If there were a United Nations of tennis, Italy’s seat would surely be occupied by Adriano Panatta. In his 14 years as a pro, Panatta won 10 titles, reached s number four in the world and was the only player to defeat Borg at the Roland Garros, which he did twice. Handsome, stylish, arrogant at times, in the 70s Panatta was the embodiment of the Italian archetype, both on and off the court.
“I’ve always been someone who tried to win the point, even when it meant taking big risks.” Panatta said. Such attitude allowed him to write the most epic chapters of the history of Italian tennis. Like when he saved 11 match points against Kim Warwick before beating him in the first round of the 1976 Italian
Open, a tournament Panatta went on to win. Or when, a few weeks later at Roland-Garros, he saved a match point against Pavel Hutka with a stunning diving volley before winning 12 games to 10 in the fifth set.
By claiming both clay tournaments, Panatta put his signature on 1976, his golden year. But the toughest match was still to be played, and it wasn’t about just tennis. After defeating Australia in the Davis Cup semifinal, itself no small feat, Italy advanced to the final against Chile. In order to win the trophy, the team would have to travel to Santiago de Chile, where Augusto Pinochet’s rightwing dictatorship had been holding power with an iron fist since a military coup in 1973, during which the socialist president Salvador Allende committed suicide.
Italy was in turmoil too. The secretaries of both the Communist and the Socialist parties declared that the national team should boycott the final, just as the Soviet team had done in the semifinal. Their opinions were echoed by the largest national newspapers: attending an international sports event at the Estadio Nacional — where members of the opposition had been kept and assassinated — would have meant giving Pinochet the chance to clean the image of his country.
In Rome, street walls were graffitied with insults directed at Pinochet, and even at Panatta, who was accused by some of agreeing to go to Chile just for the money. This was a particularly ironic situation considering Panatta’s upbringing. His grandfather had been a factory worker, his dad the groundskeeper of Circolo Parioli, the most prestigious tennis club in Rome. As a child, Panatta learned to play tennis by hitting the ball against the wall of his house with an adult’s racquet whose handle had been sawed in half to make it lighter.
Eventually, the Italian Tennis Federation decided that the national team should go and play the final. It was December. Italy won the first two singles matches, with Panatta defeating Patricio Cornejo in straight sets. In the dressing room, while getting changed before playing the doubles, Panatta persuaded his partner Paolo Bertolucci to join him in putting on a red Fila tennis shirt instead of the azure one traditionally worn by Italian players.
“Red was the color of the handkerchiefs that Chilean women wore as they marched in protest for the desaparecidos: their brothers, sons, and husbands who had been abducted by the regime,” Panatta said. “The red shirt was a provocation, a way to show dissent for what had happened in the country.” And to publicly, although silently, stand behind the color of egalitarianism.
That day, Panatta and Bertolucci triumphed in four sets against their Chilean opponents. It was the first — and to this day only — Davis Cup win by Italy. As for the red shirts, the Chilean military authorities demanded an explanation from the Italian federation, who hadn’t been informed by the players and therefore had nothing to say. Most journalists stated that it had been just a coincidence.
Back in Italy, the victory contributed to an unprecedented uptick in enthusiasm for tennis. Clubs began to open all over the country, from Sicily to the Alps, and nets and courts appeared in city parks, next to the soccer fields. Thanks to Adriano Panatta and his mates, tennis in Italy finally ceased to be an activity enjoyed only by elites. It became, and remains, a sport for all: rich and poor, men and women, regardless of the color of their shirts.
This article originally appeared in FILA, an insert of Racquet Magazine, March 2019.