Italy’s Davis Cup history is not overwhelmingly impressive, but this particular tennis story has certainly forged moments of greatness. Nicola Pietrangeli, Italy’s greatest Davis Cup player as measured by quality, diversity (singles and doubles output) and longevity, carried Italy to the Davis Cup Final in 1960 and 1961, where the Italians lost to the Australians, who had a fellow by the name of Rod Laver on their team.
I hear that Laver was pretty good in his time.
Pietrangeli, like Moses, did an extraordinary amount of good work for Italy’s Davis Cup team, and brought the Italians a long way. Also like Moses, he wasn’t the one who personally saw the Promised Land.
It wasn’t until 1976 that Italy finally sipped from the Davis Cup as champions of this hallowed tournament. When Italy defeated Chile — which did not have Rod Laver on its team — in the 1976 Davis Cup Final, a 54-year drought had finally ended.
Italy’s first Davis Cup competition occurred in 1922. Pietrangeli and other builders of Italian tennis weren’t the direct authors of the 1976 accomplishment, but the 1976 team stood on the shoulders of its predecessors.
The members of the 1976 Italian Davis Cup team could have been satisfied with their accomplishment, to the extent that they might have rested on their laurels and lost the hunger to pursue more championships. That, however, did not happen.
Three times in the next four years, Italy returned to the Davis Cup Final. This persistent excellence made 1976 through 1980 the summit of the Davis Cup era in Italian tennis. Pietrangeli’s brilliance — especially in the early 1960s — remains the foremost individual display of Italian Davis Cup prowess in the pages of time. Viewed through the lens of team-based performance, however, the latter half of the 1970s gave Italian tennis fans their most enduring series of annual thrills.
One of the especially satisfying moments of this sterling five-year run for Italy at the Davis Cup was the 1979 semifinal against Czechoslovakia in the fabled Foro Italico, the storied and gorgeous site of the Rome WTA and ATP Tour stop. The Czechs were an emergent Davis Cup team that year for a number of reasons, one of them being a then-19-year-old named Ivan Lendl. You might have heard of him.
When assessing the trajectory and the contours of Lendl’s career, nearly everyone in tennis — no matter how old or young — is generally aware of the fact that Lendl lost a lot in big matches. Even if you are under 25 or 30 years old and did not see Lendl on television, chances are you still know that he went 8-11 in his 19 major finals. When Novak Djokovic entered Wimbledon in 2014, the Lendl label was beginning to be attached to him, since Nole nearly always made major finals but was having problems winning a solid majority of them. (His win at Wimbledon in 2014 is seen by many, this writer included, as the engine behind his 2015-2016 resurgence and the Novak Slam he completed at Roland Garros in June of 2016.)
When tennis historians evaluate Lendl, and more precisely, his penchant for falling short in big matches, the first match which often comes to mind is the 1983 U.S. Open final against Jimmy Connors. Lendl lost a tight third set in a match which had been tied at a set apiece. He then faded in the fourth set, getting bageled. Lendl was savaged for that display. Whether the charge of tanking was fair or not, the reality was undeniable: Lendl was a cut below Connors and John McEnroe in crunch time. He might have elevated himself to a point where he could beat one of the two at a major, but not both… and he needed to beat both to lift major trophies.
What is fascinating, then, about the 1979 Davis Cup semifinals is that they featured Lendl in the center of the arena, losing a tough match years before that Connors final at the U.S. Open. Even as a teenager, Lendl had absorbed a difficult setback, which simultaneously shows how:
A) losing big matches accumulated in Lendl’s mind, which had to have an effect in subsequent years;
B) how much persistence Lendl had to have to shrug off this demon and become an eight-time major champion in a highly competitive era.
The defining match of the 1979 Davis Cup semifinals pitted Lendl against Corrado Barazzutti, who is the current Italian Davis Cup captain.
Barazzutti knew his way around a clay court. When the U.S. Open had its brief three-year run on green clay from 1975-1977, Barazzutti took advantage by making the 1977 semifinals before losing to Jimmy Connors. Barazzutti also made the 1978 Roland Garros semifinals before getting demolished by Bjorn Borg.
In 1979, the promise and potential of Lendl were beginning to become apparent, but Barazzutti — while not owning Lendl’s upside as a ballstriker — had several years of experience on his Czech opponent, plus the advantage of playing in front of an Italian crowd.
This was a grow-up moment for Lendl, an education on playing high-stakes tennis under adverse circumstances. Lendl became well-known, in the course of his career, for being precise and meticulous on court, in his habits and mannerisms. He was supremely detail-oriented and tried to leave nothing to chance. Going up against Barazzutti’s relentless defense and retrieval skills had to drive Lendl batty, and even though the teenager won a 6-3 fourth set just when the match seemed to be slipping away from him, Barazzutti called forth his experience to claim a 7-5 fifth set and clinch the semifinal tie, 3-1, for the Italians.
Italy lost to the United States in the 1979 Davis Cup Final, but one legacy — Italy sustaining the Davis Cup run which began at full-speed in 1976 — had been affirmed.
Another legacy — Ivan Lendl being good enough to play in the most important matches of a tennis season, but not winning them — was only just beginning.
That reality surrounding Lendl — specifically, that he played so many important matches, yet lost so often — is a bitter undercurrent which runs through his tennis career. Yet, it is simultaneously a point of immense pride that Lendl overcame those blows to his psyche and became such an esteemed champion.
It is precisely that triumph over wrenching moments and a haunted past which enables Lendl to say — with supreme credibility and authority — the things which needed to be said to Andy Murray, and which now need to be conveyed to Sascha Zverev.
In the 1979 Davis Cup semifinal between Italy and Czechoslovakia, one can see and find the seeds of how important tennis players learn how to be important tennis coaches, if they choose that career path.