It seems perfectly fitting, in a year that already has seen the U.S. and Australia eliminated from Davis Cup competition, a 39-year-old institution (Ken Rosewall) reach the final at Wimbledon and a 17-year-old Swede (Bjorn Borg) conquer most of Europe, that the hottest player in the world through most of the summer should be an Argentine author and bongo drummer. A boxer like Carlos Monzon, a race driver like Juan Fangio, perhaps a soccer star or a gaucho who slings a mean bola—we can accept all these with no credibility strain. We even got used to a fine golfer from Buenos Aires, Roberto de Vincenzo. But a world-class tennis player from Argentina is a novelty, just right for charmingly topsy-turvy 1974. His name is Guillermo Vilas.
Pronounce it with a hard G. Gee-yer-mo Vee-las. He is 22 and comes from Mar del Plata (Silver Sea), one of Argentina's largest resort cities. Going into the U.S. Open, which started last week at Forest Hills in the traditional steam-bath weather, Vilas was in a close battle with Borg for first place in the Commercial Union Grand Prix, in which the top point earner in the major tournaments earns himself a juicy $100,000 at year's end. That would be 1,020,000 Argentine pesos.
Vilas has thrust himself into the tennis big time with a post-Wimbledon surge. In July he won the Swiss Open, beating Spain's Manuel Orantes, won the Dutch Open over Barry Phillips-Moore and lost in the final of the Washington Star-News International to Harold Solomon. In August he won at Louisville over Chile's Jaime Fillol, reached the quarters at Indianapolis and enjoyed his finest tournament in Toronto, beating Borg, Tom Okker and Orantes en route to the singles title. He also took the doubles. The week before Forest Hills he reached the semis of the U.S. Pro Championships at Brookline, Mass. In seven weeks his record was 34-3 and he had won $70,000. The late heavyweight boxer Luis Firpo might have been the Wild Bull of the Pampas, but he never had a two months' charge to glory and cash to match Vilas'.
In Argentina the tennis boom is still a relative whisper, but Vilas obviously is going to turn up the volume. Last week a tennis match was shown on Argentine television, a first in that nation. It was a taped replay of Vilas' victory over Fillol at Louisville. The weekly mass-circulation, general-interest magazine Genie (People) recently abandoned its cover-girl format for the first time and put Vilas' picture up front.
September 8, 1974
"I am the No. 1 sports man in Argentina," Vilas says matter-of-factly. "Of course, in Argentina we don't have too many sports man. When I play a match, in five minutes the news is there."
Not surprisingly, he is the best player ever produced by his country, and his noted presence at Forest Hills provided the tennis-trivia specialists with some inspiration (there is always some awe-inspiring fellow around who not only knows that Frankie Parker was the U.S. champion in 1944 and 1945 but that his real name is Pajkowski). Last Friday afternoon, when rain had postponed the matches and the players' lounge in the old Tudor-style clubhouse was jammed and all the backgammon boards in use, a group of oldtimers gathered by a window overlooking the soggy courts and tried to dredge up the names of good Argentine players of the past. They could produce only four: Alejo Russell, Enrique Morea, Maria Weiss and Geraldo Weiss.
There was even speculation among the trivialists, warming to their subject, that Vilas is the best non-U.S.-trained South American male player of all time. Ecuador's Pancho Segura went to the University of Miami, you see, and Peru's Alex Olmedo was polished at USC and adopted—some would say kidnapped—for the U.S. Davis Cup team. Chile's Fillol went to Miami, but Vilas probably already is better on every surface but grass anyway.
Even if he were nothing more than the best lefthander ever produced in Mar del Plata, which he is, the exciting Vilas would be worth watching. And for rivals, worth avoiding. His serve is pretty good and his ground strokes are excellent, especially a topspin-backhand approach shot that lands in his opponent's court at a zillion RPMs and scoots for cover like a terrified jackrabbit. A much more common backhand is a slice under the ball, which gives it backspin and slows it up when it lands, a technique that has not hurt Rosewall and Margaret Court. Vilas, like another strong-stroking lefthander, Rod Laver, can hit his backhand both ways with a great degree of skill. However, on the grass at Forest Hills, a fast surface placing more importance on serving, volleying and returning service than on hard, accurate ground strokes, Vilas had too few opportunities to use his varied weapons. He is at his best on slow clay and was not expected to get beyond the third or fourth round of the U.S. Open, which would just about justify his being seeded ninth. Still, nobody would faint from shock if he should beat Arthur Ashe, the No. 8 seed, and reach the quarters, probably against defending champ John Newcombe.
Vilas was far from devastating in his first-round match, being forced to go the full five sets by a 17-year-old UCLA phenom, Ferdi Taygan, who is literally a young Turk (although he was born in America, Turkey asked him to play on its Davis Cup team). Vilas finally won 6-3, 6-2, 6-7, 2-6, 6-3. He was sharper in the second round, dispatching Mike Machette in straight sets on Friday. His South American rival, Fillol, looked better that day, losing to third-seeded Stan Smith on a tie breaker in the fifth.
Vilas' father, José Roque Vilas, is an escribano, the literal translation of which is "notary public," but he is more like a solicitor in the British sense. Guillermo went to law school in Buenos Aires for one year but dropped out to pursue a career in tennis, despite his parents' objections.
"It's nice," he says. "I like to play tennis. I have to play, it's something I need for myself. When I don't play I feel bad, my nerves are tense."
When he was a kid it was his mother who got nervous. Vilas used to practice hitting balls against his garage door—from the inside. Once a day at least the ball would hit the handle of the garage door, bounce up and break a light. His mother, Mexula, would get furious and sometimes confiscate his racket or refuse to climb up and replace the bulb. On occasion, Vilas recalls, he would "have to hide all day in a chestnut tree."
After his family moved from the country into Mar del Plata proper and he started practicing regularly at Club Nautico Mar del Plata, of which his father was president for 14 years, Vilas started playing in junior tournaments and, despite devoting some of his time to soccer, quickly rose to the top of any group he was in. He played in his first international tournament at 14, and at 15 was invited to the Orange Bowl tournament in Miami (he won the doubles there in 1969).
Now that school and a short, tennis-filled hitch in the Argentine army are out of the way, there does not seem to be anything to stop Vilas from being an international star for some time. But if the summer of '74 proves to be a fluke or a momentary flareup, Vilas does not seem to be the type to lose much sleep over it. He has lots of other things on his mind besides topspin backhands.
Vilas wears a missing-in-action bracelet on one wrist and a prisoner-of-war bracelet on the other, the latter even though the prisoner has returned home. Wearing them is Vilas' statement against war. His other adornments—long, dark hair held in place by a headband, bracelets, rings, beads—appear to be statements of taste in fashion rather than rebellion. Fans give him some of his bead necklaces, most of them more substantial than the one made of macaroni he ruined recently by wearing in a shower.
Vilas plays the recorder and bongos, says he enjoys jogging at three in the morning and has been at work on a book the past few years.
"For sure I will publish it," he says. "It is about anything—things that have impressed me, life. I began it two years ago when I learned some things that really impressed me, became part of me, that I don't want to forget."
One morning last week Vilas and his pal Borg, who admits to no higher reading material than comic books, got out of a taxi stalled in traffic and set out on foot for the Forest Hills clubhouse. Side by side they strolled, chattering happily, lugging their equipment bags down a narrow avenue in the borough of Queens, a rich young Swede with long blond hair flowing down to his shoulders, a rich young Argentine with long dark hair flowing down to his shoulders. It did not signify anything special, but the driver of a car stalled behind the taxi watched them walk off and found some small pleasure to take his mind off the mugginess. He remembered that Senor Vilas had said he was going home after the tournament to spend five weeks in Silver Sea, and the very thought was cooling.