It was a tennis match that covered the range of possibilities, from fine artistry to nervous doodling, burlesque to high drama, hometown injustice to staunch performance in spite of it, and finished with nearly unbearable tension.
Finally, the local idol, Adriano Panatta, won. He prevailed yesterday in the longest final-set tie-breaker ever in major tournament competition, 15 points to 13, to climb over gallant underdog Hank Pfister, 5-7, 6-3, 7-6, and into the quarterfinals of the Italian Open.
On an afternoon of glorious sunshine and bustling activity at Il Foro Italico top-seeded Bjorn Borg hammered Roscoe Tanner, 6-2, 6-4, and Harold Solomon weathered a sometimes brilliant barrage from Arthur Ashe, then took control when Ashe's groundstrokes crumbled, 6-4, 3-6, 6-0.
Jose Higueras, the clay-court specialist who helped engineer Spain's recent victory in the Nations Cup, thrashed third-seeded Brian Gottfried, 6-3, 6-2, and Victor Amaya, the 6-foot-7, 220-pound lefthander who already has anesthetized Corrado Barazzulli and Ivan Molina with his pounding serve and volley, similarly pulverized 1969 champion John Newcombe, 6-4, 6-1.
Amaya, the most surprising of four American quarterfinalists, plays Panatta today. Solomon is paired against Borg, whom he has never beaten. Higueras meets John Alexander, a 6-7, 6-4 survivor against young Frenchman Christophe Freyss, and Eddie Dibbs (7-5, 6-3 over Kim Warwick) faces John Lloyd, who came from 1-4 in the final set to beat Dick Crealy, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6.
But everything else that happened yesterday paled in comparison to the thrilling Panatta-Pfister struggle.
It was nail-biting time for adoring Roman as Panatta, having called a phantom "let" serve in his own behalf at a critical juncture in the second set, ultimately had to rely on his nerve and shotmaking instead of the partisan crowd and officials to save this torturous shootout.
Pfister had four break points for a 4-2 led in the second set, but let them get away. Then, outraged and unsettled by the "let" call in the next game, He listlessly dropped seven games in a row to 0-3 in the third.
Panatta served for the match at 5-3, but started with a double fault and played a terrible game. After that, they stayed on serve into the tie-breaker, and what an emotional roller-coaster ride that turned out to be.
Panatta had two match points at 6-4, but Pfister saved them with a searing backhand volley and booming forehand return that forced a volley error.
Pfister had four match points at 7-6, 8-7, 9-8 and 10-9, but, despite his mile-long arms, could not quite reach out and grab them. Three times, he netted backhand volleys, then missed a spectacular running forehand down-the-line pass by a fraction of an inch.
Panatta had three more match points at 11-10, 12-11 and 13-12 but each time Pfister came charging to the net, looming there like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Stretching and thumping, displaying agility and punch, he crackled a backhand volley winner and whacked two forehand returns of second serves and followed them in for devastating overhead smashes. It was 13-points-all.
The raucous crowd was still making the marble-and-steel stadium at Foro Italico vibrate every time Panetta seized a point, groaning en masse each time he lost one, but they had long since stopped whistling and hooting Pfister, trying to intimidate the 6-foot-4 Californian into double faults and the linesmen into burglarizing him.
The 24-year-old San Jose State grad from Bakersfield had earned the respect of one of the toughest audiences in tennis, and for the climax of this epic their man Panatta would have their screaming support, but not other help.
He won it for himself.On the dead run, Panatta hooked a magnificent forehand down-the-line passing shot that bit into the dusty red clay an inch inside the sideline, getting him to match point for the sixth time at 14-13 in the tingling tiebreaker.
Then he put in a first serve, and started to the net. Pfister's return barely reached the service line. Panatta took a mighty swing. launching a forehead cross-court passing shot. Pfister leaned to intercept it, as he had gobbled up so many before, but his forehand volley sailed wide.
Pfister slumped, his heart tumbling to his sneakers. Panatta soared. The lineman who made the final call jumped two feet in the air, throwing up his arms in an ecstatic gesture of triumph. The crowd rose and shook the arena to its foundations, not only for their beloved Panatta, but also for the man who had pressed him to the limit under trying circumstances.