Tennis: Italians put faith in home support

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The Independent Online
IN A COUNTRY where one can be a crowd, it is hoped that a capacity of 12,400 at the Fila Forum will inspire a home triumph against Sweden over the next three days in the first Davis Cup final ever to be held in Italy.

Were the visitors anyone other than Swedish, the notion of a victory for an intimidating crowd would seem feasible. But, as Jonas Bjorkman put it yesterday: "We have too much experience to let that happen. We are here to win. We are very positive about that."

Sweden, the holders, have won the Davis Cup six times and have been runners- up five times since 1975, when Bjorn Borg epitomised the unflappable Swedish tennis player. Once, while playing at the Italian Open in Rome, Borg had coins thrown at him by rowdy spectators at the Foro Italico. Borg calmly picked up the money and put it in his pocket.

Although Italy share with Sweden and the Czech Republic the distinction of being the only ever-presents in the 18 years of the World Group, the idea that Italy's journeymen would play in the final this year would have been derided in August.

Two things conspired in the Italians' favour. Most importantly, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi refused to play for the United States in the semi-final against Italy in Milwaukee. Then, having decided to stage the tie on an indoor carpet court to suit the pace of their game, the Americans laid one so slow that the Italians were able to trade groundstrokes as if they were at home.

Ironically, the Italians may have played into the Swedes' rackets in their choice of court surface for the final. Fearing the expertise of their opponents indoors, the Italians decided to put down clay. Two companies specialise in indoor clay courts, one Swedish, one French. Not wishing to employ Swedes, the Italians sent for the French. The only problem is that the French court is much faster than the Swedish one, which rather defeats the object.

"I prefer to play indoors," Magnus Gustafsson, the Swe-dish No 1, said, "and when I got here I thought, 'this is my surface'. I will enjoy every second in there, I tell you."

The question of bonus payments surfaced as soon as the Italians qualified for the final, the dispute over lira between the players and the Italian Tennis Federation causing a lot of tut-tutting in the media. Where would Italian players be but for the Davis Cup, it was asked.

Nicola Pietrangeli, an icon of the Italian game who has lamented that he was born too early to share in the wealth of the professional era, was quoted as saying that the players "should give thanks to the Madonna for being in the final", adding that "they don't realise what an historical moment it is".

The situation was defused when the players and the Federation agreed to play first and talk later.

Play starts this afternoon, with Andrea Gaudenzi, Italy's No 1, ranked No 44 in the world, who recently had a shoulder operation, facing Magnus Norman, Sweden's No 2, ranked No 52 in the world. Davide Sanguinetti, the Italian No 2, ranked No 47, plays Gustafsson, whose age, 31, is the same as his world ranking.

"If we are one all after the first day, I think we will have a good chance," said Paolo Bertolucci, Italy's captain, who was a member of the team that won the trophy for the only time, in Chile in 1976.

Bertolucci, who played doubles in Santiago with Andriano Panatta, realises that a lot may hinge on tomorrow's rubber between Gaudenzi and Diego Nargiso and the well-grooved Swedish pair, Bjorkman and Nicklas Kulti.

Nargiso is one of the game's eccentrics. The junior Wimbledon champion in 1987, he later became so concerned about playing in the main event that he changed his tennis shoes five times. He then sent his mother to look for a sixth pair, telling her none of his shoes were good enough for the grass at Wimbledon.

Another time at Wimbledon, Nargiso became so frustrated that he aimed a serve at Mark Woodforde's head. The Australian was quick enough to dodge out of the way. During the French Open one year, Nargiso vented his anger on himself, repeatedly belting a leg with his racket. During the change- over, the wounded leg had to be bandaged.

A partisan crowd may steal the show here, but Italian teams have been embarrassed in the past. Watched by a handful of people while practising for their Inter-Zone final against the United States in Perth, Australia, in 1960 (Italy won 3-2), the Italian players were disturbed by hysterical laughter.

At first, they chose to ignore the noise, but the laughter grew louder. Finally the Italians complained. A club official asked them to show him where the noise was coming from, at which point the kookaburra sounded off again.

DAVIS CUP FINAL (Milan): Today (1.30pm GMT, It names first): A Gaudenzi v M Norman, D Sanguinetti v M Gustafsson. Tomorrow (2.30pm GMT): Gaudenzi and D Nargiso v J Bjorkman and N Kulti. Sunday (1.30pm GMT): Gaudenzi v Gustafsson, Sanguinetti v Norman.