, ‘If I were a little more gay.’” To which Clerici added, “He was jealous because I got invited to a gay pride meeting after that. I even got an honorary membership card to Italian Arcigay.” (which is Italy’s leading LGBTQ+ organization founded in 1985.)

Clerici’s family was very wealthy. (As an example a distant relative Marquis Giorgio Clerici had Villa Carlotta built in 1690 on 17 acres of land that is now a botanical garden in Tremezzo on Lake Como…A fellow journalist, professed  – “Clerici is obscenely rich…”). Thanks to his father being a very successful oil entrepreneur, the house in Como, Italy where he grew up was worthy of an Architectural Digest story/photo feature.

A talented junior, after World War II, he was able to take advantage of competitive and training opportunities because of his financial security. During a chat, he casually mentioned that when he was a teenager, he occasionally hit with Gottfried von Cramm, the legendary German Grand Slam singles and doubles winner. Clerici explained, as only he could, “You know, he liked me…but we just played…and I didn’t play with him…you understand…”?  

(Because of von Cramm’s position in tennis, the government wanted him to become a Nazi spokesperson. He wouldn’t which resulted in the 1977 Hall of Fame inductee being charged with “Deviant Behavior” in 1938 because of his friendship with a Jewish actor and being sent to prison.)

At the majors, journalists have their own restaurants where the meal selections cater to every taste. Clerici, because of his “Bon Vivant” charm, became friends with the Executive Chefs at all the Slams. In London, from time to time, after going to the local market in the morning, he would bring his purchases to be prepared and we would have a gourmet sit at our desks meal…occasionally accompanied by a “fitting wine…” that he had brought along.

In Paris, the Queen’s Hotel, located in the 16th Arrondissement, was my home during the Fortnight for 30 years. Clerici was also a resident. During the tournament he always stayed in the same room on the sixth floor. The daily walk to Stade Roland Garros could be made in a leisurely 20 minutes. Along the way there was a bizarre’s worthy of shopping opportunities at boulangeries, charcuteries, de fruits (he loved the fresh fruit), fromageries and of course…cave à vins. Because he liked to explore the neighborhood, Clerici, every so often during his two-week stay, would arrive at the venue with a le sac plastique filled with his collected dining treasures which the Executive Chef turned into an appetizing déjeuner.

Prior to the 1997 construction of Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow-Corona Park, New York, Louis Armstrong Stadium was the only facility that the US Open could use to showcase feature matches.

The television booths (which were little more than glass boxes with a backdoor…)  were situated next to the press box at the top of the stadium. At the 1996 US Open, one of Clerici’s most celebrated screenings took place. The weather between the beginning of the tournament on August 26th until the September 8th conclusion was brutally hot. Clerici and Tommasi, working for Tele + in one of the Pyrex cooking bowl-like broadcast booths, were fricasseed daily…and daily they begged the tournament staff for more water to be delivered and far more important, to be given an electric fan…that would circulate the air in the sauna setting. Nothing was done…so Clerici acted…He took off his clothes to call a match. At this point, the tale differs…He either had nothing on at all or only his underwear. The details are incidental because Clerici was simply living up to being – Gianni.

Gianni Clerici calling the US Open in his underwear. Photo: Colaimages

He began his newspaper career at La Gazzetta dello Sport, segued into a stint with Il Mondo then Il Giorno before moving to La Repubblica where he became “Il Giornalista Stellare” (The Star Journalist). He painted pictures of people and activities using words or as noted Italian author Italo Calvino said, “He was a writer on loan to sport”.

During his career countless stories were written about his creativity; the word flow abetted by his unchained imagination. As an example, as the lawns at The Championships became slower and slower he called the courts “hard grass.” Before line calling became automated, that the certainty of a shot being in or out was “Semiriga.” A double fault in Clerici speak was “A double mistake.”

During their lengthy television partnership, Tommasi nicknamed Clerici, “Doctor Divago” because he regularly digressed from the topic they were discussing. On one occasion, Tommasi pointed out that a Clerici story may not contain the score of the match but there would always be a detailed account of why a player was victorious.

Steve Flink, in the In Memoriam he wrote about his fellow Hall of Famer, acknowledged, “Clerici’s research was always comprehensive, most notably in ‘500 Years of Tennis (500 Anni di Tennis)’, which was hailed as a masterpiece by many other learned critics of the game. Clerici took his readers back to the 14th Century and carried them into the 1970’s in his sweeping historical overview on the evolution of tennis. In the book, Clerici was able to uncover the emergence of the first racquets and balls and other fascinating developments.”

Not only is “500 Years of Tennis” unrivaled when it comes to tracing the game’s history, it would be hard to find a larger or heftier tennis tome.  Still – It is a tennis library’s “Must Have…” The same can be said about “Divine One” (Divina), his vivid analysis of the tragic life of Suzanne Lenglen.

Never bound by the lines found on a court, his “Ottavino e Cleopatra” was judged the Best Italian Play of 1987. In 1989, Clerici was named Playwright of the Year (Prix Vallecorsi). He received Best Italian Sports Columnist of the Year (Penna d’Oro) recognition in 1992. The Italian Olympic Committee named him Sportswriter for Life in 1998.

In 2018, he teamed with Milena Naldi to write “Tennis In Art-Tales Of Paintings And Sculptures From Antiquity To The Present” (Ill Tennis Nell ‘Arte-Racconti Di Quadri E Sculture Dall’Antichita Ad Oggi).

On June 22nd, the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum in Newport, Rhode Island unveiled several new exhibits one of which was “Il Tennis Nell’Arte: The Gianni Clerici Collection.”

The Gianni Clerici Collection. Photo: The International Tennis Hall of Fame

Il Tennis Nell’Arte: The Gianni Clerici Collection 
A world-renown journalist from Italy, Hall of Famer Gianni Clerici spent more than 50 years playing and commentating on tennis. He pursued the sport across the planet as a writer and broadcaster with a discerning and witty voice, beloved to his readers and fans for his flair and knowledge. Over the course of his career, Clerici amassed a collection of tennis-related art and artifacts that spans from the 17th to the 21st centuries and includes paintings, engravings, drawings, sculptures, clothing, and decorative arts.

In 2021, the ITHF acquired 31 pieces from Clerici’s collection, which make up this new exhibit located in the Enshrinement Gallery. With Clerici’s recent passing at the age of 91 earlier this month, the installation is a timely honor to his memory, contributions, and passion for the game. (International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum, Newport, Rhode Island)

The assortment of art he gifted to the Hall of Fame is similar to my years of Clerici memories. As I started sorting through places and conversations in an effort to write about our friendship, one recollection would led to another, then another…

I ended up putting together an amalgamation that hopefully provides readers with an indication of how matchless he was…having once told me that, though he wasn’t religious, he would consider becoming a Catholic Cardinal because he always wanted to wear a long red dress… (The “Choir” cassocks Cardinals wear for some church ceremonies are either purple or red…and Clerici would have been happy in either or both colors.)

As he told Richard O’Brien in 2002… “When people say, ‘You are too vulgar,’ I have to laugh…’ The greatest vulgarity in life is not having a sense of humor…” 

…which is the reason “There Was But One Gianni…”

Title photo by Basso Cannarsa

Share this article