22 March 2024

Lea Pericoli - tennis player

Star remembered for on-court fashion as much as tournament success

Lea Pericoli wearing one of Teddy Tinling's outfits in Rome in 1959
Lea Pericoli wearing one of Teddy
Tinling's outfits in Rome in 1959
The tennis player Lea Pericoli, who won 30 tournaments on the international circuit between 1953 and 1972, was born in Milan on this day in 1935.

Pericoli, who continued playing until the age of 40, also won 27 titles at the Italian national championships, a record that still stands today.

She never progressed beyond the last 16 in singles at three three Grand Slam tournaments in which she participated but was a semi-finalist twice in women’s and mixed doubles at the French Open in Paris, playing on the red clay surface which most suited her game.

Yet she achieved fame beyond mere results after joining up with the British player-turned-fashion designer Teddy Tinling, whose designs she would often be the first to wear on court.

In an era not long after a female player wearing only a calf-length skirt was considered mildly outrageous, Tinling dressed Pericoli in a succession of culottes, short dresses and skirts, extravagantly decorated with lacy frills, sometimes feathers and even mink.

Crowds were drawn to Pericoli’s matches as much to see what she was wearing as to watch her play.  Tournament organisers took to asking Pericoli and Tinling to keep her outfits secret ahead of their first appearance, to enhance the sense of anticipation.

Although the commercial rewards on offer to well known players in Pericoli’s time were a fraction of the money today’s stars can make, Pericoli did win some modelling contracts and was able to forge careers in television and journalism when she finished playing.

One of Tinling's more extravagant creations
One of Tinling's more
extravagant creations
Yet unlike some stars in the modern era who have become fashion icons and enjoy lucrative endorsement deals with barely any history of tournament success, Pericoli was an accomplished player with a tenacious streak, to which her record of tournament success is testimony.

She reached the fourth round on Wimbledon’s grass courts three times in addition to four appearances in the last 16 of the French Open on clay. The nickname ‘La Divina’ coined for her by the renowned Italian tennis writer Gianni Clerici was as much for the elegance of her ground strokes as her photogenic qualities.

Pericoli was a particularly talented doubles player, too, noted for her skills at the net, and made the semi-finals of the women’s doubles at the French with fellow Italian Silvana Lazzarino in 1964, having been a semi-finalist in the mixed doubles there four years earlier with another compatriot, Antonio Palafox.

The daughter of a businessman, Felippo Pericoli, Lea spent her childhood in Addis Ababa, where the family had relocated soon after Mussolini’s expansionist ambitions in Africa resulted in Ethiopia becoming part of a nascent Italian Empire.

She returned to Italy at the age of 17 following a holiday in Versilia in which she discovered she had a talent for tennis.

Focussing on the game as a potential career, she won her first title in 1953 when she and Lucia Bassi won the women’s doubles at a tournament in Rapallo in Liguria. She won her first national title - alongside Lazzarino in the women’s doubles - in 1954 and became singles champion for the first time in 1958.

Pericoli, now 89, has survived cancer twice and campaigned to support research
Pericoli, now 89, has survived cancer twice
and campaigned to support research
Her association with Tinling was not without its problems, however. On her first appearance at Wimbledon in 1955 at the age of 20, he made her an outfit that featured lace knickers under a tulle petticoat-style skirt. It aroused considerable spectator interest but the Italian Federation might have banned her from playing if her furious father had not intervened first, ordering her to stop. Thankfully, he relented after a few months and she was able to resume her career.

Unabashed, Tinling continued to dress Pericoli in daring outfits, for which other female players were grateful in the end.  Many approached Tinling to design for them, not because they wanted to shock but because they wanted to look fashionable and play in clothing that was cooler and less restrictive than conventional tennis uniforms.

After calling time on her career as a player, Pericoli was invited by editor Indro Montanelli to write for Il Giornale, the Milan daily newspaper, covering tennis and fashion. She also worked as a television commentator on the game, as well as hosting a number of quiz and entertainment shows.

Twice she has been diagnosed with but recovered from cancer, once when she was still playing, in 1973, when routine tests revealed a uterine tumour, and again almost 40 years when she discovered she had breast cancer.

Her treatment was successful on both occasions. She agreed to work with Umberto Veronesi, a leading Italian oncologist, to become the face of a campaign called the Italian League for the Fight against Cancer, which sought both to raise awareness about symptoms and to generate funds for research.

In 2015, Pericoli’s name was one of those commemorated by the Walk of Fame of Italian Sport when it was inaugurated in the Olympic Park of the Foro Italico in Rome, along Viale delle Olimpiadi. The walk consisted initially of 100 tiles as a chronological list of those athletes considered the most representative in the history of Italian sport.

Forte dei Marmi, part of the Versilia coastline, is part of a 21km (13 miles) stretch of sandy beach
Forte dei Marmi, part of the Versilia coastline, is
part of a 21km (13 miles) stretch of sandy beach
Travel tip:

Versilia, where Pericoli became aware of her talent for tennis during a family holiday, is an area of coastal Tuscany that extends approximately from Carrara at its northernmost point to the Monte Argentario promontory in the south. It includes among other places the resorts of Viareggio, Livorno, Forte dei Marmi and Pietrasanta, the inland towns of Seravezza and Stazzema, on the slopes of the  Apuan Alps, and the tranquil Lago di Massaciuccoli. Favoured for its mild climate, the area has always attracted high-profile residents. In the 16th century, the Medici leader Cosimo I had a sumptuous villa built at Seravezza, the 20th century writer, poet and politician Gabriele D’Annunzio had a villa built for himself in the pine forests around Pietrasanta, and the composer Giacomo Puccini, born in nearly Lucca, had a home on the shore of Lago di Massaciuccoli, which celebrates his association with the area by staging a Puccini Festival each year.

The ornate Foro Italico in Rome includes Italy's National Tennis Centre
The ornate Foro Italico in Rome includes
Italy's National Tennis Centre
Travel tip:

Foro Italico, the sports complex in Rome where Lea Pericoli is honoured alongside fellow tennis stars Nicola Pietrangeli, Adriano Panatta, Corrado Barrazutti and Flavia Pennetta, was built between 1928 and 1938 as the Foro Mussolini. Inspired by the Roman forums of the imperial age, its original purpose was to host the Olympic Games of 1940 as a showcase for Fascist values. In the event, the Second World War meant the 1940 Games were cancelled, although it was the main host venue for the Rome Olympics of 1960. The complex of today includes the Stadio Olimpico, home of Rome’s two major football clubs - Roma and Lazio - and the largest sports stadium in Italy, the ornate Stadio dei Marmi athletics stadium - headquarters of the Italian National Olympic Committee - and the national tennis centre, which - like the Stadio dei Marmi is surrounded by classical statues of athletes.  The Foro Italico is home to the Italian Open tennis championships.

More reading:

Matteo Berrettini - the first Italian to reach a Wimbledon final 

Adriano Panatta - the only player to defeat Bjorn Borg on the Paris clay

Sara Errani - the five-times Grand Slam doubles champion

Also on this day:

1837: The birth of model and secret agent ‘La Castiglione’

1885: Foundation stone laid for Victor Emmanuel II Monument in Rome

1921: The birth of actor and director Nino Manfredi

1986: The death of banker and fraudster Michele Sindona

(Picture credits: Forte dei Marmi by Alessandro Rovellini via Wikimedia Commons)


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