Montecarlo: the unbearable lightness of history

Ancient manifesto of the MCCC

March 28, 1983 seems like any date lost in the past. If instead we went back in time we could see, on the central court of the Monte Carlo Country Club, the young and talented Frenchman Henri Leconte opposed to the great Bjorn Borg. The bear crisis has been more than palpable for some time, due to his bad back, but even more so due to his growing difficulty in dominating the best rivals. The records tell that after the 81st defeat at the US Open (the fourth), the Swedish champion disappeared before the start of the awards ceremony and press conference. McEnroe had won, he was the new number one and he no longer had the motivation to try and dethrone him. At twenty-five, the age in which many players mature today and then, in many cases, reach the threshold of forty, for him is the beginning of the end. He wins again in Geneva before finally closing the season, making only one appearance the following year in Monte Carlo, defeated in the quarterfinals by Noah. In 83 he made his debut again at the Country Club, beats Clerc and then loses precisely to Leconte, who will repeat the success in the first round in Stuttgart, his only match in 84, when he officially says goodbye to tennis. The Monegasque tournament, which the Swede won on three occasions (’77, ’79 and ’80) was the scene of his sunset, but also of his sad attempt to return in 1991, unable, with his iconic wooden Donnay, to contain the balls rolled by Jordi Arrese’s Dunlop in fiber.

On March 28, 1983, the sun shone on Montecarlo and the sea breeze crept between the stands of the central court. I tell you with full knowledge of the facts because I was on those stands too. While with one eye I looked at Leconte playing them in Borg, now sure of witnessing the definitive decline of a myth, with the other, mobile like that of a chameleon, I wandered around, a little towards the sea furrowed by mysterious sailing ships, a a bit towards the VIP area populated by handsome Monegasques, a bit towards the restaurant terrace, trying to recognize from a distance the champions who made me dream…. Here is Noah!… Vilas!… Wilander!…. Here are Panatta and Bertolucci in front of a nice plate of spaghetti, just before their doubles match!… Well, I am afraid I have invented this, but Montecarlo seems to have been made on purpose to let the imagination fly.

The Country Club, home of the tournament since 1928 is, with all due respect for thehomo faber American, the exact antithesis of Indian Wells. On the one hand, a gigantic octagonal stadium, almost a spaceship landed in the Californian desert, on the other, a small and discreet jewel of Art Deco architecture; the man who tamed and subdued nature, making a hostile area a paradise for the new rich, and his old European brother who knew how to adapt to nature by building, thanks to a terraced structure, about twenty tennis courts perched between sea ​​and mountains; the ostentatious spectacle of the new millennium and the discreet charm of an ancient history.

As we know, to retrace this story we must go back to the end of the nineteenth century, a time when many British, not exactly forced by necessity to earn their daily bread, go to winter, in search of sun and glamor, on the coasts of the Riviera and the Côte. d’Azur. In their luggage there is no shortage of the tools necessary to practice the beloved lawn tennis, which is thus progressively exported beyond the borders of England. Over time, the first fields are built, often annexed to large luxury hotels, which will then give way to the first clubs and the first tournaments. Montecarlo, as well as Bordighera in Italy, is undoubtedly a favorable ground for the new sport to take root and on 2 April 1893 the Lawn Tennis de Monte-Carlo, then moved to different areas of the Principality to give rise, in 1925, to the current Country Club, located in the neighboring municipality of Roquebrune-Cap Martin. Not everything is romanticism and whoever wanted its construction was, look a bit, really a homo faber American, Pierce Butler, enterprising businessman and great tennis enthusiast, driven by the desire to offer the French racket diva Suzanne Lenglen a setting worthy of her caliber, designed by the Parisian architect Charles Letrosne.

Already in 1897 the first edition of the tournament was organized and for about ten years the British took the lion’s share, indeed only one family did it, since the cup passed alternately from the hands of Reginald Doherty to those of his brother Laurence, known at the time as “Big Do” and “Little Do”. These are then joined by players of other nationalities, such as New Zealander Anthony Wilding, who will win five editions before tragically dying on the front during the Great War. Exhuming the roll of honor of a tournament like this is a way to review the evolution of the circuit – starting from the birth of the Open Era and overcoming the professional / amateurism divide – and above all to brush up on the names of the protagonists: yes they find all the great landowners (a species now extinct), up to naturally the dominion of Nadal, champion eleven times and “guilty” of having blocked the way in three consecutive finals to Fererer, the most famous absent in the list of winners.

And the Italians? In 1922, after the interruption of the war, a former Genoa footballer, Count Giovanni Balbi di Robecco, won, a name that seems to have come from the pen of Paolo Villaggio. Tennis was still an elite sport for dad’s sons and daughters, although fortunately things would soon change, giving way to champions of popular origins. This is the case of Giovanni Palmieri, the second Italian to raise the Monte Carlo cup in 1935, which has a story that has been heard many times: ball boy at the Circolo Parioli, of which he will later become the keeper, coach and sparring of the members and finally, thanks to a federative exemption that “qualifies” him as an amateur player on the circuit. I wanted to remember them because their name has been overshadowed by the most deserved most recent successes of Fabio Fognini in 2019 and, before the Open Era, of Nicola Pietrangeli (’61, ’67, ’68), who is at home here to say the least. and who has always been a regular guest of the stands and of the social and party activities that accompany the tennis week in the Principality. Lea Pericoli, another regular guest in Montecarlo, also witnesses that romantic atmosphere of tennis that was, perhaps a little mythized by the distance in time, after having participated in countless occasions as a player. Yes, because perhaps not everyone knows that the Monte Carlo tournament also had, from ’47 to ’82, a female version, first amateur and then regularly included in the WTA circuit. Annalisa Ullstein Bossi (’49), Annalisa Bossi Bellani (’57) and Silvana Lazzarino (’54), who paired with Pericoli also won the double for three consecutive times (from ’64 to ’66).

Speaking of doubles: if I had the opportunity to attend live a match unearthed from the history of this tournament, I would place the clock of my time machine on another day in a distant spring, March 31, 1980. I would have a privileged place in a Vip grandstand on the sidelines and I would enjoy the victory of Panatta and Bertolucci against McEnroe and Gerulaitis. Then an iced martini on the panoramic terrace of the Country Club, coquillages with champagne in the legendary restaurant Le Pirate and, after the traditional party with the players, the wee hours at Jimmy’z. Montecarlo seems to have been made on purpose to let the imagination fly.

Paolo Silvestri

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