Inside The Italian Open – Eternal Chaos & Glory in the Eternal City

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A Roman Holiday Like No Other – A Wondrous Guide to a Tourney Like No Other

Michael Mewshaw

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 fat man, a Pavarotti lookalike named Serafina, stood up and sang arias cheering on Adriano Panatta, then the Italian Number One.  But not all of Serafina’s 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 and 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 remained standing on the walkway encircling the courts. This allowed them to shelter under 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 mind bullfights. 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 were free to retreat from matches and sip Campari and soda. In restaurants on the grounds, they witnessed a 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 vying for his tenth Italian Open title, at least one thing might 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.


Michael Mewshaw’s three non-fiction books about tennis, Short Circuit, Ladies of the Court, and Ad In Ad Out are now available as e-books

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