Somebody once said, "Playing Paris is like having your tonsils out: the sooner you get it over with, the better." At 18 Adriano Panatta had played Paris and won just seven games. That was sooner. Last week, at 25, he returned to Roland Garros Stadium as husband, father and the hero of his country, Italy, to win seven matches and, with the last one, the French Open. That was better.
Panatta's opponent in Sunday afternoon's three-hour final was America's own true-grit machine, Harold Solomon. Having won the Italian championship two weeks before after surviving 11 match points in one day, John Newcombe and Guillermo Vilas on other days and Solomon himself when the American was ahead but left the court in a dispute over a line call, Panatta was not taking any chances in Paris.
A handsome 6'2" stylist who combines deceptive power with marvelous touch, the Italian kept digging his huge serve into the copper dust of the center court at Roland Garros and skidding groundstroke winners as he buried Solomon under easy 6-1, 6-4 sets. The 5'6" Marylander never surrenders, though, and he fought back from a 2-3, 0-40 deficit to win the third set 6-4. Then, behind 2-5 and 15-30, he battled back again to take the lead in the fourth, 6-5.
This was vintage Solomon—sprinting, chugging, covering all angles, whapping double-handers so they made the chalk fly. The yo-yo man won 12 straight points in one stretch, and Panatta admitted later he was "nervous for the first time in three weeks. I was going to win and then I see it slipping away and I know I lose."
June 20, 1976
That he didn't lose could be attributed to two courageous shots he had to make when confronted with saving the 12th game. At 30-all Panatta fired a cross-court forehand past Solomon to get to game point. Then when Solly played an overhead too safely, Panatta dug it out on the forehand wing and flashed another winner by him for 6-all. His momentum gone, Solomon was swallowed up in the tie break, seven points, to three—again by Panatta's wondrous serving.
"In important crisis one must take the risk," Panatta said. Alluding to the fiasco in Rome with Solomon, he said, "I get much satisfaction it was Harold I beat. Now everybody see I can win, you know, normal."
All Europe has been waiting for that. The son of a groundskeeper at the Parioli Club in Rome, Panatta has been Italy's No. 1 for six years, but because of his fun-loving, sun-loving nature he had not taken advantage of his considerable talent. Then came marriage to the beauteous Rosaria and with it an improved game. Last winter Panatta defeated Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors to win at Stockholm and fulfill the great expectations, and then came this month: Rome and the adoring roars of his compatriots followed by Paris and the championship of the whole continent.
"For my sentiment I prefer winning in Italy," Panatta said, "but for the records, ah, that must be France."
Quite apart from the foppery that has overtaken tennis, "the French," as the players refer to the event, remains one of the game's three most distinguished tournaments. It was the second stop on the Grand Slam route long before the Big Four turned into Caesars Palace, Avis Rent A Car, Commercial Union Assurance and The Bill Cosby Pro-Celeb jamboree invitational. It will be a fixture in the Slam long after the King Family Circus has folded up its Team Tennis tents.
With its 128-man draw, two-week schedule, best three-of-five sets format, slow, leaden balls and slower, soft dirt courts producing rallies that go on past dinner, the French is also the most difficult tournament in the world to win.
As temperatures soared above 100° and record crowds poured into Roland Garros from Avenues Gordon Bennett and Porte d'Auteuil on the western outskirts of Paris, echoes and images of another time pervaded. Anyone with a sense of history could recognize this was a special place. Why right behind those petunia beds was where Suzanne Lenglen glided to some of her 19 French championships. Down in the main plaza was the huge tableau des résultats where sign-painters on ladders filled in the names of the legendary Four Musketeers. Over there were the bushy lanes and gravel walks on which Lacoste, Cochet, Brugnon and Borotra trod on the way to their 36 French titles. And just under that glorious chestnut tree—why surely that was where René Lacoste himself invented the Crocodile.
It was not so long ago that the only American in Paris who hoped to accomplish anything was Gene Kelly. Adjustments to time changes, tiny hotels, strange food, unfriendly crowds, language barriers and a totally different lifestyle doomed most Americans to early-round failure if they bothered to cross the ocean at all. In the half century since the French Open became an international event only five Americans have won—Don Budge, Don McNeill and Budge Patty (once each); Frank Parker and Tony Trabert (twice)—and few others have come close. But Solomon and his bagel twin, 5'7" Eddie Dibbs of Miami Beach, scoff at the notion that it takes five years for an American to acclimate himself to European clay. "My first year here just seemed to me like the first semester in college when you work your rear off to succeed," says Solly. "After that it was a piece of cake."
It was cake as well for England's 20-year-old Sue Barker, who went around carelessly beating a depleted women's field (thanks to Team Tennis) and saying how unsatisfying it was because she was in against "nobodies."
"I don't feel like I'm winning the French," she said. "I feel like I'm playing a B tournament and there's nobody to look forward to." She could not have appreciated a hassle over a point in her quarterfinal match against Regina Marsikova of Czechoslovakia when the umpire got into a furious argument with a spectator. The referee was summoned, television cameras and a microphone were brought onto the court, Czech coaches made some threatening advances, British newshounds wailed, ball boys chattered and about 20 people engaged in a screaming and arm-waving competition around the net. Ah, Paree! In the finals, Barker beat Renata Tomanova of Czechoslovakia 6-2, 0-6, 6-2.
The first round of men's play was enlivened by Panatta's standard act, his brush with match-point danger. This time his co-star was Pavel Hutka. Hutka is a slender, short-haired Czech, a basic European roadrunner except that he serves and smashes left-handed and hits everything else right-handed. Don't ask why.
With his head hardly clear from his spectacular victory at the Foro Italico in Rome only three days before, Panatta lost the fourth set 0-6 to the switch hitter. Twice in the fifth set Panatta was two points from defeat and once there was match point against him. Only a leaping backhand overhead off his racket frame and a diving backhand volley, again off the wood, saved the point, the set, the match (2-6, 6-2, 6-2, 0-6, 12-10) and, as it turned out, the tournament. "Every game I am saying to myself who cares about this guy? I win Rome," Panatta said afterward. "Then I say, come on, why not try?"
The second week in Paris ushered in the masses (attendance swelled to a final total of 135,000, about twice as many as in 1975). Monday was a religious holiday in France and Fran√ßois Jauffret's day at Roland Garros. Half of Paris turned out to see their fading hero battle Bjorn Borg, the two-time defending champion, who had turned 20 the day before. Fourteen thousand were in the stadium, 3,000 more were turned away at the gates.
Through the first two sets there was little to cheer about as Borg dominated his opponent, but then the pigeon-toed, 34-year-old Frenchman, who has a stiff-backed gait and is as mechanical as the Tin Man, came alive. He won the next two sets and made an astonishing comeback in the fifth from 0-3 to serve for the match at 6-5. "Jau-ffret," chanted the fans. "Asseyez-vous" (sit down) demanded the umpire, but Jauffret was near the end. He lost his serve at love and, though he saved two match points at 6-7 and 7-8, after nearly four hours he finally lost the match 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 4-6, 10-8.
"I work like hell for this," said Borg. "I break four rackets in match." Somebody wanted to know if that was a lot. "No," he said. "I break five last night just stringing them."
"The kid will feel this day when he plays Panatta," vowed Jauffret.
Sure enough, two days later in the quarterfinals against the only man ever to beat him in Paris, Borg's 18-match victory streak ended. Panatta, by this time flying on wings of confidence, cut the pace from Borg's vicious top spin until he was in position to volley, and he was remarkably consistent with his big serve. Borg finally relinquished his championship by 6-3, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6. "Last year I could not pass from backline," Panatta said. "Now I can wait and pass. I don't have to go to net to win point anymore."
In the other half of the draw, a tall Hungarian named Balacz Taroczy, who has a face like Jackie Cooper and a service windup like Luis Tiant, was causing all kinds of problems for typesetters. First he upset Jan Kodes, then he came from two sets down to upset Arthur Ashe. "It's embarrassing to say this at my age," said Ashe, "but when my play doesn't work, I'm in a quandry how to change it."
The Hungarian was piling up more victims than his countrywoman, Zsa Zsa Gabor, but with two Wimbledon champions down and one Mexican hero to go, Taroczy came to the end of the road against Raul Ramirez.
Before he put away Taroczy, Ramirez had swept quietly through four matches with the loss of only 19 games. On the other hand, his semifinals opponent, Solomon, had acted out his usual passion play in Paris, rallying from desperate straits in three different matches. When he reached the quarterfinal against the ever-brilliant Guillermo Vilas, Solomon was psyched up and ready to attack.
"I'm smacking it as hard as I can for as long as I can," Solomon said. "I'm going to win or they'll have to carry me out on a stretcher."
The two groundstroke specialists began their hammer and spin contest from the baselines early in the evening, splitting two one-sided sets before Vilas arrived at 6-all in the third set, 6-5 in the tie break, set point. The Argentine blasted a certain forehand winner into the corner, but Solomon raced four feet out of court to jerk a two-fisted backhand down the line past Vilas' racket and into the hearts of little men everywhere. Dispirited, Vilas made two errors to lose the set, then succumbed completely in the fourth under the gathering shadows.
By that time most of the players and officials were enjoying their tennis night at the Moulin Rouge featuring an assortment of jugglers, acrobats, performing dolphins and a certain amount of naked flesh. But Solomon had left a ton of his own out there in the dirt. "I'll never forget that backhand," he said after his 6-1, 0-6, 7-6, 6-1 victory. "I pulled that one out of you know where."
He still had a few left for Ramirez in the semis. Again it was an intense, even struggle. Again Solomon fell behind. And again in a key sequence he pulled off some marvelous shots to swing the match. This time Ramirez led in the fifth set 4-2 and was serving at 40-15, one point from a 5-2 margin. But the Mexican chose to serve and go to the net, and he was punished for it.
After four successive gutsy Solomon winners—the last a slashing overhead backhand volley—Ramirez appeared to be stunned. Solomon had broken back to 3-4 and he ran out the set with the loss of only four more points and won 6-7, 6-0, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4.
The courtside temperature was posted as 52° Centigrade, which would be over 125° Fahrenheit, which would be ridiculous. Or would it? "I drank 22 bottles of water and lost nine pounds," said Solomon, who weighed 138' before the match. "I've never in my life been so exhausted."
Dreams (or, in some circles, fear) of an all-American counterpunchers' duel in the final faded instantly when Panatta played "perhaps my best match ever" to slice up the Brooklyn-born Dibbs like a roll of delicatessen salami in the other semifinal. Rifling service winners, volleying crisply, grazing all the corners, Panatta won 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. He broke Fast Eddie's confidence early, and when Dibbs' confidence is gone there is not much else left.
"I have nothing to do tomorrow but spend all day on court," Panatta said. "Solomon is very big fighter, but when I play Dibbs and then Solomon it is good. I am not afraid to play same man two days in row."
Though the competition in the final was not all that similar, the end result was the same: another clay court warrior burned out by the sheer brilliance of Panatta's three-week run. When he was asked to explain exactly how it felt to be playing so well, Panatta groped. "I cannot realize what I am doing," he said. "I am so ready for action, so hot. That is how I am feeling about my tennis, you know?"