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Somebody once said, "Playing Paris is like having your tonsils out: the sooner you get it over with, the better." At 18 Adriano Panatta had played Paris and won just seven games. That was sooner. Last week, at 25, he returned to Roland Garros Stadium as husband, father and the hero of his country, Italy, to win seven matches and, with the last one, the French Open. That was better.
Panatta's opponent in Sunday afternoon's three-hour final was America's own true-grit machine, Harold Solomon. Having won the Italian championship two weeks before after surviving 11 match points in one day, John Newcombe and Guillermo Vilas on other days and Solomon himself when the American was ahead but left the court in a dispute over a line call, Panatta was not taking any chances in Paris.
A handsome 6'2" stylist who combines deceptive power with marvelous touch, the Italian kept digging his huge serve into the copper dust of the center court at Roland Garros and skidding groundstroke winners as he buried Solomon under easy 6-1, 6-4 sets. The 5'6" Marylander never surrenders, though, and he fought back from a 2-3, 0-40 deficit to win the third set 6-4. Then, behind 2-5 and 15-30, he battled back again to take the lead in the fourth, 6-5.
This was vintage Solomon—sprinting, chugging, covering all angles, whapping double-handers so they made the chalk fly. The yo-yo man won 12 straight points in one stretch, and Panatta admitted later he was "nervous for the first time in three weeks. I was going to win and then I see it slipping away and I know I lose."
That he didn't lose could be attributed to two courageous shots he had to make when confronted with saving the 12th game. At 30-all Panatta fired a cross-court forehand past Solomon to get to game point. Then when Solly played an overhead too safely, Panatta dug it out on the forehand wing and flashed another winner by him for 6-all. His momentum gone, Solomon was swallowed up in the tie break, seven points, to three—again by Panatta's wondrous serving.
"In important crisis one must take the risk," Panatta said. Alluding to the fiasco in Rome with Solomon, he said, "I get much satisfaction it was Harold I beat. Now everybody see I can win, you know, normal."
All Europe has been waiting for that. The son of a groundskeeper at the Parioli Club in Rome, Panatta has been Italy's No. 1 for six years, but because of his fun-loving, sun-loving nature he had not taken advantage of his considerable talent. Then came marriage to the beauteous Rosaria and with it an improved game. Last winter Panatta defeated Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors to win at Stockholm and fulfill the great expectations, and then came this month: Rome and the adoring roars of his compatriots followed by Paris and the championship of the whole continent.
Quite apart from the foppery that has overtaken tennis, "the French," as the players refer to the event, remains one of the game's three most distinguished tournaments. It was the second stop on the Grand Slam route long before the Big Four turned into Caesars Palace, Avis Rent A Car, Commercial Union Assurance and The Bill Cosby Pro-Celeb jamboree invitational. It will be a fixture in the Slam long after the King Family Circus has folded up its Team Tennis tents.
With its 128-man draw, two-week schedule, best three-of-five sets format, slow, leaden balls and slower, soft dirt courts producing rallies that go on past dinner, the French is also the most difficult tournament in the world to win.