Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero and Argentina's Gaston Gaudio were locked in a typically languorous clay court match at the French Open last month. Above the court Gianni Clerici was pondering a hemlock run. "Please," he said, exasperated, "couldn't they both lose? Wake me when it's over." Seated next to Clerici, Rino Tommasi replied, "Don't sleep, Gianni. Let's talk." The two spent the next three games comparing recent meals, discussing the state of their sex lives and trying to remember the lyrics to various European folk songs.
It would have been an understandable diversion from the tennis if only the two men hadn't been live on the air at the time, purportedly delivering television commentary on the Open for Italy's Tele+ cable network. This, however, was a typical digression for Clerici, 72, and Tommasi, 68. An announcing team for more than 20 years, they fill their broadcasts with enough random ruminations, mutual dissing and off-color commentary to make the repartee between Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith during NBA telecasts sound like C-SPAN. "Even people who don't like tennis will watch them to hear what outrageous things they're saying and doing," says Rita Grande, an Italian currently ranked 39th on the WTA tour. "They are so funny if you have a sense of humor and don't get offended easily."
When the match at hand is uninspiring, the pair's discussion most often turns to sexual matters. While the physique of female players is a common theme, Clerici and Tommasi aren't afraid to push the envelope. During a U.S. Open match in the mid-'80s, John McEnroe executed a brilliant touch volley, prompting Clerici to marvel, "If I were a little more gay, I would wish to be caressed by that shot."
"Notice he didn't say, 'If I were gay,' " says Tommasi. "He said, 'If I were a little more gay.' "
"He was jealous because I got invited to gay pride meetings after that," says Clerici. "I even got an honorary membership card to Italian Arcigay," a gay rights group.
At least the climate was mild that day. On a scorching afternoon at the U.S. Open in 1996 the Tele+ booth was infernally hot. Clerici asked the attendants for an electric fan. When his request went unfulfilled, he simply stripped and called the match nude. Though viewers weren't treated to the full Gianni, "Quite a few people stopped by the booth that day," says Tommasi.
The two men, who met nearly 50 years ago when Tommasi played in a tennis tournament in Clerici's hometown of Como, make an unlikely pair. Rhino, as Clerici calls his partner—"Look at his nose and then you understand," he says—is a former top international boxing promoter. A stats junkie endowed with an encyclopedic sports memory, he moonlights as a columnist for the Italian dailies Il Tempo and La Gazgetta dello Sport. In 1993 he won the ATP media excellence award.
Clerici was a tennis player of some distinction, good enough to make the main draw at Wimbledon in 1953. "I lost in the first round because I had bad cramps," he says. He went on to become a highly regarded poet and novelist—his book White Gestures was a top seller in Italy—and he published a well-received biography of the grande tennis dame Suzanne Lenglen. The son of a Lombard oil magnate, Clerici is a patrician of the first order. A sharp dresser, he owns homes throughout the world and has been known to spend off days at tournaments buying fine art. As he recently told his bosses at Tele+ when renegotiating his contract, "I'm rich in an embarrassing way."
Clerici and Tommasi share a booth at Grand Slam tournaments and at a handful of lesser events. Though it has been 26 years since an Italian player ( Adriano Panatta in the 1976 French Open) won a major tennis tide, Clerici and Tommasi's broadcasts are wildly popular. How much so, no one's quite sure. "Even if we had numbers, they wouldn't be accurate," explains Tommasi. "In Italy 80 percent of the country gets cable without paying for it."
In Italy, also, their commentary can traverse the baseline of good taste without concern for the Italian equivalent of the FCC. "We live in a free country," says Tommasi. "We say what we say. We are just two good friends watching tennis matches."