Relax, America, it's not as if it never happened before. If Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia could all do it within the last 11 years, why should it come as a surprise that Argentina, led by Guillermo Vilas, bounced the U.S. out of the Davis Cup, 1977? When you have to travel 6,000 miles on short notice and play on the other guy's turf—a soft red clay he grew up on—before a screaming, drum-beating crowd that makes you feel like Illinois at Ohio State, even a Ricardo Cano can begin to look like Bill Tilden.
The coup de gr√¢ce came on Sunday when Vilas beat Dick Stockton in four sets to make it 3-1 Argentina, but the drum rolls started on Friday, when Cano joined Edison Mandarino, Miguel Olvera, Jairo Velasco and Ivan Molina, some of the giant killers who have turned South America into a graveyard for U.S. cup teams. Cano is 25, stocky and ranked 61st on the world list. In other words, beatable. But not Friday at the Buenos Aires Lawn—that's right, lawn—Tennis Club. Not with his wife, mother, father and two brothers joining a crowd of 5,500 to chant "Cano, Cano, Cano" every time Ricardo did something splendid. "Silencio, por favor," called the umpire repeatedly, wasting his breath.
The U.S. team had figured that Cano was the key to victory. Beat him twice, win the doubles and it wouldn't matter how gloriously Vilas performed. Captain Tony Trabert was pleased with the draw—Stockton against what figured to be a nervous Cano in the opening match, then Brian Gottfried, hot all year, against Vilas, whom he had defeated in their last two meetings. Go to bed Friday night leading 2-0. Sweet dreams.
Cano was indeed nervous. "At the start, the middle and the end," he said later. Stockton's first serve was an ace. He won the game at love. He broke Cano's serve and won his own again. After three games Cano had won two points. The drum in the bleachers was silent. Cano won a game, giving the crowd hope, but Stockton was hitting hard, and he closed out the first set 6-3. It hadn't taken long. Everything was going to plan.
May 8, 1977
Remarkably, that was the only set the U.S. was to win all day. Cano began to hit shots that had the crowd yelling, "Toque, toque" meaning good touch. This was his home—slow clay—and he began to respond to the challenge.
The crowd didn't know it, Cano didn't know it, but Stockton was in pain. In the third game of the second set he injured his back, a chronic problem for him. He wears a brace, and when he volunteered to play in place of Harold Solomon, who had to withdraw just before the competition, he warned that his back might act up.
Cano won the second set 6-4. In the middle of it he swept eight straight points that had everyone in the stadium clapping to the beat of the drum. "Silencio, por favor." The third set seesawed until Stockton led 5-4, serving. Cano ripped through four straight points, broke him at love and won 8-6. Cano won the fourth set 6-4, the match ending in frenzy with fans flooding the courts and Cano heading for the dressing room.
It was easily the most important win of his life. Friends pushed through to shake his hand, and presently his wife Claudia appeared at the edge of the crowd. Ricardo Cano may have been 61st on the world list, but in Buenos Aires at that moment he was n√∫mero uno. Well, make it dos. For even as Claudia was giving him a hug, a roar from the stadium crowd above announced that Vilas had entered the arena.
In Argentina 24-year-old Guillermo Vilas is, with the possible exceptions of Carlos Monzon, the middleweight champion, and Jorge Luis Borges, the writer, the most famous person in the country. Willie, they call him. Swarthy, muscular, thick-chested, his long hair kept in place by a headband, he is Argentine tennis.
Vilas had had a hard time warming up. A swarm of kids surrounded him as he was hitting on an outside court, threatening to take his racket, his headband, finally forcing him to flee. Inside the stadium he was more secure. If center court in Buenos Aires is home for Cano, it is heaven for Vilas. Going into the match he had not lost in singles there since 1973—some 30 victories in a row.
The U.S. contingent had hoped that Gottfried would break that string. Now it needed him to desperately. Instead, what followed was a nightmare. Gottfried was never able to settle into the match, hitting the ball all over the stadium. Too often after serving he would take the return, drive it to Vilas' backhand and approach the net. Adios, amigo. The left-handed Vilas, with the best backhand in the game since Rosewall was younger and winning, would simply rocket the ball past the onrushing Gottfried.
The first set was a respectable 6-4, but then Gottfried's world collapsed. Vilas won 6-0, 6-2, showing the appreciative crowd his entire arsenal of shots—big serves, delicate slices and, most of all, topspins that had Gottfried hitting the ball off his chin. Vilas was the champion, Gottfried the sparring partner.
So where was Jimmy Connors on Friday, you ask? Indeed, the Argentines themselves were wondering, disappointed by his absence even though it might have meant a different result. Well, Jimmy was in Vegas playing for the big bucks, but no one on the U.S. team held that against him this time, because Connors has a contract with Caesars Palace, where the tournament was held. Other absences have been harder to take.
Trabert left the U.S. thinking he had two clay court specialists, Solomon and Eddie Dibbs, to play singles along with a doubles team of Sherwood Stewart and Freddy McNair, but when Trabert arrived in Buenos Aires he learned that Solomon was sick, and Dibbs, well, Eddie was too tired.
To their credit, Stockton and Gottfried pulled out of the Vegas tournament and a chance at the $50,000 first prize and hurried to Argentina for $1,000 plus expenses. The Argentina Tennis Federation paid Vilas $5,000, and even that is small change compared to what Sweden pays Bjorn Borg for a year's worth of Davis Cup play—$100,000. He gets that even if Sweden should lose in the first round, which it did this year.
On Saturday, Stewart and McNair won a ho-hum doubles match to make it 2-1, but they did not beat Vilas. Fearing some freak injury, Argentine Captain Oscar Furlong chose Cano and Elio Alvarez, and they were simply not in the same class with the U.S. pair, soft clay or not, losing 6-3, 6-4, 6-3. The Argentine crowd wasn't disheartened. Sunday, they felt, would be their day.
And so it was, but not without a struggle. Stockton, strapped tight and full of an assortment of pain-killers, played almost errorless tennis to take the first set 7-5. But Vilas gradually wore him down, winning the match and the deciding point for Argentina 6-2, 6-2, 6-2, scores that do not indicate the closeness and intensity of the play.
With the final point Vilas disappeared under a sea of fans only to bob up again on their shoulders. He was carried full circle around the arena, passing the box of President Jorge Rafael Videla on the way. Both men saluted each other. The man in the box may have been a president, but the man on the shoulders of the crowd was a king.
The final score became 3-2 when Cano lost to Gottfried in the last match. Nobody minded. If it hadn't been for Cano, Vilas never would have gotten his ride around the stadium.