detail-1 Guillermo Vilas

Guillermo Vilas

Birthday:
1970-01-01
Gender:
male
Nationality:
Argentina
Height:
180
Residence:
Monte Carlo, Monaco

Guillermo Vilas belongs to the most successful players of tennis history. Just to provide some figures proving his outstanding career: - more than 900 vicotrious matches in Open Era - finishing 3 years as World Number 1 (1974/1975/1977) - winning 62 ATP titles, plus 4 majors and one master torunament The member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame retired from the ATP Tour in 1989 but never lost his passion for the tennis sport.

Results

Winner

Singles
Year City
1979 Australian Open
1978 Australian Open
1977 French Open
1977 US Open
1977 Australian Open
1975 French Open

Finalist

Singles
Year City
1982 French Open
1978 French Open

 

Who is the greatest male player never to have been ranked No 1? For many, the answer has to be Guillermo Vilas, indeed it was only an accident of the early computer rankings that deprived Vilas of being a member of the No 1 club. Richard Evans watched it all happen in the 1970s. 

Challenged only by Brazil’s Gustavo Kuerten and possibly – if he can stay fit and play to his full potential – Juan Martin del Potro, Guillermo Vilas stands as the greatest male tennis player ever to emerge from South America.

Statistically, that is indisputable. Vilas won four Grand Slam titles as well as an ATP Finals title over Ilie Nastase in Melbourne on grass, his least effective surface. But then two of his four Slams were won on Kooyong’s grass courts which needs some explanation, because at first glance it makes no sense. Vilas was a clay court player, probably the greatest ever on that surface after Rafael Nadal and Bjorn Borg, and he won the vast majority of his matches on red clay. 

Yet only two of his five biggest titles were won on clay – both in 1977: the French Open on red clay and then the US Open on the slightly faster American clay at Forest Hills. That was the year Vilas was the world’s highest achieving player, and should have been ranked No 1. 

We’ll return to that in a minute, but the big element in the career of Guillermo Vilas was Bjorn Borg. Many very fine players have someone they simply cannot beat, and for Vilas it was Borg. Their head-to-head record was 17-5 in the Swede’s favour with two of the Argentinean’s wins coming in ATP Finals round robin play, while their first encounter in Bueno Aires in 1973 saw Borg retire hurt in the fourth set. 

While 1977 was the year that defined the Argentinean’s career for all manner of reasons, it must be noted that Borg spent much of the year off the tour playing World Team Tennis and did not compete at the French Open. 

So one could say assessing Vilas’s playing career is complicated. But that is also true of the man. Although built with the muscles of a stevedore with a power-driven game to match, the left-hander from Mar del Plata was a published poet and a man whose outward charm hid a character that preferred to keep his inner thoughts close to his chest. He also was more than happy to hand off responsibility for his game to someone else in a manner that was quite remarkable. 

When he started working with the Romanian Ion Tiriac in 1975, Vilas told his new coach, ‘At the end of the year I want X amount of money in my bank account. Anything above that is yours, no questions asked. In return I will do whatever you tell me. I don’t want to make decisions about how and where and when we practice. That is your job.’

And so, for a number of years until Tiriac started to become more occupied with his next pupil, Boris Becker, the future entrepreneur and tournament director ran Guillermo Vilas’s life. And if that meant driving before dawn to find a 5am practice court at an indoor stadium in Stuttgart, so be it. Whatever Tiriac ordered, it happened, and his player never complained. 

One of the beauties of tennis is that it throws up so many different characters. Tim Mayotte, the former Wimbledon semi-finalist who now runs his own academy near Boston, recalls a day at the old red clay tournament in North Conway, New Hampshire, when Vilas practised hitting forehands down the line for two hours before his match against John McEnroe. 

‘Vilas was a horse,’ Mayotte said. ‘The idea of McEnroe hitting one shot for two hours was unthinkable, but Vilas just wanted to hit balls. He asked John to do pattern drills in the warm up. McEnroe lasted 90 seconds. Such different people!’ 

Borg was far closer to Vilas in personality and, on court, had what it took to dominate Vilas in every way. ‘Borg was faster and just did everything a little bit better, especially on the serve which was an underrated aspect of his game,’ Mayotte said. ‘Tiriac messed around with Guillermo’s serve and it never got better. That only made what he achieved all the more amazing. During that run in 1977, he was clearly the best player in the world.’ 

Which brings us to the controversy that has lingered for decades. Vilas was never ranked No 1 and, in Argentina’s sporting circles, that was taken as an affront. Not surprisingly. In 1977, Vilas won a record 16 titles and established a 53-match winning streak on clay which was only broken when he walked off court at two sets down in Aix-en-Provence, France, because Ilie Nastase was being allowed to play with the controversial ‘Spaghetti-strung’ racket (which was banned immediately afterwards). Just to prove his point, Vilas then resumed his winning ways by claiming another 28 straight victories. 

The ranking problem, which the Argentinean sports writer Eduardo Puppo has spent years researching in mesmerising detail, stemmed from the fact that the ATP, only five years old at that time, did not publish its ranking list every week. Had it done so, Puppo has ascertained that a blank period in the autumn of 1977 would certainly have seen Vilas ranked No 1. Much to the chagrin of Vilas fans, and a furious Puppo, the ATP refused to retroactively put Vilas into the exclusive No 1 Club. 

For the past two years, Vilas has been sequestered with his wife and four children at their home in Monaco suffering from failing health. However, in 2017 he was able to recall the mental bubble he placed himself in at the 1977 US Open, as he went about scoring his greatest victory, beating Jimmy Connors 2-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-0 in the last final at Forest Hills. ‘I hardly spoke to Tiriac, let alone anyone else for two weeks,’ he said. ‘My concentration was total. It was what I needed to do to win in New York.’ 

As with all his other Grand Slam triumphs, that mighty left arm, which enabled him to smack high backhand overheads like no other, was wielding a Head Vilas signature racket – basically a wood frame with graphite inlay. He switched to another company for a while in the 1980s but soon returned to Head and the racket with which this physically powerful, sensitive and introspective champion felt most comfortable.   

 

 

WORDS BY RICHARD EVANS