Adriano Panatta, tennis and the art of having fun

An interview with the champion who soared to fourth place in the world rankings. His passions, from tennis to cars, and maintaining the right distance from success

Home life people Adriano Panatta, tennis and the art of having fun

"Tennis is fun, harmony, a synthesis between physical and mental preparation". Today, Adriano Panatta has no doubts when he talks about the sport that helped make him one of the greatest Italian tennis players of all time. He looks with detachment at his successes of the past, instead praising the beauty of the game and the fun of knocking a ball from one side of the net to the other.

His words recall the scene from the Emanuele Scaringi film The Armadillo's Prophecy, which was adapted from the cartoonist Zerocalcare's first book. Panatta, who plays himself, explains to the film's main character, who lives by doing odd jobs with no passion at all, that to be happy you have to not only work but have fun while doing so, put passion into it and look for beauty and harmony in everything you do.

Panatta reveals his "philosophy" when he answers the final question of our interview and explains the project of his tennis school for children in Treviso. "I will teach them to have fun and not to think about the result," just as Panatta said to the protagonist of Scaringi's film: "You don't have fun, you just think about bringing home the result, you have lost the sense of the game, the beautiful match, the beautiful point".

Adriano Panatta, tennis and the art of having fun
Adriano Panatta, tennis and the art of having fun

For those who attend his tennis school, it will not be important to win, but to have fun. "If not," Panatta explains, "they are destined to be disappointed. Children shouldn't take themselves too seriously. Then, if one of them has the qualities to rise up, there is no question that they will be successful. Today, parents all think their children are all champions, which only leads to frustration. Instead, it is important to learn how to play tennis as a child and then to be able to do it for your whole life, to have fun as an adult, even when you're eighty years old. This is the beauty of tennis."

It is no coincidence that the explosion of tennis as a sport of the people in Italy came at the end of the 1970s, after the victories of Panatta, the humble champion, son of Ascenzio Panatta, a caretaker at Parioli Tennis Club, and who has always remained the same, still loved by everyone today, just like when he matches Marco Tardelli on the TV show Quelli che il calcio. Tennis courts were built all over Italy in the wake of Panatta's success.

His disenchantment with success resurfaces when he confirms that he has not kept any of his trophies. “I swear I have nothing left, I have only kept a Pirelli ball with a date written on it, 30 May 1976. My sister gave it to me after a move and told me to look at what she'd found." The date is not a random one: it was the final of the Italian Open in Rome, and the ball was used in the match point against Vilas, and his father collected and kept it. "For me, it's more a memory of my dad than the game."

Panatta, still ironic and irreverent, also diminishes his comeback in the first match of the Open, which he won after defending 11 match points against Warwick. “The day didn't go too badly, it was fate. Things could change quickly, I played every match point to save the game and it worked out well."

Yet Panatta, when he keeps his humour in check, admits that to win you need something more than just luck. "To be at those levels you have to be physically prepared and well trained, but that's not enough because tennis is above all played in the head, where you need maximum control.” “You are alone for hours, you play with no one alongside you, there is no coach, you are alone with yourself. Without control you can't manage, you need incredible psychological strength."

Like when, for example, in 1976 Panatta was able to beat Björn Borg in the quarter-finals of Roland Garros and then win the tournament in the final against Harold Solomon. After that defeat, Borg never lost a match on clay again. “Borg and I were completely different, after all what can a Roman and a Swede have in common? Even if we got along very well, a glance was enough between us, it was funny, we made fun of each other." “Others often played his game on the court, like Vilas. They tried to copy him. He was a player of great continuity, with great physique and incredible mental strength. I, on the other hand, was different, less predictable, I attacked, I broke the mould and to beat him I had to jump through hoops and have maximum control. I lost all the games I lost because of the power of the opponent, but the games I won, I won because of my control and my head."

With Borg, Panatta enjoyed the same mental tension that allowed him to overcome the physical drop in the final against Solomon: "Roland Garros started immediately after the Italian Open, there were no breaks, which means that your physical strength was put to the test. In the final I was playing well, then in the fourth set he made a comeback after I dropped physically, but I kept my head. Without it, I would never have won."

Thanks to his victories, including a Davis Cup won in Santiago against Pinochet's Chile, where Panatta controversially wore a red shirt instead of the blue one of the Italian national team, he became the number four in the world. He was such an icon in Italy at the time that Superga, which was a brand of the Pirelli group, wanted him to promote their shoes. 

"I was in Rome and the group's managing director invited me to Turin and told me that they wanted to make a shoe with my name. I asked for 100 million lira, which to him, who was earning 36 million, seemed a bit too much. But I pointed out that unlike him I hit balls across lines and intersections... he thought about it for a moment, smiled and signed the contract."

Centro Agency, “Superga. Le tue scarpe scelte dai campioni”, 1977, courtesy of Fondazione Pirelli
Centro Agency, “Superga. Le tue scarpe scelte dai campioni”, 1977, courtesy of Fondazione Pirelli

Centro Agency, “Superga. Le tue scarpe scelte dai campioni”, 1977, courtesy of Fondazione Pirelli

In addition to his achievements in tennis, Panatta has also found success with cars and bikes, a passion he has carried with him from an early age. “I had tormented my dad to buy me a Mondial 50 bike, it cost as much as his salary and he had no savings, but he bought it for me anyway. It was a gesture that I would always remember." "When they asked me to stay and play at the Parioli club when I was 16 years old, in exchange I wanted a Gilera 125, then with my first contract of one million lira I bought a white Alfa Gt Junior, second hand."

After retiring from professional tennis, Panatta returned to his love of engines. Panatta, who preferred a slice shot to serves of 220 km per hour, has broken two world speed records in offshore racing. “I have competed for 25 years and won an endurance world championship. I have done rallying and races in the desert. But I only love speed on the track with a helmet and a seatbelt." "Safety comes first: one of the sentences I hate most is when the expression 'toll booth, toll booth' is used for speed cameras. How can you make jokes when you're on the road?" is the question with which Panatta bids us farewell.

All the materials form part of the company's historical heritage which is now preserved in the Historical Archive of the Pirelli Foundation