Saqib Ali, my partner and co-manager at Tennis With An Accent, recently had Robin Soderling on his podcast — the permalink to that episode can be found here.
Roughly one-third of a century before Soderling, there was an even better version of him in men’s tennis, at least if we are talking strictly about on-court results and significant titles.
Soderling carved out a career rich in accomplishments and historic match victories. That career was cut short by health problems, but when Soderling played, he reached a considerable height. He didn’t become an iconic player, but his story will be more than a tiny footnote in his era, 50 years from now.
Younger generations of tennis fans are firmly aware of Soderling’s place in the history of the sport. In the 1970s, Adriano Panatta forged a very similar level of standing in men’s tennis.
We know that Soderling is one of only two men to ever beat Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros. Soderling also stopped Roger Federer’s legendary streak of 23 straight major-tournament semifinals reached with his win in 2010, one year after the earth-shaking upset of Nadal.
Panatta can boast of accomplishments which match the Soderling double in Paris: Panatta was the only man to beat Bjorn Borg at the French Open, and much as Soderling scored his two most historic wins in Paris, Panatta did as well. He beat Borg twice.
Panatta, though, took a few extra steps that Soderling wasn’t able to manage. Panatta won Roland Garros after his second win over Borg in 1976. In that same year, Panatta carried Italy to its first and still only Davis Cup championship. Panatta won three points in the Italians’ 4-1 win over Chile in the Davis Cup Final.
Panatta — in addition to his conquests of Borg, his major title at the French, and his Davis Cup triumph — played in one of the most memorable matches in U.S. Open history.
In 1978, the first year of the tournament’s existence on hardcourts at the current USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows (after decades on the grass and then Har-Tru green clay courts of Forest Hills), Panatta engaged Jimmy Connors in a riveting five-set duel. In the 12th game of the fifth set — in the one major tournament which used a fifth-set tiebreaker at the time — Panatta could only watch as Connors hit one of the most remarkable shots in tennis history.
The shot was incredible on its own merits, but the fact that Connors won the match with that shot and then captured the U.S. Open title in 1978 makes the shot one of the most significant in the Open Era.
Panatta’s quality shines through not only in that match, but in the fact that this elite clay-court player was able to test Connors on U.S. Open hardcourts and make the Wimbledon quarterfinals. He struggled on grass but did not allow his struggles to permanently handcuff him on that surface. He displayed an ability to adjust to different circumstances and handle the pressure of competition, allowing his talent to emerge in full flower.
Panatta is, in many ways, the embodiment of what a modern-day Italian talent — Fabio Fognini — always had the ability to be, but has never managed to become.
Adriano Panatta is one of several players from the 1970s who will not be remembered by the global community of tennis fans the same way the giants of the period will continue to be. No, Panatta won’t be spoken of in the same breath as Connors and Borg and McEnroe, much as Soderling lives in the shadows of today’s Big 3 plus Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka.
Nevertheless, like Soderling, Panatta’s best moments ripple through the pages of time. He is a player — with several contemporaries from the 1970s — whose accomplishments and enduring quality should not be forgotten.