In the first round of the U.S. open in New York City, Pete Sampras was steamrolling Spain's Albert Portas. A dozen or so rows behind the court, Rino Tommasi was pondering the merits of mixed doubles. "It's pointless," he said. "I wish they would abolish it." Seated next to him, Gianni Clerici disagreed: "Mixed doubles has helped to grow the sport." Tommasi laughed. "Yeah, but only when the man and the woman got together after the match and conceived a tennis-playing baby."
It would have been an unremarkable exchange, if only the two men hadn't been live on the air, purportedly delivering television commentary on the Open for Italy's Tele+ cable network. This, however, was typically digressive banter from Clerici, 72, and Tommasi, 68. An announcing tandem for more than 20 years, they fill their broadcasts with more random ruminations, mutual dissing and off-color commentary than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. "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 36 on the wta Tour. "They are so funny–at least if you have a sense of humor and don't get offended easily."
When the match at hand is uninspiring, the pair's discussion more often than not turns to sesso–i.e., sex. 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, 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 matchmaker, once ranked as the world's third-best promoter by Ring Magazine. A stats junkie endowed with an encyclopedic sports memory, he moonlights as a columnist for the Italian dailies Il Tempo and La Gazzetta 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 nose cramps," he jokes. 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. He was also once named Italy's playwright of the year. The son of a Lombard oil magnate, Clerici is a bon vivant of the first order. Surely the most dapper dresser in the history of sports journalism, 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 negotiating his contract, "I'm rich in an embarrassing way."
Clerici and Tommasi share a booth at Grand Slam tournaments, Italy's Davis Cup competitions and a handful of lesser events. Though it has been 26 years since an Italian player won a major tennis title (Adriano Panatta at the 1976 French Open), Clerici and Tommasi's broadcasts are popularissimo. How popular, no one is quite sure. "Even if we had numbers, they wouldn't be accurate," explains Tommasi. "In Italy, 80% of the country gets cable without paying for it."
Though their commentary can traverse the baseline of good taste, they need not worry about censure from broadcasting regulators. "We live in a free country," says Tommasi. "We say what we say. We are just two good friends watching tennis matches." Occasionally they get an earful from an offended viewer. When that happens, they read the complaint on the air. Without fail, they are then bombarded with supportive e-mails. "When people say, 'You are too vulgar,' I have to laugh," says Clerici. "The greatest vulgarity in life is not having a sense of humor."