With the Italian Championships on-going in Rome, let’s take a look back at the greatest Italian player in history and the man whose name graces the Centre Court at Il Foro Italico – Nicola Pietrangeli. The following is an excerpt from the upcoming book The Bud Collins History of Tennis ($35.95, New Chapter Press; available for a 39 percent discount by clicking the title of the book) where Bud Collins outlines the career biography of Pietrangeli.
Nicola “Nicky” Pietrangeli was Signor Davis Cup. That team competition seemed his private preserve, although he won his only Cup from the sidelines as Italy’s non-playing captain in 1976. Before that, as a smooth touch operator, twice winner of the French — 1959 over Ian Vermaak of South Africa, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-1, and 1960 over Luis Ayala of Chile, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 — he had made his name synonymous with Italy. He did it in Davis Cup by playing (164) and winning (120) matches, more than anyone before or since during a Cup career that reached from 1954 through 1972. In 66 ties for his country, he was 78-32 in singles, 42-12 in doubles.
Twice he carried Italy all the way to the Cup challenge round, 1960 and 1961, but on alien grass in Australia, and during the reign of Aussie powerhouses. He and 6-foot-6 accomplice Orlando Sirola were unable to come closer to the Cup than a good look. Still, to get there in 1960, they pulled off one of Italy’s greatest victories, 3-2 from 0-2 down, over the U.S. in the semifinal at Perth. Despite their discomfort on grass, Pietrangeli — he had squandered eight match points in losing to Barry MacKay, 8-6, 3-6, 8-10, 8-6, 13-11 — and Sirola, perhaps the finest doubles team developed in post-World War II Europe, struck back to beat Chuck McKinley and Butch Buchholz, 3-6, 10-8, 6-4, 13-11 – seemingly only to prolong their distress. But Pietrangeli stopped Buchholz, 6-1, 6-2, 6-8, 3-6, 6-4, and Sirola clinched, 9-7, 6-3, 8-6, over MacKay.
Pietrangeli was too much for the U.S. to overcome in the following year’s semi at Rome as he beat both Whitney Reed, 2-6, 6-8, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, and Jack Douglas, 9-7, 6-3, 6-2, and also teamed with Sirola again triumphantly in a 4-1 victory. But in the two finales, only Pietrangeli’s meaningless third-day win over Neale Fraser could be salvaged as Australia won, 5-0 and 4-1, respectively.
Solidly built, possessing exceptional instincts for the game and anticipation, 5-foot-11 Nicky was an all-round performer who moved with grace and purpose. He was in four French finals, losing to Manolo Santana in 1961 and 1964, and four Italian, beating countryman Beppe Merlo, 8-6, 6-2, 6-4, in 1957, and Rod Laver, 6-8, 6-1, 6-1, 6-2, in 1961. His best showing away from compatible clay was a 1960 Wimbledon semifinal, losing to Laver, 4-6, 6-3, 8-10, 6-2, 6-4. His was a career of the amateur era during which he won 53 singles titles and was in the world’s Top 10 five times between 1957 and 1964, No. 3 in 1959 and 1960. Retired from the court, he captained Italy to the Cup round twice, defeating Chile in 1976 but losing to Australia in 1977.
A right-hander, born Sept. 11, 1933, in Tunis, he is a bon vivant, ever popular with fans and colleagues. He and Sirola were the biggest winners of Cup doubles teams, 34-8.