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THE CHALLENGING ITALIANS
Walter Bingham
December 26, 1960
The year of the Roman Olympics was one of unexpected triumph for many Italian athletes, and the most triumphant of all, perhaps, were the two Italian tennis players who managed to knock the mighty U.S. out of the Davis Cup Challenge Round. No one, let alone Italy, had accomplished this feat in 24 years. As the Italian press appropriately said, "the incredible was verified."
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December 26, 1960

The Challenging Italians

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The year of the Roman Olympics was one of unexpected triumph for many Italian athletes, and the most triumphant of all, perhaps, were the two Italian tennis players who managed to knock the mighty U.S. out of the Davis Cup Challenge Round. No one, let alone Italy, had accomplished this feat in 24 years. As the Italian press appropriately said, "the incredible was verified."

Like cigarettes and the masks of drama, these heroes of the tennis court are cast in two distinct shapes. Nicola Pietrangeli, regular size, is 5 feet 10 inches tall and likes to cry. Orlando Sirola, king size, is 6 feet 7 inches and likes to laugh. After he had lost his titanic five-set match to Barry MacKay on the opening day of the Interzone finals, Pietrangeli, the mask of tragedy, stood at the side of the court for several minutes, his head buried in a towel, his body shaking with sobs. Two days later, when Italy had won, he cried again with equal intensity. Roman tennis fans, who feel this tendency toward tears means that Pietrangeli lacks the killer instinct, call him Maritozzo, which means something like honey bun in Italian.

Sirola, the gigantic comic mask, laughs at errors and misfortune alike. He eagerly salutes good plays by his opponents, and it is not unusual for him to strike up a gay conversation with spectators while waiting for an opponent to get ready. He will not dispute a linesman's call nor will he participate in court tantrums. He can produce magnificent shots on difficult chances and then muff a simple shot. Debonair Sirola apparently is happy whatever the result.

Both men are married. Nicola Pietrangeli's wife is Susanna Artero, one of Rome's top fashion models. Pietrangeli met her by chance one day while walking along the street. Susanna was calling a pet poodle named Nicola, and the dog's namesake decided the chance was too good to miss. He answered the call, offered his assistance, wangled a date and, after a five-year courtship, married the girl.

Sirola married his wife, an English girl, after knowing her only 23 days. This was fast courting by any standards, but even more remarkable since the girl, Corise Phillips, spoke no Italian and he practically no English. Tennis played no part in the romance. Corise Sirola does not like tennis because it keeps Orlando away from home at least half the year. This year, Orlando promised her he would be back from Australia by Christmas, just as soon as he and Nicola had lost to the Americans. After the unexpected victory, Sirola wired his wife in Rome: "Sorry."

Sirola and Pietrangeli reached tennis success from opposite sides of the net. Sirola, the youngest of six children, was born in Fiume in 1928 before it became a part of Yugoslavia. His mother died when he was six; one of his three brothers was tortured to death in the Dachau concentration camp, and his two sisters died of pneumonia and diabetes. When Fiume became Yugoslavian, Orlando, his father and one brother applied for Italian citizenship and landed in a refugee camp with only their clothes, a small radio and $1.60. Orlando got a job as a laborer in a mill and enrolled in business school. Drooling at his height, some Milan scouts tried to coax him into making basketball a career, but Orlando declined. He continued to play the game he had learned as a boy in Fiume, and by 1951 his tennis was good enough for tournament play.

Pietrangeli, 27, was born to tennis. His father, head of a big construction company, was the No. 2 tennis player in Tunisia, and though Nicola wavered between soccer and tennis, eventually his father's preference decided him. In 1946 the family moved from Tunis to Rome, and Nicola was sent to the Chateaubriand School. His tennis was fine but his conduct poor, and so he was expelled. After that, he gave up school to concentrate on tennis, which he played constantly at Rome's Parioli Club. In 1954 he was made a member of the Italian Davis Cup team.

Pietrangeli has an insatiable appetite for clothes, and he buys large quantities he may never wear, but despite such butterfly tastes, both he and Sirola work hard at their tennis. Long after most players have retired to the clubhouse, Sirola is out in the sun practicing. Pietrangeli runs miles every day to keep his weight down. Of the two, Pietrangeli is the better player. His is a fluid yet powerful game, based on a deadly backhand. Sirola is slow-moving on the court, but because of his height he has a strong serve and overhead which blend well with Pietrangeli in doubles.

Whether the luck and skill of Italy's latest heroes will continue to hold against Aussies Neale Fraser and Rod Laver in the Davis Cup finals is doubtful. Win or lose, the heroic pair plan to go their separate ways when the matches are over. Pietrangeli will continue with his tennis career, either as an amateur or a Jack Kramer pro. Sirola will go home and stay there, playing tennis only occasionally. This may disappoint some people in Italy, but not the one Sirola cares for most.

"When Orlando comes home," says his wife Corise, "I will give him one kiss for his victory and another kiss for not leaving me alone so long after this."

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