Fognini And Panatta: History Repeats Itself - UBITENNIS
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Fognini And Panatta: History Repeats Itself

1976 was the magical year of Adriano Panatta and Italian tennis in general, which had not really shone much since the time of Pietrangeli and Sirola in the 1960s – a geologic period at a time when tennis was still an elite sport played only in few countries. Thanks to those two lads, but also to Beppino Merlo, Fausto Gardini and previously to De Morpurgo, De Stefani, Cucelli and the Del Bello brothers, Italy managed to assert itself on the international tennis scene.

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After almost 15 years of competitive dimness – if not even darkness – it was the turn of a very talented young man from Rome, son of Ascenzio (the caretaker of the Tennis Club Parioli), to light up the prospects of a tennis landscape that had not really been tinged with “azzurro”. In his early 20s, that authentically Roman, handsome young man, whom during the time of “La Dolce Vita” women liked so much (even though sometimes he went a bit too far with a behaviour that could be defined as…a tad arrogant and distinctive of a bully), showed flashes of pure talent by playing magnificent, spectacular tennis and beating, in days of top form, some of the world’s best tennis players: Orantes, Nastase, Borg, Rosewall, Connors. While it was impossible not to fall in love with his technical skills, with his variety and extravagance, even in a time where all big players had different styles, he was criticised for one thing only – his inconsistency, namely those days of top form being too sporadic.

 

There were no tennis players who didn’t fear him. Even Bjorn Borg, the world’s strongest tennis player at the time – surely on clay, but five victories at Wimbledon marked his being an all-round player – knew that Adriano Panatta in top form could have made him tumble down into the fine, red dust. And that happened more than once, including at the most important events. Borg took part in eight French Opens, and won six of them. Who did he lose to on those two occasions? Adriano Panatta. It happened in 1973, but as mentioned, 1976 was his magical year. He triumphed in the tournament that he held dear, in Rome, close to home. To accomplish a major sport endeavour, one needs a lot of physical and mental strength, courage and – as another big player would have said 43 years later in a certain principality – even a bit of luck.

Until that memorable week at the Foro Italico, Adriano had beaten many important opponents, won several minor tournaments, but not yet a big tournament, even though everyone could see the high potential in him. However, he was never the favourite for the final victory. Everyone knew that he could win against anyone, and everyone hoped for it. But that only really happened every now and then. Many other times, for those who had fallen in love with his style of play, what happened was instead the opposite. Fede Torre wrote on Ubitennis – and I invite you to read it again – a while ago: “A sportsperson is never the one who wins, but the emotion that they convey by doing it and the way people identify with them. It is a destiny restricted to only few ones – the destiny of a Valentino Rossi, an Alberto Tomba, a Marco Pantani, a Roberto Baggio. Adriano Panatta was all this. He was handsome, he was young. On the court, he was elegant. Outside, even more”.

That week too, it really seemed that it was not meant to be. Playing against an Aussie who was not a top player and certainly not one of the great Australians who wrote the history of tennis – a certain Kim Warwick, talented of course (the previous week he had beaten Kodes in Hamburg) but a bit crazy and almost hysterical in some situations – Adriano bumped into what could have looked like a bad day. Or so it seemed until almost the very end. Warwick had – and it is no joke – 11 match points. Ten on his own serve starting from when he was 5-2 40-15 up, then another three in the same game. The others when he was 5-4 40-0. Since I noted them down one by one, allow me to say it again – it is no joke. Two of them were exciting, very close racquet-to-racquet exchanges, and the audience went crazy: ‘Adriaaanooo Aaadriaaanooo!’. Who knows how Panatta turned a bad day into an unbelievable day, when he magically started to return divinely, to play incredible passing shots with the Australian desperately attacking the net, match point after match point. Returns and passing shots had never been Adriano’s strength points, yet miraculously and suddenly they became so that day.

Perhaps it was luck, and so what? Then again maybe it wasn’t, because after that Adriano nailed an extraordinary sequence of wins, against very strong clay court players. He struggled again against Tonino Zugarelli, who was from Rome too but was treated like a foreigner by Adriano’s often unjust fans. It was then the time of Franulovic (the current director of the Monte Carlo tournament), and afterwards Solomon, who retired in protest due to an umpire’s decision when he was 5-4 up in the third set. Next, Adriano crushed Newcombe getting everyone excited, and finally he reached the highest point in the final by defeating Guillermo Vilas, who, after Borg, was undoubtedly the strongest and most consistent player on clay. He beat Vilas in four sets. It was pandemonium. In that tournament, there were seven of the world’s top 10 players. Could we still talk about luck? Certainly not. But in every victory, except maybe some of Borg’s and Nadal’s at the French Open, just to remain in the clay world, there is always a bit of luck.

Panatta in tribuna – Montecarlo 2019 (foto Roberto Dell’Olivo)

I will keep it short with Panatta at the French Open. Even that looked like anything but his tournament. In the first round against the Czech Pavel Hutka, it looked like another bad day for almost the whole match, until when he miraculously saved a match point with a phenomenal dive. A different Panatta played the second part of the match, and won it easily making it look like an exhibition. Both in the semi-final and in the final, he would beat two hardcore, short guys who were very much alike, both in physical structure and style of tennis – double-handed backhand capable of very narrow cross-court angles, a mediocre serve, and at the net only to shake hands with their opponent at the end of the match. Still two top 10 players with great consistency and solidity. However, his masterpiece was achieved in the quarter-finals, when his victim was the most prestigious player, dominated with dropshots disguised as feigned chop approaches, wrong-foot attacks, sudden serve&volleys. Bjorn Borg, the strongest ever tennis player on clay before the advent of Nadal, looked powerless. The Parisians got excited thanks to Panatta’s splendid, creative and varied tennis, the same way as the Romans did at the Foro Italico.

Panatta would achieve his best ranking first in Rome and then in Paris, when some already doubted that he would ever make it at such high levels, due to his helplessness in keeping up with the favourable predictions. In Florence, where he also won in the past, unfortunately I saw him lose to almost unknown players such as the Bolivian Benavides, the Americans Winitski and Fagel, and the Australian Dibley.

Well, Giovan Battista Vico will surely agree with me, wherever he is now. Fabio Fognini’s history resembles a lot Adriano Panatta’s. In terms of pure talent and potential, I often compared Fabio to Adriano, frequently writing that in the last 40 years Italian tennis has not seen a stronger and more talented tennis player.

For almost ten years, even without any big tournament, he has constantly been in the world’s top 20 and everyone has expected him to break into the top 10 for years. Fabio has always been the first one to explain the reason why he has never managed to do this – it is a head issue, certainly not a tennis issue. In the good days, his tennis has always been more enjoyable to watch than many top 10 players. We don’t need to mention anyone.

Just like at the Foro Italico 43 years ago, what had been forecast a thousand times without it happening has now happened in Monte Carlo. This is the chronicle of a proclaimed event. He is on the verge of defeat against Rublev (who may not be a Safin or a Kafelnikov but was able to reach the quarter-finals at the US Open as a teenager) – a bit crazy like Kim Warwick. But less brave, or reckless, than Fognini, who scores an ace with his second serve on one of the five break points that Rublev does not convert to go and serve on the 6-4 5-1 up.

After that miraculous and lucky turnaround, Fognini is even luckier as the Frenchman Simon, who had beaten him five times out of five, gives him a walkover. However, then he gives a tennis lesson to the world’s number 3, who had only allowed Fognini to win six games per match in the last two previous encounters. A sheer display of tennis. The great show goes on with Coric – after a first set played by Fognini’s poor substitute, he plays the other two the way he alone knows. And here’s Borg – sorry, Nadal – in the semi-final. Like Borg, Rafa knows that he may lose to an inspired Fognini. It had already happened to him three times. Once despite being two sets up and not in any tournament – it was the US Open.

Fognini vs Nadal match – Monte carlo 2019 (PHoto Roberto Dell’Olivo)

As soon as things don’t look up for him, Rafa gets nervous. He knows he’s not in top form and he hasn’t been playing particularly well since he came back after getting injured in Indian Wells. Fognini, on the other hand, finds himself in one of those days where he is able to do everything he wants. The points go by, the games too, and Fognini is the only player who is really putting on a show with an extraordinary display of tennis, while Nadal falls more and more into his bad day. This Fognini today is unbeatable, relentless and the stronger one. To the extent that Nadal just about manages to avoid the extreme humiliation in tennis – a 6-0 that the world’s strongest clay court player since the Borg era could not have forecast (although, much against his will, he was convinced that he played badly, extremely badly).

But how much of this is Fognini’s credit? Surely a lot, and maybe more. Just like Panatta against Borg.

And like Panatta, Fognini does not get distracted this time – unlike all the other three times when he had inevitably lost after beating Nadal – and beats Lajovic as well, without letting himself being crushed by the pressure of not missing that apparently unique opportunity. Panatta, too, had the same kind of anguish on the eve of his winning matches with first Dibbs and then Solomon in his first great, greatest final.

He won, or rather triumphed. He won the world’s approval, everyone’s unlimited admiration, thanks to the way he won, the way he played. He notched his best ranking. And the Italian tennis movement benefitted from that achievement. While Panatta had two big victories, Fabio has one left if he is to match him. No one doubts anymore that he will get there: at 32 years old, he has finally broken the ice, and he will certainly know how to handle the pressure of being the favourite and a champion in one of the next tournaments. The Italian tennis movement – I don’t think it would be right to forget even now that too often his conduct has not lived up to his tennis – should thank him and consider itself lucky to have had for the past ten years a tennis player, a champion, like him. As already written a thousand times, the best one since the time of Panatta in a 40-year period. Adriano king of Rome, Fabio prince of Monte Carlo.

(Translation by Riccardo Superbo)

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Djokovic Isn’t Satisfied With The 20-20-20 Look

The world number one will be the overwhelming favourite at the US Open, but Berrettini is here to stay

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Now that Novak Djokovic has 20-20-20 vision, he says he’s not through.

 

He’s aiming to be the sole leader of the gang now that he has deadlocked Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer at 20 Grand Slam singles titles each.

But future Grand Slam titles might not come easy for any of the 20-20-20 gang, even  youngest member Djokovic. Italian muscleman Matteo showed on Sunday in his Wimbledon championship match loss to Djokovic that he has arrived as a legitimate Grand Slam tournament contender.

NOVAK BIDDING TO MATCH LAVER

Of course, Djokovic now has won three Grand Slams this year and has his eyes focused on winning all four Grand Slams in one year, matching something the great Rod Laver accomplished twice about half-a-century ago.

The U.S. Open awaits the challenge. Novak will be a huge favorite, although it would be great to see Rafa and Roger in New York again.

Who knows? These two legends hopefully are already out getting their games ready for the hard courts of Flushing Meadows.

MATTEO AGGRESSIVE, YET PASSIVE

Berrettini had his chances against Djokovic. But he was either too eager or too passive with his shots much of the afternoon. Unlike the 20-20-20 Gang, Matteo really doesn’t have great touch. But power? He has more than he needs.

Between the two traits, Berrettini didn’t take full advantage of his many opportunities. Had he cashed in on the majority of them, Wimbledon might have had a different champion, and Djokovic would still be looking up at Nadal and Federer.

But Novak was always there, ready to pounce on the smallest window of opportunity. He often turned opportunities for Berrettini into his own.

BERRETTINI: THE BIG MUSCULAR GUY

The preliminaries to the match were very English-like, much like the aftermath of the grueling 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 victory by Djokovic. Both players were somber as they made their way onto the court, each carrying green and white Head tennis bags and hand bags

Wearing his usual cap turned backward, the 25-year-old Berrettini looked like a movie star or a tight end with his 6-5, 209-pound figure, overshadowing the 6-2, 172-pound Djokovic, whose thin-man look enables the 34-year-old Serbian to be as nimble as an acrobat.

The first game lasted what seemed like a set as Djokovic survived two double faults and a break point to take a 1-0 lead. Novak broke in the fourth game and led 5-2 before Berrettini pulled his game together to survive the eight-deuce eighth game, then broke Novak and held service for 5-5.

TIEBREAKER BELONGS TO MATTEO

Berrettini surprisingly outplayed Djokovic in the tiebreaker and closed the door with an ace. But the Italian came down to earth and was broken early in each of the last three sets to allow Djokovic to take the title.

Grand Slam titles didn’t always come so often for Djokovic. After notching his first Grand Slam title at the 2008 Australian Open, he watched Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer win 10 of the 11 Grand Slams before Novak got in the winner’s circle again in 2011.

EVERYTHING GOING NOVAK’S WAY

But now as Nadal and Federer appear to be struggling with their age, Djokovic has won eight of the last 14 Grand Slams. Overall, he has won 20 of the last 54 Grand Slams.

While all of that has been happening, Djokovic has won five of the last seven Wimbledons, and six in all.

Everything appears to be going Novak’s way, but the young guns of the tour obviously are getting anxious to win Grand Slams. And Novak can’t look like Superman forever.


See James Beck’s Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier columns at postandcourier.com (search on James Beck column). James Beck can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com

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Why Are So Many Tennis Players Skipping The Olympics?

It isn’t just the COVID-19 pandemic which are putting players playing off going.

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On Monday Canada’s Dennis Shapovalov joined the growing number of tennis stars who have decided not to play in this year’s Olympics Games.

 

In a statement issued on social media, the world No.12 said his decision was due to the COVID-19 pandemic and doing what he believes was best for the safety of his team. Japan, which is where the Games are being held, has been dealing with a surge in cases in recent weeks with a low number of the population to be fully vaccinated. Whilst the country has banned international spectators from attending amid fears of the virus being spread, organisers say up to 10,000 domestic fans will be allowed to attend the Olympic venues.

“After careful consideration I wanted to let you know that I will not be participating in the Olympics this year. Representing Canada means the world to me, but due to the current situation my team and I have decided this is the best decision for everyone’s safety,” Shapovalov wrote on twitter.

Shapovalov’s concerns related to the pandemic aren’t the only thing which is deterring tennis players from attending the Olympics. Over the past week, two top 10 players from the men’s Tour also confirmed that they will not be participating. Rafael Nadal is missing the event in order to take a break from the sport following what was a demanding clay court swing. Meanwhile, Dominic Thiem says he doesn’t want to travel to Tokyo and instead wants to focus on his title defence at the US Open.

This year’s tennis calendar doesn’t favour the Olympics. The Wimbledon Championships concludes two weeks before it begins and the US Open starts five weeks after. Two of the biggest events in the sport which offer the highest amount of prize money and ranking points per round. At the same time as the Olympics two ATP 250 events are taking place in Austria and America.

So much has to depend on where a player is in their career. Have they won an Olympic medal before? How important is it to them? Do they want to travel to Asia in the middle of the summer? For every player I think it is very individual how seriously they take the Olympics,” former Olympic champion Lindsey Davenport told The Tennis Channel in 2020.

Tennis was officially reintroduced into the Games back in 1988 after being showcased as a demonstration sport four years prior. It is different to Tour events with no official prize money on offer. However, some countries such as Russia have previously issued financial rewards for athletes who win medals.

Another sticking point is there being no ranking points available for players participating. Back in 2019 the International Tennis Federation told UbiTennis they were ‘open’ to allowing points being awarded but no progress has been made. Perhaps due to the complex governance of the sport with the Olympic event being run by the ITF. Meaning they will have to form an agreement with both the ATP and WTA for such an incentive to happen.

“Currently, the WTA and ATP do not award points for the Olympic Qualification Pathway. We (the ITF) are always open to discussion on the matter.” The ITF said.

Another issue concerns the location. Players face having to travel from Europe to Asia and then North America within a month. A journey made substantially more difficult than usual due to restrictions related to the pandemic.

Chile’s Christian Garin says his decision not to go to Tokyo is because he feels athletes will not be able to get the full experience due to the current restrictions in place.

“Due to the instability of this year and added to the fact that the established conditions will not allow me to live the real experience of what the Olympic Games mean, that is why I have made this decision,” he wrote on Instagram.

When it comes to other Olympic absentees, a contingent of Spanish players will not be attending due to what newspaper Marca describes as ‘calendar issues and a logistically difficult trip to Tokyo.’ Those skipping the event are Roberto Bautista Agut, Albert Ramos, Feliciano López, Jaume Munar and Carlos Alcaraz. Norway’s Caper Ruud, Serbia’s Dusan Lajovic and Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov will also not be playing.

Despite the surge in withdrawals which will most likely increase in the coming weeks, other top names have committed to playing. Novak Djokovic, Naomi Osaka, Daniil Medvedev, Victoria Azarenka, Aryna Sabalenka and Andy Murray have all confirmed they will play.

“It’s going to be my first Olympic Games. We have a great team so we can do some doubles, mixed doubles, everything,” Medvedev said about playing.
“Going to be amazing experience. Of course, with COVID maybe it’s not going to be the same like every year.”

The Olympic tennis event will be held at the Ariake Coliseum and get underway on July 24th.

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The Other Side of Press Conferences

American author and journalist Mike Mewshaw gives his take on the controversy that surfaced at this year’s French Open

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After Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open, the debate about press conferences keeps cropping up.  Pressers have been analyzed from more angles than Rafa’s forehand or Serena’s backhand.  Players, both active and retired, have weighed in with their opinions, along with coaches and sports therapists.  The consensus is that tennis reporters are insensitive, disrespectful, sexist, racist, and eager to provoke controversy.

 

The constant threat of illness, the absence of fans, the isolation, and loss of income has certainly added to impatience with reporters.  Venus Williams tartly suggested she maintained her composure during interviews by realizing she could beat any hack in the room; none of them could hold a candle to her. 

But this sort of disrespect runs in both directions.  While players view reporters as pesky publicity machines, at best, or gossip-hounds at worst, some journalists regard players as spoiled high school dropouts who couldn’t write a grammatically correct paragraph if their endorsement contracts depended on it. With all due deference to Naomi Osaka, I would urge her and her colleagues on the ATP and WTA tours to view things from a different perspective.  The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the press just as it has on them.  Plenty of tennis reporters have lost their jobs.  Almost all of them earn less income.  They face the same risks of infection and submit to enough Covid tests to leave them as red-nosed as Rudolph.

Under the circumstances, reporters who travel the tour, along with those covering matches remotely from their basements, have done a creditable job.  Sure, they sometimes sound testy, just as the players do.  Of course their questions can be repetitious, just as the players answers can be. 

Over the past four decades, I’ve covered more press conferences than I now have white hairs on my head.  I’ve heard racist comments, sexist remarks and massively insulting accusations.  But more often than not, the putdowns were aimed at reporters or at other players.  In the old days, these seldom made it into newspapers, and the really offensive quotes and admissions of rule breaking were deleted from press conference transcripts.  In that politically incorrect era, Arthur Ashe, for instance, came in for a raft of prejudice.  Ilie Nastase openly referred to him as negroni.

Although it’s now largely forgotten, Billie Jean King’s sexuality was accepted by the press long before many on the women’s tour spoke up in her defense.  While male journalists can be appallingly insensitive—Italian Hall of Fame journalist Gianni Clerici used to print Steffi Graf’s menstrual cycle in La Repubblica—it would be difficult to find anything less “woke” than Martina Hingis’ description of Amélie Mauresmo as a “half-man” who “travels with her girlfriend.”  Or Lindsay Davenport’s comment after Mauresmo beat her, “I thought I was playing a guy.”

Predictably, both women walked back these quotes, accusing the press of taking their words out of context.  That’s an ancient canard on the circuit—shoot off your mouth, then claim you were misquoted.  I remember Buster Mottram, then the British Number One, complaining about rowdy fans in Rome, accusing Italians of being animals.  At his next press conference he carefully parsed the remark.  Suddenly the voice of reason, he observed that human beings were all, anthropologically speaking, animals. 

If Buster had won a few majors, his quotes might have been immortalized, like Andre Agassi’s wisecrack at the French Open, “I’m happy as a faggot in a submarine.”  That line made the list of Esquire Magazine’s annual Dubious Achievement Awards. 

John McEnroe’s infamously objectionable conference quotes could only be contained on a wall as vast as the Vietnam War Memorial.  Even if one had the space and energy to chisel them in stone, many would have to be bowdlerized.  One that barely passes the censor’s blue pencil is his barbarous backhand at a female reporter who had the impertinence to question him.  “Lady, you need to get laid.”

In some cases actions speak louder and more loathsome than words.  After a match in Milan, a local female journalist asked Jimmy Connors, “Why do you always touch yourself in a particular place?”  Jimmy shoved a hand down his shorts and gave his genitals a good shake.  “It feels good.  You should try it.”

To repeat, I empathize with Naomi Osaka’s aversion to press conferences.  More than she might imagine I agree that they can be frustrating, stress producing, depressing, and borderline transgressive.  I accept the sage advice of deep-think editorials and socially conscious scribes that reporters need to raise the level of their game.  But so do players who could profit from sensitivity training, anger management, and basic etiquette lessons.  With mutual respect for all those who share a rough road toward an uncertain future, the tour could become a better place for everybody.


Michael Mewshaw is the author of 22 books, among them AD IN AD OUT, a collection of his tennis articles, now available as an e-book.

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