The Italians get the boot

Despite the throbbing arias of a 350-pound cheerleader, Italy was defeated in the Davis Cup finals by the United States, as Smith and Lutz rendered their last duet
December 24, 1979

For those keeping score at the Davis Cup final in San Francisco last week, the end result was U.S. 5, Italy 0, with John McEnroe earning a couple of perfect 10s. And, oh yes, the crowds at San Francisco's downtown Civic Auditorium were near-capacity 6,000, and PBS did another commendable job with its TV coverage. But the local headlines echoed the general lack of interest across the U.S.—Examiner. NORTH BEACH EXCITED? WELL, HARDLY.

This was a continuation of the domestic feelings toward the Cup for a good part of the last decade. When the American teams ushered in tennis' open era by winning the competition five years in succession (1968-72), that was considered fairly nice, but who were Bill Bowrey of Australia, Christian Kuhnke of West Germany and those other characters we were beating? Yawn.

Then came five empty years (1973-77) in which the U.S. got cuffed around on foreign soil by the likes of Colombia and Argentina, and a few people got excited and wanted to know what was the matter. They concluded the matter was Jimmy Connors, who refused to play. Connors was a mercenary. Sure. A traitor. Of course. A very bad guy. Naturally. Then Connors deigned to play in 1976, and Raul Ramirez nailed him in Mexico City in four sets. So it was just a shame about American tennis, but what happens next?

What happened was John McEnroe. Now that, in one year, McEnroe has won 28 straight sets of singles in Cup play, has helped the U.S. team win back the huge silver chalice with a 4-1 victory over England at Palm Springs last December and has led the defense in last week's shutout of Italy, everyone is yawning again. Come clean, American tennis fans. Have you hugged the Davis Cup today?

The fact is that it may be very difficult to stage a competitive Davis Cup over the next few years, what with the number of American players crowding the top of the international rankings. McEnroe, Connors (who says he wants to play Davis Cup again) and Vitas Gerulaitis (the American team's other singles performer last week) are, in that order, three of the top five players in the world. Roscoe Tanner, Eddie Dibbs, Harold Solomon and Brian Gottfried are Top 10 material. Then there are the young monsters: Peter Fleming, Brian Teacher, Hank Pfister, Eliot Teltscher. A couple of dark-horse threats: Tim Wilkison, John Sadri. And 17-year-old Scott Davis. If Captain Tony Trabert could get them all to play, he would have several teams capable of holding on to the Cup.

"I don't think the situation is getting out of hand," Trabert says, referring to the American reign, "because a country needs just two good players to win the Cup. But we are the deepest."

"Too deep," said Paolo Bertolucci, the Italian doubles specialist, last week. "If the United States would play its fourth or fifth team this time, it would win."

As if the odds weren't stacked against them enough, the Italians' effort was wracked with dissension virtually from the moment their supporting contingent—36 journalists and approximately 450 fans, including Italy's own Dancing Harry, 350-pound Singing Serafino—began walking the hills of San Francisco. This was Italy's third final in four years, and the veteran four-man squad of Adriano Panatta, Corrado Barazzutti, Antonio Zugarelli and Bertolucci this year had defeated Hungary, Great Britain and Czechoslovakia with only minimal trouble. However, much of the Italian press felt that 22-year-old Gianni Ocleppo, the team's practice partner, had surpassed Barazzutti and should have been put in the singles lineup alongside the No. 1 Italian, Panatta.

Further scrambling the picture was the death of the Italian captain, Umberto Bergamo, in an automobile accident in October. At Bergamo's funeral, Panatta vowed to play the finals with an empty chair where the captain normally sits and to be alone at the changeovers. In San Francisco, however, Barazzutti objected to that on the grounds that not having the new team coach, Vittorio Crotta, sitting courtside and advising the Italian players during changeovers would be another advantage for the U.S.

A tragicomic hassle ensued within the Italian federation, involving screaming arguments, closed-door meetings, team votes and several compromises. The first compromise was that when Panatta played, there would be an empty chair: when Barazzutti played, Crotta would be sitting by the court. But no. This was still unsatisfactory. More meetings. More screaming. As it turned out, both Crotta and the empty chair were present at all matches. Only Crotta was to sit in his own chair during play and to sit in no chair during the changeovers. That is, he stood up.

"In other words," said Rino Tommasi of Milan's La Gazzetta dello Sport, "no empty-chair issue any more. Empty heads."

When inspired, the debonair Panatta is one of the game's toughest competitors. He won the Italian and French Opens in 1976 and was strangling Connors at the U.S. championships in '78 before Jimbo survived after a miracle set.

At the draw for last week's matches—held in the Fairmont Hotel's ornate Gold Room several hours before a $500-a-plate fund raiser for the senior Senator from Massachusetts—the Italians felt they needed a Panatta-Gerulaitis opening match to get off winging. Instead, Gerulaitis drew Barazzutti.

His countrymen call Barazzutti "Il Soldatino" (the Little Soldier) for his tenacity and bravery on the clay. The American team named him, not so affectionately, "Banana Nose." Barazzutti is one of the great European whiners, complaining after line calls, hangdogging during the rough moments; he is not the most popular opponent on the circuit.

"Corrado doesn't think he can win on this [Supreme Court] surface," McEnroe said.

"I think Corrado is accurate. Junior," Gerulaitis said.

On Friday night Gerulaitis, as is his custom, started slowly, foot-faulting, double-faulting and finding himself behind 0-2, 30-40. But Barazzutti gambled on a backhand return, was wide and, as it happened, was soon gone. The G-Man ran off six games, including the final 14 points, to snatch the first set.

In the second, Barazzutti was again leading, 2-1, 15-30, when he turned sharply as Gerulaitis wrong-footed him, and he came up hopping wildly. The Little Soldier looked as if he had stumbled onto a land mine; just as fatal for Italy's hopes, what he had done was sprain his right ankle. Barazzutti continued through two more games, but then he had to retire, Gerulaitis winning 6-2, 3-2.

On came Panatta to face McEnroe, whose noisy but improving behavior in 1979 overshadowed a remarkable record for the Open era: McEnroe won 26 tournaments (10 singles, 16 doubles), breaking Ilie Nastase's 1973 mark by one.

On his very first serve Panatta, who must rely on booming deliveries and acrobatic volleying to prevail in big matches, unlimbered a cannon shot and rushed in only to notice that the ball had been whaled back and was about to drill a hole in his stomach. Panatta flicked up his racket just in time to prevent another KO, but the rest of the evening proceeded in the same fashion, Panatta playing well—"my best match indoors," he said—but McEnroe playing better, slugging impossible returns off the backhand wing.

Following his 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 defeat, Panatta confirmed what many non-Swedish observers have been saying all year: that McEnroe is the best player in the world under a roof. "A new phenomenon of tennis," Panatta said of McEnroe.

"I won't argue," said Junior.

Another phenomenon wrapped up the U.S. win on Saturday: the doubles team of Stan Smith, 33, and Bob Lutz, 32, who have played Davis Cup since 1968. Inasmuch as they struggled in Cup play all season—they had a near loss against Argentina and an actual loss in Australia, which amazingly was their first defeat in Davis Cup—and inasmuch as this was probably their last hurrah, the clinching point meant so much more.

"I thought about this being the end during the national anthem," Lutz said. "We wanted to win very badly and not go out over the hill."

While McEnroe's light-hearted, cutting remarks at the U.S. Open—"Smith and Lutz used to be great but they aren't anymore. They're as old as my parents"—must have rankled the doubles partners, all was forgotten Saturday afternoon when they slashed and poached as of old while taking apart Bertolucci and Panatta, 6-4, 12-10, 6-2.

The chubby Bertolucci prolonged the second set with some spectacular lunging at net, but the true suspense centered on whether the even more wonderfully rotund Serafino, who had been belting arias and waving his tiny Italian flags from a courtside box all afternoon, would get in an entire opera before Smith and Lutz had finished their work.

Serafino didn't, but Smith did add his name to the historical rolls; it was his sixth clinching Davis Cup match, putting him one ahead of Australia's Roy Emerson for the most ever, and his seventh appearance on a winning team, tying him for second with Bill Tilden, one behind Emerson.

Smith's chances of increasing those numbers were diminished with Trabert's announcement that he has already invited Fleming to join the team as half of the American doubles partnership for next season. But that simply puts another patriot closer to all the records.

Fleming's partner is McEnroe; together they won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the Masters and the WCT World Championship in 1979. Now Junior says he'll play Davis as long as he's wanted. Depending on your point of view—not to mention your country—that means the future of the Davis Cup may indeed be getting out of hand.

TWO PHOTOSWhen Panatta (below) called McEnroe "a new tennis phenomenon," Junior didn't disagree. PHOTOFor Smith and Lutz: a straight-set last hurrah.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)