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Tennis, Italian Style Gianni Clerici and Rino Tommasi, Italy's bawdy TV duo, make John McEnroe look like limp linguini

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 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 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 title, 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."

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."

COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN ANYTHING GOES Clerici (right) has been known to broadcast in the nude, while his partner, Tommasi, often talks about anything but tennis.