The Italian Open through the eyes of an American writer - UBITENNIS
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The Italian Open through the eyes of an American writer

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Foro Italico 2014 (foto C. Giuliani)

American author Michael Mewshaw gifted UbiTennis with what he calls “an impressionistic piece I put together about the Italian Open,” a recollection of his past sojourns in Rome as a tennis correspondent, witnessing the apex of fashion, food, fashionable food, mayhem, and heckling. His three non-fiction books about tennis, Short Circuit, Ladies of the Court, and Ad In Ad Out are now available as e-books.

 

In an exhilarating rite of spring, I often attended the Italian Open.  This year the tournament takes place in mid-September like a farewell to summer, but because of Covid-19 I won’t be there.  Still, I remember years past when I returned to Rome to watch the grueling clay court matches and to participate in the fascinating spectacle that swirls around the periphery of the courts. If a city as multilayered and complex as Rome can be said to have a microcosm, then the Italian Open is it, compressing into a single week the essential elements of a 2,700-year-old metropolis that calls itself eternal, yet displays the frenetic energy of a fruit fly living only for a moment. All the Roman hallmarks are here—dazzling color and motion, dense golden light, copious food and wine, high fashion and low comedy, spontaneous friendship and rabid nationalism, grace under fire and ham-handed evocations of a real and imagined past.

The tournament site, the Foro Italico, bristles with conflicting signs of order and anarchy. The order is entirely architectural, emphasizing examples of high Fascist style. Built in 1935 during Benito Mussolini’s regime, the structures and statues and a tall obelisk, which still bears Il Duce’s name, were intended to remind the world of the grandeur of ancient Rome, which the dictator was determined to re-create. Instead he led the country onto the losing side of WWII, and the Foro’s broad slabs of marble now serve as benches or as billboards for graffiti.

The anarchy at the Italian Open doesn’t appear to perturb Italians, but it can be daunting to visiting fans who set a premium on linear reasoning. In the parking lot vehicles follow patterns and jockey for places in a fashion few Americans can imagine.  It’s like a jolly bumper car game.  Then at ticket booths and entry gates, where one expects to see lines, Italians tend to form jostling arabesques.  That won’t be the case this year, however.  Italian authorities have banned spectators from the tournament because of Covid-19.   

Once past the gates and onto the grounds, the crowd used to spread out and ogle not just the tennis, but the fashion show. It’s hard to say who is more elegantly dressed, the players or the spectators.  Often they wear the same outfits. Designer tennis clothes, in bold stripes or clinging pastels, are synonymous with Italy, and in no place are Fila, Ellesse, and Tacchini products better displayed than at the Foro Italico, where style, the creation of a bella figura, appears to be important to fans and players alike.

Bordered by Viale delle Olimpiadi and Viale dei Gladiatori, the field courts are set in amphitheaters sunk below street level, and the torrid air that collects in these hollows is thick with pollen, women’s perfume, and the aroma of garlic and oregano from nearby restaurants.  Surrounding Campo Centrale, the main show court, loom massive white marble statues of athletes. Ironically, they are all – even the skier and the ice skater – naked, and after recent renovations added seats at the top of the stadium, the statues appear to be comically inverted Peeping Toms who, while nude themselves, gaze into the bleachers full of completely clothed people.

On my first trip to the Foro Italico in the late 70s, an immense man with an even more immense voice stood up during change-overs and sang arias.  It was a man called Serafino cheering on Adriano Panatta, then the Italian Number One.  But not all of his countrymen are as artful at urging on their local heroes, and the history of the Italian Open has been marred by fans flinging seat cushions, soda cans and sandwiches.  On a few notable occasions, players have retreated rather than suffer the outrages that the crowd and Italian officials sometimes commit in support of local players. In 1976, Harold Solomon defaulted in the semifinals after getting a string of flagrantly unfair calls. Two years later, José Higueras, a Spaniard with a reputation for impeccable manners, walked off when spectators started hurling insults and coins. A day later, when Adriano Panatta played Bjorn Borg, the Swede held an unassailable advantage. He was used to people throwing money at him. Promoters and advertisers had been doing it for years. When Italian fans slung coins at Borg, he coolly pocketed the loose change before reminding the umpire that the default of the world’s most famous player would have hardly been a good publicity stunt for the event – he then proceeded to beat Panatta.

The outside courts lie at the bottom of an enormous oblong cavity styled on the lines of the Circo Massimo, Rome’s ancient chariot racecourse.  In years past,serious fans often remained standing on the walkway encircling the courts. This allowed them to shelterunder the umbrella pines that canopy the footpath. Up there in the shade the air is mild, while down on the courts, during long, hard-fought rallies, players shed rivulets of perspiration that speckle the clay with what looks like blood, calling to mindbullfights. Guillermo Villas, the Argentinian ace, once described the Italian Open in terms worthy of any matador facing death in the afternoon: “The sun is hot. The court is slow. The balls are heavy. It is not easy.”

In what now seems like a former life fans werefree to retreat from matches and sip Campari and soda.  Inrestaurants on the grounds, they witnesseda different kind of entertainment. Say what you will about Italians and their frequent indifference to northern notions of efficiency, they can certainly choreograph a meal. If the food falls short of gourmet standards, the show is never less than world class. As in France, eating is a religious ritual, but it’s low church rather than high, closer to a fundamentalist revival than to a solemn benediction. Each course is heralded by loud hymns of praise or blame, the clatter of dropped cutlery and plates, the fast-forward ballet of white-jacketed waiters shouting “Momento!” or “Subito!” as they scurry between tables.

By one of those screwy coincidences that abound in Rome, tennis at the Foro Italico during the 1980s could claim no better than second billing. On Viale delle Olimpiadi, in a gymnasium barricaded by sandbags and surrounded by armored personnel carriers, the Italian murder trial of the century took place over the course of three years.  While players bashed ground strokes back and forth, judges heard evidence against Red Brigades terrorists who kidnapped and assassinated Aldo Moro, the former prime minister. It was almost as if John Hinckley, President Reagan’s would-be assassin, were tried in a locker room at Flushing Meadow during the U.S. Open.  But in Rome nobody seemed to find this bizarre.

In 2020, with Rafael Nadal vyingfor his tenth Italian Open title, at least one thingmight seem utterly predictable.  But in Rome one never knows when some surreal or sublime incident will upset the odds.  I’ll stay tuned on TV thousands of miles away, tensely following what will happen.

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Gerhard (Gerry) Weber: Halle Tournament Pioneer Passes Away

Gerhard Weber, a hugely successful women’s clothier, took what many believed was a huge risk when he “created” the Gerry Weber Open, now an ATP 500 series event. The tournament’s patron, who passed away on September 24th, had a significant impact on the tennis world as Mark Winters explains in his story.

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Gerhard and Ralf Weber at the ATP World Championships in Frankfurt. Photo: Mark Winters

Having attended the Gerry Weber Open (now Noventi Open) since its inception, I felt a piece of my tennis life was lost when it was announced that Gerhard (Gerry) Weber had passed away on September 24th at a clinic in Münster, Germany at the age of 79.

 

I remember when our paths first crossed. It happened at the ATP World Championships, as the year-end tournament was called in the 1990’s. It was held at the Festhalle in Frankfurt in 1992.  Having heard that Weber was going to make a presentation about a new grass court tournament that would be held in Germany in 1993, my curiosity was thoroughly piqued. At the time, the tournament was to be contested the week after Roland Garros. I decided to attend the press conference because, after all, Germany, wasn’t the home of “lawn play”, so I figured the media gathering would be more significant than a  “fill the time break” sandwiched between round-robin matches.

That afternoon, I learned that the inaugural Gerry Weber Open – obviously named for the tournament founder – was going to be staged in Halle (Westphalia) the same week the revered Queen’s Club Championships would be taking place in London. As Weber, who looked very dapper, almost like a successful small town bank president, talked about his plans (through a translator), I began to realize that beneath his quiet demeanor lurked an individual who was quite audacious. I should have known that he was very bold and adventurous. He would have to be, to invest in what amounted to be a scheduling face-off with the long-established Wimbledon warm-up that had begun in 1890.

At the time, I knew next to nothing about the tournament owner and even less about Halle. As it turned out, Weber was born in the city. His mother had operated a small shop in town that sold a variety of products including clothing. It seems the time spent working there sparked an interest in retail and fashion. The interest led him to become involved in the clothing business in 1965. By the early 1970s, he, along with his childhood friend, Udo Hardieck, (who was also involved in the tournament until his death in 2018), had established a women’s fashion brand and manufacturing center that was based in Halle. At its peak, the company featured five stylish clothing lines, in affordable price ranges for everyone. The chic creations were sold at Gerry Weber retail outlets around the world. 

Before the tournament’s location became well known, I had occasion to write several humorous tales about players going to the wrong Halle. As it turned out, there are several cities named Halle in Germany. Some competitors thought the Halle near Dresden was the tournament site. A few believed that it was the coastal resort city. In time, it became evident that Gerry Weber’s Halle was the town of 20,000 in the countryside of an agricultural region, just a short distance from a “Teutoburger Wald”, (a nature preserve), near the city of Bielefeld where there are more than 330,000 residents, and a major university, to boot.

Though our relationship was basically “nodding recognition”, I spent enough time around him during the tournament’s twenty-seven years to realize that Weber was innately savvy. He had remarkable “situational feel”. That is the only way to explain why he signed seventeen-year-old Stefanie Graf to be a Gerry Weber brand ambassador in 1986. 

In 2010, Weber again showcased his “smart-risk” management style getting Roger Federer to agree to a lifetime contract with the tournament. Federer, who was ranked No. 1 at the time,  admitted that it felt a bit like he was getting married. He added that by playing the Gerry Weber Open, he “gained momentum (before) going into Wimbledon.” (To date, Federer has won the Halle singles title ten times.)

During the spring, the weather in Europe varies dramatically. More often than not, rain is a companion of the season. In its first year, the tournament was nearly washed away. Fortunately, Weber’s creativity went well beyond fashion design and color combinations. He commissioned an architect to develop a plan for a retractable roof to cover the 12,300 seats in the Gerry Weber Stadion. By 1994, it was operational and it became the first tennis event to be able to avoid Mother Nature’s spring crying jags.

But, playing tennis in an occasionally roofed enclosure didn’t offer ideal conditions for grass court maintenance. Weber, a thoughtful problem solver, handled the dilemma by recruiting Phil Thorn. Thorn had worked with his father Jim, who had been responsible for the courts at the All England Lawn Tennis Club. Young Thorn, who has overseen the care of the grounds at the facility from the beginning,  developed a revolutionary idea.  With Weber’s support, he grew grass for the center court on palettes, four hundred of which are carefully moved into the arena prior to the start of competition each year.

Weber was not only a visionary but he was an avid and crafty left-handed recreational tennis player. He became the head of TC Blau-Weiss, (where the Gerry Weber Open venue would be built) in the mid-1980s. Seven years later (1992), he organized a $25,000 ATP Challenger event on the club’s Terre Battue courts. His son Ralf, who looked like he had just finished graduate school at the Gerry Weber Open announcement in Frankfurt later that year, was the Tournament Director – a position he still holds with the Noventi Open.

Halle was part of Weber’s DNA. It was where he grew up. A factory and his corporate headquarters were there. His company employed thousands of people from the city and the surrounding area. He cared about the community. He was one of them. As a result, the residents adopted a “familial” feeling about the Gerry Weber Open. It was theirs. It directly reflected on the region, which is the reason that “locals” have always formed the backbone of the tournament’s staff. Annually, people saved their vacation time and used it to work at the event. They made the commitment because Weber had a commitment to his hometown.

That connection, relationship says it better, led to the Gerry Weber Open being named the ATP World Tour 250 Tournament of the Year in 2008. In 2015, the June championships became an ATP 500 series event and as before, the locals “played on”.

A person holding a sign

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Gerhard Weber was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Deutscher Tennis Bund (DTB) in June of 2018. Photo Mark Winters

When you are around an individual once a year for more than a quarter of a century, you gain insight. Over that time, I formed some revealing impressions. As I look back, Weber was always very proper and never overly expressive, but beyond this exterior it was clear that he really cared. It could be seen in the way he treated staff members and season ticket holders. Though, in recent years, he had been slowed by health issues, he remained personable and annually appeared at the tournament. He was a community activist who stayed in touch with local leaders and was aware of important local issues. He offered perpetual support to the TC Blau-Weiss and the Bielefeld futbol (soccer) team.

He was, indeed, a man of the people as Martin Fröhlich brought out at the end of his story, “On the death of Gerhard Weber: Someone who shaped the region”, which appeared in the newspaper Halle Kreisblatt on September 25th. Fröhlich wrote,  “Even today some people think he was called Gerry Weber. He used to say, ‘No, that is the company. I’m Gerhard’.”

Gerhard Weber led an impactful life. He was the Halle tournament’s patron. Actually, archangel better defines his role. In both women’s clothing design and tennis, he was bold, incisive and courageous. More important, he was a class act. His spirit will be missed by the game and his lifelong neighbors. 

Rest In Peace, Gerhard Weber.

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“Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited” Shares The Champion’s Story By Steve Flink

At 19, Pete Sampras won the first of 14 Grand Slam titles at the US Open. He closed his illustrious career claiming his final major in New York, the city where it had all began. Over the years, a library’s worth of stories have been written about him, but none compare to “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. In the book, renowned tennis journalist Steve Flink, in recognition of the thirtieth anniversary of Sampras’ initial triumph, offers a unique overview of the man that few know – The Real Pete Sampras.

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Pete Sampras stunned the tennis world when he won the US Open singles title as a 19-year-old in 1990. In essence, an unknown became known and – borrowing from Frank Sinatra – reached the “top of the heap…” in New York. Twelve years later, he took full advantage of the opportunity in that same setting to bring the curtain down on his extraordinary career. At 31, he made a final entry in the record book when he won his fourteenth major championship in storybook fashion… It seemed as if it had come full circle… To once again quote Sinatra, with a slight alteration, “It brought an end to a very good career”. 

 

(At the 2003 US Open, after having not played another tournament since the triumph, he fittingly took a final bow where it all had begun and officially retired.) 

In “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”, Steve Flink paints a portrait as if he were Claude Monet, who saw the reality of the world and made it more beautiful. The acclaimed Impressionist relied on the eyes of the viewer to mix the colors he used for his captivating landscapes, many of which he painted in his Giverny garden. Flink, the 2017 International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee, uses words similar to the way Monet utilized his palette to create an understanding of who Sampras is and more important, a genuine feeling for him as a player and an individual that many watched but very few really knew.

Sampras’ birthday is August 12, 1971. He joined the pro ranks at Indian Wells in 1988, five months before he turned 17. Early on, his talent had been widely recognized, but, because he was shy, he didn’t really burst on the scene. Actually, he never sought attention and he certainly wasn’t loquacious. With Rod Laver as his model and Wimbledon as his goal,  he lived by the motto – I let my racquet do the talking. As a result, many tennis aficionados knew him only based on his tournament results. Otherwise, he was nearly invisible. 

Flink, who has a photographic recall of points and matches played, travels through Sampras’ record setting; from New York and significant stops in between and then back to New York – from his first major to his last. The easy to read writing style weaves facts and observations smoothly, with no apparent seams in the story’s fabric. The author is so skilled that he makes the reader feel as if he/she is fortunate enough to be sitting in the room and listening to conversations between Steve and Pete as they discuss details gleaned from his Grand Slam competitive triumphs, the successes that were realized at ATP Year-End Championships and his most cherished accomplishment – finishing No. 1 in the world for six straight years – a record that may never be broken.

Every tennis “story about…” features a list of accomplishments and praise of the subject by former opponents and those who played prior to the individual’s time in the limelight. For the most part, the supporting quotes can be summarized in driving onto a dead-end street fashion – “Good player, Good guy”. Because of Flink’s relationship with current and former players, he can use a masterful variety of insights about Sampras to make the story compelling. He collects them from the likes of Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang, rivals that date back to their shared junior days. Mats Wilander, Patrick Rafter and Goran Ivanisevic add to the richness of the canvas. So do the thoughts offered by Billie Jean King, Mary Carillo, Martina Navratilova and Tracy Austin. Keeping with the tennis’ hierarchy parade, Stefan Edberg and Ivan Lendl make some revealing assessments, too. John McEnroe is quoted and naturally lives up to his being “ever-so-candid” by reputation. Todd Martin, a circuit opponent, who is now the CEO of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, is as usual, solid with his remembrances. Comments by Paul Annacone and Tom Gullikson, one a former Sampras coach and the other his Davis Cup captain, thread through a portion of the book and  enhance its depth.

(I wrote the first Pete Sampras story that appeared nationally. It was in the “Inside The Junior Game” section of the June 1978 issue of World Tennis Magazine. Coincidentally, Steve Flink was the editor of the publication all those years ago. Perhaps it was fate, but he would go on to become a Senior Writer at Tennis Week, and I found a spot as a Contributor to that magazine as well.)

Mark Winters and Steve Flink at Flink’s 2017 International Tennis Hall of Fame induction in Newport, Rhode Island. Photo Cheryl Jones

Having had a lengthy career as a journalist and having already written two books that are “musts” for inclusion in every tennis library –  “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999 and later, “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012, I asked Flink why he had decided to focus on Sampras. As one of the game’s premier historian, he could have written about anyone in tennis. 

He explained, “I interviewed Pete a bunch of times over the telephone from 1992 to 1995. We met at Wimbledon in 1995. I wrote about him countless times both during and after his career. I would say I have done at least 15 or perhaps 20 features on Pete over the years.” 

Flink continued, “It took about a year-and-a-half or slightly less to write the book, primarily because I knew the subject so well. As I said in my introduction, in my mind I had been writing the book since late in his career.”

There is much more to the book than an encyclopedic listing of Sampras’ wins and losses. In “Save the Best for Last” fashion, Flink explores one of the game’s universal questions – stepping from one era to another, in their prime, who would win? Though such ventures are speculation, it is always fun to wonder – Would Bill Tilden have been competitive against Jack Kramer? Would Richard “Pancho” Gonzalez have held his own against his one-time brother-in-law Andre Agassi? How might Rod Laver have dealt with John McEnroe?

Flink tantalizes the reader with a look at how Sampras could have done against Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. In a pièce de resistance, he brings the story to a close offering his Top 10 American men ever and Top 10 American men in the Open Era. I will not even hint at what he has to say, but these two chapters are standalone book-worthy in and of themselves.

“I felt it had to be done,” Flink said. “I had always wanted to do this book. Pete is too often taken for granted. His contributions to the game have been immeasurable. I felt that knowing him so well and understanding what he is about made me perhaps uniquely qualified to be the author of a retrospective examination of Pete’s impact on the game.”

A group of French artists used a complicated technique to create an optical illusion and it was called trompe l’oeil. In English, it means “deceives the eye”. In no way was there any deception or deceit to Sampras. Flink entertainingly points out that he is genuine and for that matter, purely and simply real.

“I always deeply appreciated not only his gifts as a player but also his quiet way of going about things. The bottom line is that he deserves a laudatory book done on his exploits. My goal is for many fans to be reminded of why they admired him so deeply. Hence the title: ‘Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited’.”

“Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited” will be available to purchase after September 1, 2020. (Check Amazon)

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Borna Coric saves six match points to upset Stefanos Tsitsipas in thrilling third-round match in New York

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Borna Coric saved six match points to upset fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-7 (2-7) 6-4 4-6 7-5 7-6 (7-4) on Louis Armstrong Stadium after four hours and 36 minutes in the best match so far at this year’s edition of the US Open reaching the fourth round at Flushing Meadows for the second time in three years. 

 

Tsitsipas was leading 5-1 in the fourth set and was very close to winning the match, but he wasted six match points in the ninth and tenth games. The match featured 112 winners and 92 unforced errors. Coric converted six of his 13 break points and saved 10 of the 15 break points. 

Both players traded breaks in the opening games of the first set and went on serve en route to the tie-break. Tsitsipas cruised to the tie-break to 7-2 after Coric made a a backhand error. 

Coric took a medical time-out after the tie-break and received treatment on his neck and his right shoulder. 

In the second set dropped five points on the first serve and earned six break point chances. Coric converted his third set point at 5-4 when Tsitsipas made a forehand error. 

Both players went on serve in the first eight games of the third set. Tsitsipas reeled off 12 of the last 14 points breaking Coric at love at 4-4. The young Greek player served for the set and forced Coric’s serve to win it 6-4. 

Tsitsipas broke twice in the first and fifth games to race out to a 5-1 lead in the fourth set. Coric pulled one break back in the eighth game. Coric faced six match points, but he saved two chances on serve in the ninth game forcing Tsitsipas to serve for the win. 

Tsitsipas took a 40-0 lead in the tenth game, but he wasted all four match points. Coric earned a break with a volley to draw level to 5-5 and clinched a hard-fought fourth set with a return winner in the 12th game. 

Both players in the fifth and sixth games in the fifth set. Tsitsipas wasted four break points in the ninth and eleventh games before Coric sealed the tie-break 7-4 after a loose forehand from Tsitsipas. 

Two days earlier Coric rallied from two sets to one to beat Juan Ignacio Londero. 

“I have to be honest and say that I was really lucky. I made some unbelievable returns and I was a bit lucky at the end. In the third and fourth set, he was playing unbelievable tennis and I felt like I had no chance. In the fifth set tie-break I knew it was not going to be easy for him, so I tried to just keep the ball in court and make as many balls as possible”, said Coric. 

Coric set up a fourth round match against Australia’s Jordan Thompson, who Mikhail Kukushkin 7-5 6-4 6-1 to reach the fourth round in a Grand Slam tournament for the first time. 

Coric is aiming at reaching his first career quarter final at a Grand Slam tournament. 

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