American tennis fans were understandably downcast a fortnight ago when they learned that for one reason or another none of their nation's top amateurs would be able to go to Italy to play for the Davis Cup. But Italy's tennis fans, oddly enough, were absolutely outraged. Still flushed from their victory over the best in the U.S. last year, the Italians were sure we had done it on purpose. "The United States has ridiculed the memory of Mr. Dwight Davis," snarled Italy's leading sports paper, Corriere dello Sport, as U.S. Cup Captain David Freed arrived in Rome with his crew of virtual unknowns—Jon Douglas, Don Dell, Marty Riessen and Whit Reed. "For years Italian tennis has waited for this moment—the Interzone Finals on the center court of Foro Italico—and now the U.S. tries to ruin the fiesta."
Corriere did not for one minute believe that America's top clay-court man, Tut Bartzen, had a sore wrist, that Chuck McKinley had to stay home in Texas or that Dennis Ralston was too naughty to play international tennis. "Knowing their inferiority on clay," said Corriere with a sneer, "the big guns of United States tennis have taken refuge in childish excuses. It's not very sporting."
As Captain Freed put his players to work practicing five hours a day on the mushy en-tout-cas courts of Mussolini's huge monument to sport, Corriere flatly predicted a feast for their own gladiators. "By the end of the first day's matches, we will be ahead two to nothing. By the following day we can pick up our airplane tickets for the trip to Australia," the paper declared. But, as it turned out, by the end of the first day's matches and to the ill-concealed fury of the Italian fans, the Italians themselves were behind one match and were well on their way to losing the second.
Roman tennis fans bear little resemblance to the well-behaved enthusiasts who politely applaud a good shot here and there at Wimbledon or Forest Hills. Following a tradition established in the days when Christians and lions were the main attractions on the local sports calendar, they scream their approval, roar their disapproval and curse the umpire.
No athlete in all Italy is more responsive to this kind of rooting than Fausto Gardini, a knobby-kneed 31-year-old who was five times champion of Italy in the mid-'50s. Gardini quit the game six years ago to run the huge bakery business owned by his wife's father, but last summer he came back to tennis to win another national championship and help Italy beat the Swedes four to one in the European Zone finals. A stringy, expressive, cavorting clown, Gardini uses the crowd as his personal cheering section. During his matches last August the Swedes got so rattled by the booing and whistling Gardini claque that they huffily threatened to walk off.
Last Friday, as Gardini strutted onto the center court at the forum to meet America's brawny young Jon Douglas, he was greeted by a thunder of cheers from 6,000 patriotic throats. "Fausto, Fausto, Fausto," the fans chanted, waving the yellow paper hats they had bought to fend off the glaring October sun. To young Douglas, a short, husky, onetime quarterback from Stanford University, it must have sounded like a Saturday afternoon at UCLA. Somewhat cowed by the demonstration, Douglas at first approached his opponent diffidently. A superb athlete but not a great tennis player, he seemed content to retrieve the Italian's shots without trying for any kills of his own. The first two sets were a series of long, dreamlike exchanges from backcourt to back-court. Since Douglas missed more often than his opponent, he was soon trailing badly, and at each decisive point the Italian would throw back his head in a toothy grin and yell his triumph to the crowd, which would answer in a roar of Latin adulation.
Douglas was behind two sets to love and five games to two in the third set, and the crowd was hungry for the kill. "Mazzalo, mazzalo" (Slaughter the bum), shrieked the fans in ripe Roman fashion. But the young American suddenly dropped his waiting game and began rushing the net to slam into Gardini with all his muscular might. Taken by surprise, Fausto floundered, missed, dropped five straight games and lost the set to put the score at two to one his favor.
For nearly an hour after that the two men fought grimly, matching each other point for point, game for game. Then Douglas' young strength began to tell and the crowd's cheers grew anguished as its hero began to fade. "Fausto," they called, drawing out the final "ooo" in mournful tremolo like the end of an aria in Rigoletto.
When the American finally crashed through to win the set 10 to eight, Gardini collapsed like a pricked paper bag filled with hot air. He complained of cramps, staggered around the court pointing at his leg and grimacing the way Harpo used to after Chico slammed the piano cover on his fingers. In the final set the sulky Italian refused even to try. He served underhand like a Victorian maiden lady and waved his racket listlessly at the balls returning over the net. When Douglas took the set 6-0 and the match with it, the great Fausto slunk off to collapse in the arms of his team captain.
"Gardini," proclaimed the Italian papers soon after, "was beaten more by cramps than by the skill of his opponent."
It was well after 4 o'clock when unorthodox Whitney Reed took the center court in the second singles match against Nicola Pietrangeli, who is rated one of the best amateurs in Europe. Cheered by his teammate's victory and characteristically full of confidence, Reed refused to be intimidated. "I can take this guy," he told a friend, and then proceeded to do just that—almost. He chewed up the Italian's service and forced the normally impeccable Nicola into error after error on his own return. "Nicola, Nicola," moaned the disillusioned and unbelieving Italian fans in the lengthening shadows of darkness and defeat.
Indeed, if darkness had not overtaken Italy before the issue was forced, Reed might have gone right on to take the match and give the U.S. a commanding lead for the cup. As it was, however, the match was recessed with Reed leading two sets to love and Pietrangeli ahead four games to three in the third set. By next morning the Italian had regained his composure and was again at the top of his game. Reed seemed scarcely present as the Italian took the remaining games and sets almost effortlessly to win the match.
Sad to say, from then on the Americans never had a chance. On Sunday, Captain Freed chose Reed rather than Douglas, whose smashing play might have been more effective than Reed's delicate touch strokes on the soft surface, to team up with Donald Dell in the doubles. This untried combination was pitted against Orlando Sirola and Pietrangeli, a doubles team that had won 29 Davis Cup victories for Italy. The result was a U.S. defeat in four sets and the virtual end of American Davis Cup hopes for another year. Even the one set taken by Reed and Dell in the doubles was not so much won by the Americans as lost by their opponents during a spell when Sirola suddenly and unaccountably was unable to get the ball over the net. By the third set, however, the gigantic (6 feet 7 inches) carefree Italian player was back in form again and from then on Italy's right to challenge Australia for the cup was never again in contention.
The doubles match which gave Italy its lead and the final singles matches which clinched the round went so predictably in Italy's favor that even the Italian fans watched in relative quiet. During the first set of his decisive match against Pietrangeli—which was no match at all—young Douglas, only the sixth-ranked player in the U.S., fought tenaciously to hold his opponent to a 9-7 victory, but the effort took all he had. Pietrangeli won the next two sets easily 6-3, 6-2 to capture the match and the round for Italy, leaving nothing in the way of glory for the agile—and miraculously recovered—Gardini but the formality of trouncing Reed in a five-set match that no longer mattered.