"Fervently, Ithink that many times one feels oneself to be secure and, suddenly, one's worldfalls down like a pack of cards in a matter of seconds."
This is an article from the May 29, 1978 issue
Boom.Ba-boom." The floor is made of ceramic tiles that are the color ofbuttermilk. "Bip-bip. Ba-boom." The walls are marble halfway to theceiling. "Baba-da-boom. Baba-da-boom." There is chipping plaster, andwater pipes all around. "Bip-bip. Boop-ba-boop. Boom." And mirrors andstalls and a long wooden bench. "Ba-boom. Bip...bip...babada-boom.Ba-boom...ba...boom."
In the fadedelegance of a dressing room underneath the stadium of the Buenos Aires lawntennis club, Guillermo Vilas waits to go upstairs for another tennis match.Waits and sits. Stands and dances. Sings and taps a small stick.
"I shouldhave been a Brazilian," Vilas says. "How fantastic they are with themusic. DeMoraes, the singing poetry. Toquinho on guitar. Maria Creuza, thevocals. I saw them all in Punta del Este once. A concert recorded live.Unbelievable. All the Brazilians are so natural with the music. You go into abar and there they are drumming and tapping on everything. Ba-boom.Ba-ba-da-boom. Metals, wood, the floor, the chairs. They click glasses andspoons and fill the bottles at different levels so they get the differentnotes. Bip-boom. They become a band. People singing and laughing and dancing onthe tables. Ba-boom.
"I fly awaywith the music," Vilas continues, now working on the marble and the pipes."Boop-bip-ba-boom. Yes, sometimes I wish I was making music. I speak toBurt Bacharach in Caracas. He said he went crazy listening to the Brazilians.He said he would help me with my songs. Yes, Bacharach will come here and Iwill go to California and meet the big guys. My songs will be love songs. Butnot for lovers, you know? Love songs for all people. I want that. Yes, I wantto make music.... I will.... I know I will."
The reasonprofessional tennis has established itself as one of the big sports of the '70sis that it has grown far and wide and variegated enough to have at its highestlevel such disparate personalities as Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and GuillermoVilas. Though much has been made of their diversity, the notion persists thatConnors and Borg are not so dissimilar after all. It is Vilas who is different.Vilas, the poet. Vilas, the romantic. Vilas, the mild bull of the Pampas.Though probably lacking the raw ability of his two rivals, Vilas may have thegreatest appeal to the public.
Connors hasearned a reputation for nastiness while wearing his heart, not to mention hismiddle finger, on his sleeve. Conversely, Borg is well-mannered but exhibits norecognizable human emotion past a wink. And although they have performedprodigies on the tennis court, they are sadly deficient in the social gracesand general knowledge. Indeed, it sometimes seems that they went directly fromchildhood to manhood, while cutting classes, as it were, in the lessons ofyouth. Perhaps that is why, in their press conferences and public utterances,Connors, 25, and Borg, 21, can express themselves only in jock rhetoric ordownright baby talk. Conversation? Forget conversation. They don't know whatconversation is. If all the nets of the world suddenly were ripped asunder byDarth Vader, Jimbo and Bjorny would have to take to the streets sellingsausage.
This is not thecase for 25-year-old Guillermo Vilas. Besides being one of the three besttennis players in the world, Vilas is a published author of prose and poetry.He has written a screenplay and collaborated on songs to be recorded inArgentina. He is a philosopher, a musician, a reader, a thinker. Even if Vilas'book of poetry were nothing more than recipes for carbonada criolla and hismusical notes badly off-key; even if his Renaissance-man reputation is based onnothing more than "phantom depth," as one touring pro charges, that isbeside the point. On his own the man reads, writes and composes, and he does itfor only one reason. The self. Himself.
Vilas is bright,handsome, articulate. He is honest, witty, sensitive. He makes tons and tons ofpesos. You might not want your daughter to marry a tennis player, but GuillermoVilas you'd approve of.
This is asimplification, of course. Vilas' passion for the esthetic, his artisticnature, derives in large part from the circumstances of coming from a brokenhome and from the hurt inflicted by incessant reference to him in the Argentinepress as a loser and "the eternal second." "I am a very complicatedperson to get involved with," Vilas says. "I am not easy to know on asuperficial basis."
Significantly,the two men who say they know him best—does anyone know Guillermo Vilaswell?—disagree on the subject of Vilas' state of mind.
"Willie is,you know, counterclockwise," says Luis Alberto Spinetta, Argentina'sleading jazz-rock musician. "You tell him what's white, he'll tell youwhat's black. You act hard on him, he'll be sweet. It's all reversed. He'scontradictory. But he is young, a champion, sensible. He has fun. His future isnow. He has found the world already."
Arturo Romero,who was Vilas' roommate during law school at Facultad de Derecho Y CienciasSociales and now serves as a kind of secretary for his friend, demurs."Traveling is a lonely time for Guillermo," says Romero. "He has nohome left, but he needs the charm and closeness of the family. When you forceGuillermo to think, he's pessimistic. Because he is not happy, he must discovera place to settle and find peace. The problem is Guillermo doesn't find hispeace."
There are othercontradictions. Vilas has said that money means nothing, that he "plays forfame." But last year he entered an astonishing 34 tournaments (winning 21),played 153 matches (winning 139) and earned $434,065 in tournament prize money,an alltime record. He plays and plays and plays and plays. He also won the$300,000 first prize in the Colgate Grand Prix bonus pool, as well as anadditional $30,000 in the season-end Masters showdown in New York City, for ayear's total of $764,065. That is quite a bit of fame.
And Vilas'interest in only the fame of the Masters title is suspect. He cabled Colgatebefore the tournament to ask if they could send his $300,000 down to BuenosAires ahead of time "for tax reasons." (There were no tax reasons:tennis players are taxed where they earn their money.)
Moreover, Vilasresigned or, rather, Ion Tiriac, the brooding Romanian who is Vilas' friend,aide, mentor, agent, cornerman, coach and general manager, resigned both ofthem from the Association of Tennis Professionals last spring (over a pettygossip item in the ATP newspaper). Vilas was the only major player who refusedto sign a pledge not to play exhibitions in conflict with ATP-sanctionedtournaments this season. As a result, this winter and spring Vilas (whom Tiriachas come to refer to as "I," the way fight managers say, "We foughtso-and-so") has been lazing around, playing in only a few tournaments. Hedoes appear in a whole lot of exhibitions. For fame? For money?
In defense,Tiriac argues that Connors, Borg, Ilie Nastase and other big names have been"collecting guarantees on contracts" from Lamar Hunt's WCT tour, andthat his man either deserves the same largess or else should be left alone tomake up the cash in exhibitions.
"Guillermo isbored with deals I make," says Tiriac. "He doesn't want to hear aboutthem. Anyway, money is no factor with these guys anymore. It just depends onwho wants to win. This guy won nonstop last year. God, we're tired."
Be that as itmay, Vilas, or Tiriac, or those spinners and weavers from Fila, the Italianclothes manufacturer that makes Vilas' two-tone outfits, or somebody, must beyawning all the way to the Buenos Aires Savings and Loan.
Arthur Ashe putsin a word for Vilas. "What Guillermo did last year to reach that manyfinals and win that many tournaments was extraordinary," says Ashe."It's trivial to complain that he hasn't played much this year. He musthave accounted for an extra 50,000 spectators in the last six months of theseason. He more than supported the tour."
This season thetour has had to make do without Vilas. After injuring his ankle at the Mastersin January, he rushed home to rest for nearly three months before gingerlyventuring back into competition, in which he has been rudely beaten by a wholedraw sheet of players even Bud Collins would have a difficult time identifying.But this appears to be another typical Tiriac production: go slow, practicehard, work like a pack mule, then sneak up on everybody in the world's big claychampionships—this week's Italian Open in Rome and next week's French Open inParis.
Tiriac deservedlyhas taken credit for the technical and mental improvements in Vilas' game sincehe joined up with him permanently in 1976. Other players sense his influence onVilas' personality as well. There was a time in South Africa, after Vilas hadlost a long point, when he appealed to the chair that coughing spectators haddisrupted his concentration. The umpire allowed a replay. Last spring duringthe Davis Cup match between Argentina and the U.S., American representativesaccused Vilas of arousing the crowd to use drums, bugles and whistles.
"Tiriac isthe guru and Tiriac's forte is gamesmanship," says Ashe. "We know notto give Guillermo anything on the court because he'll nail you if he can. Hehas come to the superstar point. He plays on that image of the romantic poet,but he uses the grand gesture the way Newcombe used to in influencing aninexperienced linesman. Newk got away with it because he was Newk. This guy cando it because he is Vilas."
The"superstar" hasn't been conceived who would avoid exploiting such anadvantage. Still, for Vilas to engage in such gamesmanship seems totally aliento his image. "Guillermo used to be warm and friendly," another playersays. "Now he has a singlemindedness that wasn't there before. He is allbusiness, and cold. I wonder if he really enjoys the sacrifices he has had tomake because of Tiriac. To reach the top, he has become less human, a lesserperson. But to win, he had to be."
A story underVilas' byline in the Buenos Aires newspaper La Opinion last Novemberillustrates Tiriac's influence. La Opinion had asked for Vilas' impressions ofthe earthquake in Argentina the day before in which some 80 people had beenkilled. Heavy tremors had been felt in parts of Buenos Aires. Vilas, who hadbeen awakened from a sound sleep in his 17th-floor apartment and who had rusheddown the stairs and into the street where he had joined his frightenedneighbors, wrote:
"It [theearthquake] was most lamentable, but foreseeable. It's within the percentage ofthings which have to happen. Fervently, therefore, I think that many times onefeels oneself to be secure and, suddenly, one's world falls down like a pack ofcards in a matter of seconds. An earthquake belongs to natural law. Nature isirreversible just as much for physical and psychic phenomena. If reconstructionis necessary, I pledge to contribute my grain of sand, playing exhibitionsgratis, always on condition that in the scheduling of them, the dates thattennis leaves me free are taken into account [italics provided]. This for me isa sacred pledge which I plan to honor."
Friends say theexhibitions were Vilas' idea, the proviso about free time was pure Tiriac.
For about as longas there has been an Argentina, there has been football—soccer—in Argentina.Neighboring Brazil has won the World Cup three times, and now Buenos Aires ispreparing to host that event. There have also been renowned fighters fromArgentina—Luis Angel Firpo, Oscar Bonavena, Carlos Monzon—but not untilGuillermo Vilas arrived did sports take over in a big commercial way: T shirts,sporting-goods stores, that sort of thing.
Vilas came out ofMar del Plata, a resort city of 350,000 on the south coast, from which he usedto take seven-hour bus rides over bad roads to play in weekend tournaments inBuenos Aires. Vilas would play all day Saturday and all day Sunday, then boardanother bus for the seven-hour ride home. He would reach home at 4 a.m., barelyin time to sleep before school the next day. An American TV announcer once saida player had to be dedicated to the game to do all that, and a viewer wrote in,"either to the game or to school." Vilas was both; he was a superiorstudent.
Mar del Platacould probably exist forever on the beauty of its name (Sea of Silver), but thecity has lost much of its elegance. The wealthy now vacation in Punta del Este,the chic Uruguayan resort, and the working classes and union leaders have takenover.
Though Vilas'father, an escribano (South America's version of the British solicitor), stilllives in Mar del Plata, his mother long since moved away to live with Vilas'22-year-old sister, Marcela, in Buenos Aires. Vilas has his own small penthouseapartment in a Buenos Aires suburb called Olivos, two blocks from where theArgentine presidents resided before the Peronistas were deposed in 1976.Everywhere one looks from Vilas' corner windows, there is water: swimming poolsand yacht harbors and rivers. The mammoth Rio de la Plata, formed by theconfluence of the Paranà and the Uruguay, laps the banks of the city downtown,past the docks of the historic La Boca—a collection of rainbow-hued tenementscomprising what must be the world's most charming slum—before flowing into theAtlantic Ocean 150 miles away. "On a clear day you can see across toUruguay—little hills, the tips of mountains," says Vilas.
Last year Vilaspurchased a condominium in Punta del Este. Moving from Mar del Plata to Puntadel Este is analogous to leaving Atlantic City for Southampton. Given $300,000bonus pool money, you'd move, too. His apartment in Olivos is a study ineclectic taste. In the kitchen there is a lucite phone to which a girl friendoften is attached. Arturo Romero, the former law school roommate and a zany whotakes acting lessons and thrills everyone with his version of Dustin Hoffman asRatso Rizzo, lives with Vilas. Tiriac, Tiriac's tall, blonde wife Mikette andtheir 18-month-old baby have an apartment in the same building.
Van Goghreproductions, Oriental tapestries, a spaghetti racket, fresh flowers, bongodrums, boxing headgear (Vilas and Romero often spar for exercise), a couple oftrophies and the standard hi-fi-stereo-and-tape-deck monster machines decoratethe penthouse. Cassettes are everywhere. One is a radio play-by-play of Vilas'victory over Roscoe Tanner in Washington, D.C.; most are of Chuck Mangione,Chick Corea and all that jazz.
It is rumoredthat Vilas will soon purchase a huge ranch in the provinces, but for now,during his brief moments in Argentina, this is the stopping-off place. It iswhere Vilas says he "hangs." Vilas does not even visit Mar del Plataanymore. There is a reason.
"My old housewas out in the country," says Vilas. "A quinta, a house with lots ofland. Crops, gardens, fruits, vegetables. I used to play outside in the biggesttree in the world. Alone, just me. I didn't need anybody else. I was roaming alot. Much time to think. The house is changed now. Everything is different. Itis part of the town. No more crops. No dirt roads. No land. It is so sad. OnceI wanted to show the big tree to a girl who was important to me, but it wasn'tbig anymore. Everything when you were young was so big, you know. Everything Iwas dreaming about was different. It was such a great experience. I wanted torelive it. It didn't work. I go back now to look and I get verydepressed."
Argentinians aremostly of Spanish or Italian origin and they have strong family ties: one forall, all for one. So, in the old days, did the family Vilas, which is of Basquedescent. That feeling is gone now. Vilas' parents were separated for good aboutthe time Guillermo went off to law school. Though he will not speak of it,friends say he was crushed and perhaps he has not recovered. His search for asurrogate family seems to continue. Or perhaps it has ended with Tiriac.
Vilas repeatedlygrieves that he must endure long travel, airplanes, restaurant meals, strangebeds and hotel rooms. Most of all, hotel rooms. A hotel room is not a home, andthis is a man who greatly misses his home.
"We could seethis from the beginning," says Chilean player Jaime Fillol, who has knownVilas longer than most. "Guillermo always seemed to need somebody else. Hewas close to me for a while, then to Manuel Orantes. Nobody lasted more thanthree or four weeks. He was always looking for something new, for some answers.When either of his parents was on tour with him, he was unsure, uneasy. He wasmorose and blue. Then he got into Buddhism and Yoga and other Asianphilosophies, which are nearly impossible to apply to your life if you werebrought up in a Western society, in a Catholic style. Now he lets Tiriac worryabout as many things as possible. He seems more settled. But also, more removedfrom the rest of us."
For a time he andBorg became fast friends—Vilas bought an apartment in the same condominium inMonaco in which Borg lived, the two practiced every day and they ate mealstogether. But Borg was on the verge of his engagement to Mariana Simonescu,while Vilas was surveying a field of international wonder women, including a"Miss World Beauty," 32-year-old Mirta Massa. As Borg began to defeatVilas regularly and Tiriac entered the picture, their friendship waned. YetBorg's dominance in their matches—12 wins to four, lifetime—while attributablein part to his greater consistency, is probably as much a result of Vilas' lackof a killer instinct against a friend. As Tiriac says of his ward, "Thisguy not capable in life to kill a fly."
The hero worshipthat surrounds Vilas in Buenos Aires—one evening last winter his arrival at therestaurant Los A‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±os Locos (The Crazy Years) was accorded a standing ovation,after which a dozen waiters lined up for individual pictures with Vilas for thebest part of an hour—is testimony to the depth of feeling Argentinians hold fortheir Numero Uno de Tenis. But for a better understanding of his nationalcelebrity, it is necessary to travel with Vilas to a place such as Tandil, ahamlet some 2½ hours south of Buenos Aires by prop plane. Tandil is in theflatlands, a green and fertile place with roads lined by jacaranda trees andfields full of cattle. Vilas flew there for an exhibition match with Tiriac andthe inauguration of a new indoor tennis club; his father. Jose Roque Vilas, methim at the military airport. If 60-year-old Jose Roque could be persuaded towear a Peter Frampton hairpiece, he and Guillermo could pass for twins. Theyhave the same robust energy, the magnetism, the kind, mannerly ways. And thesame eyes. At once soft and piercing—and clear, stark, incredibly blue.Listings of tennis' best-looking men usually begin with Adriano Panatta, theItalian; then comes Vilas.
As the three carscarrying Vilas, his father, Tiriac and local officials headed from the airportthrough the farmlands into Tandil, a strange scene developed. Every so oftenthere would be a car parked alongside the road with one or two people inside.As the Vilas caravan passed, the people in the cars would wave wildly and honktheir horns. Then the cars would get in line and follow along. This continuedfor 10 miles, until the caravan became a parade.
Just outsideTandil, Vilas' car stopped so Tiriac could pick up some bandages at adrugstore. Within minutes the vehicle was engulfed by dozens of people, mostlychildren who fought each other to lean inside the window and kiss Vilas."Mucho gusto, mucho gusto, Guillermo," they would say politely. Then,"Adios."
In Tandil,hundreds of people lined the sidewalk to catch a glimpse of Vilas. At the hotelanother hundred rushed the curb. The car began to shake. Vilas forced his wayout. "No autographs, please," he pleaded. "I am sorry, but I amlate."
"We don'twant autographs." a girl said. "We just want to touch you."
Tiriac,grumbling, said this happened all the time in the provinces. "Last month wewere forced to have 20 police on horseback guard him at exhibition. In Romaniawhen I had Nastase, there would be 200 people lined up, but only forautographs. Here they are more aggressive. They want flesh. Vilas, he is likeJesus Christ. He is prophet."
Guillermo Vilaswas not born in a manger—or on a tennis court. Like any other Argentine kid, hegrew up kicking a football. Vilas' father, preferring that Guillermo playsomething more white-collar, took him into the Club Nautico Mar del Plata, ofwhich he was the president, and hired a local barber named Felipe Locicero toteach him tennis. Locicero remembers, "On the face of the little boy werethe signs of deaf protest." But the little boy learned the game. Later,when the elder Vilas wanted his son to become a lawyer, it was too late.Guillermo was hooked on tennis. He was playing in national and theninternational tournaments. And he was winning. In law school Vilas met theboisterous Romero, who came from the province of La Pam-pa. Of Romero, anotorious playboy, a friend once said, "At 2 a.m., Arturo is not thinkingthe night is young but. rather, the night is born."
The two got alongfamously—talking for hours over bottles of sidra, Argentina's apple-champagnedrink—when Romero's carousing did not interfere with Vilas' studying. Romerorecalls Vilas coming home miserable from class every day. "One night."Romero says, "Guillermo came back to the room, threw down his books andnearly cried. This is not my life.' he said. 'This is not my life.' "
"The law wastoo square." says Vilas. "Rules, more rules. You had to have the sameopinions as the professors. Nothing ever was flexible enough."
"I rememberwhen I started tennis, it was considered a sissy game," says Vilas. "Weused to walk down the street and hide the rackets in our bags. Everybodywhistled at us and called us queers. But I liked the creativity of the game. Atennis player could create more than a painter. Create combinations of things.Nothing was secure. There were the variables of the racket, the surface, theweather, the opponent, the spin and speed of the ball. Where you were. Who youwere. For me this was an unbelievable attraction. When someone said, Come, goto the court,' it was like saying, 'Come, paint.' Only better."
So Vilas leftschool forever. In 1973 he began his voyages around the tennis globe. Thefollowing summer there arrived on the American clay circuit a powerful,lefthanded, full-fledged new star and anomaly: a flashing-eyed, head-bandedSouth American who didn't moan and complain at line calls, didn'ttemperamentally quit at the slightest hint of trouble and didn't seem ever tolose.
Vilas had playedpoorly on the WCT winter-spring tour that season, but in July he had won theSwiss and Dutch Opens and then in the U.S. reached the finals at Washington. InAugust he won Louisville and made it to the quarters at Indianapolis. Hedefeated Borg, Tom Okker and Orantes to win Toronto before reaching thesemifinals in the U.S. Pro at Brookline. In seven weeks his record was 34-3 andhe had earned $70,000. In short order he then won eight Grand Prix titles andjumped from No. 35 on the money list to No. 1.
The press did notknow what to make of this scraggly-haired strongman who wore sash belts, POWbracelets and macaroni necklaces while quoting Neruda and Krishnamurti, whoeverthey were.
"I am the No.1 sportsman in Argentina," Vilas told everybody. "Of course inArgentina we don't have many sportsmen." But the Argentine magazine Genresoon abandoned its cover-girl format to feature Vilas, and a taped tennismatch—Vilas vs. Fillol—was shown on Buenos Aires television for the firsttime.
At the end of1974 Vilas pulled off the upset of the decade when he won the Masters on grassin Melbourne, sometimes playing in 125° heat as he ripped through JohnNewcombe, Onny Parun, Borg, Raul Ramirez and Nastase. In 1975 Vilas beat afading Rod Laver at Boston by 6-3, 6-4. after which Laver said, "I saw agreat player out there."
His pressclippings made Vilas' countrymen expect too much. Because his baseline game hadbeen born on red dirt, he was vulnerable to an aggressive charger, and he wasstill beset by familial problems. Vilas kept winning all his matches—except thebig ones.
In 1974, Romesemifinals: Vilas had Borg put away, but lost. In 1975, Rome semis: he was farahead of Orantes, but lost again. In 1975, Paris finals: Vilas was wiped out byBorg. In 1975, U.S. Pro finals: wiped out by Borg. In 1975, U.S. Opensemifinals: having given up only 18 games in 12 sets at Forest Hills, Vilas ledOrantes 2-1 in sets and 5-0 in games and had five match points. He lost all ofthem and the match, 4-6, in the fifth set.
In 1976, Romefinals: Vilas blew a one-set lead to lose to Panatta. In 1976, Parissemifinals: Vilas blew a bigger lead to lose to Harold Solomon. In 1976, ForestHills semifinals: blown out by Connors. In 1976, Masters semis: lost 6-8 in thefifth to Wojtek Fibak. In early 1977. Australian Open: wiped out by Tanner.
After hisembarrassing loss to Orantes at Forest Hills in 1975, Vilas turned to Tiriac.For all his guff and bluster and Count Dracula reputation, behind Tiriac'shirsute countenance is one of the game's most perceptive minds. Tiriac nevergot enough credit when he was honing Nastase's brilliance into marketablevictories, and he finally wearied of Nastase's selfishness. In Vilas he had alesser talent but a more pliable student.
It took time."For Nastase, tennis was all a game, all play," says Tiriac. "ForVilas, it is all work." Vilas worked hard, four, five, six hours a day ofrunning and exercises and hitting balls. "I make him run when he verytired," says Tiriac. "I make him stretch muscles when he very cold.Vilas strong? I play ice hockey. I think I am strong. If we arm-wrestle, thisguy snap my arm off quick. Laver strong? This guy snap Laver in twopieces."
Vilas' strengthis a source of wonderment to his fellow pros. Ashe says he was practicing withTiriac and Vilas in Australia once and had to stop out of sheer exhaustion."Guillermo trains like nobody I've ever seen," says Ashe. "Tiriactrampolines those balls to the corners and yells 'Run. run, run,' and Vilasruns. He's not naturally gifted, you know. The kid is such a brute, he justmuscles his way to the ball."
Finally, in 1977came the breakthrough, with his victories in the French Open, the U.S. Open andhis Grand Prix records. But some players consider Vilas' most impressive featlast year to be a loss. That was at Aix-en-Provence in October when Vilasdefaulted and walked off the court, hopelessly behind 2-6, 5-7 to Nastase andthe infamous spaghetti racket.
The ILTF hadbanned the use of the racket, the prohibition to take effect the day after thetournament ended. Nastase used it to drop and lob and run Vilas into the dustyclay as the crowd chanted, "Take the racket off! Take the racket off!"Vilas had just completed a five-set semifinal against anotherspaghetti-wielder, Patrick Deblicker, which did not exactly help prepare himfor Nastase.
"Nastase withhis top spin off the spaghetti racket is impossible to play against unless youhave the racket yourself," says Gene Mayer, a touring pro. "Guillermoworked his tail off. I've never seen him try harder. Those two sets were likeseven. It's a miracle—a monument to his strength—that he got those five gamesin the second set. Only he could get five. As far as the players are concernedthat wasn't a loss. Vilas' clay-court streak was still alive."
Ah yes. TheStreak. Since pro tennis entered the Open era 10 years ago, no man has donewhat Vilas did on clay in 1977. During one stretch he won 57 consecutiveclay-court matches as he swept nine tournaments. Between his walkout on Nastaseand his default at the end of the year to Eddie Dibbs in the round-robinMasters at Madison Square Garden. Vilas won another 30 matches and six moretournaments in a row. After he lost to Billy Martin on grass at Wimbledon.Vilas went the rest of the year without losing (except by default) until Borgcaught him in the Masters semis. Vilas' match record for the season was139-14.
"I did not dothis by changing any stroke," says Tiriac. What Tiriac did do was alterVilas' footwork on serve (bringing his left foot parallel to the right,shortening his stride) to add power and length to his flat deliveries. Also,Tiriac introduced Vilas to the backhand slice. He urged him to be aggressive,to come to the net more than once a week. He taught him a lexicon of handsignals that now flow continually between the two men during matches. Mostimportant, Tiriac showed Vilas how to think and concentrate and hang in andforget what Gandhi and those other peace freaks wrote. He wanted Vilasgaucho-tough in those crucial moments that determine championships.
"I want thisguy to keep head and not become mechanical," says Tiriac. "I want tomake him sure of his ability. You must realize guy only started volleying lastyear. He still does not know how. I must attack to beat Connors and Borg. Iknow this. Connors I handle. But Borg is so natural, very patient guy. Heout-steady everybody, not just Vilas. I don't give a hell if Borg beat me 10more times straight. I just want to play him right. Attack. And I will. I amfar away from capabilities in every part of game. I need year and half, twoyears. If anybody beat Vilas then, I shake person's hand and say you arephenomenon."
All of Tiriac'swork—and Vilas' sweat—paid off in those glorious two weeks of Paris a year agowhen the Argentinian blasted his top-spin artillery, not to mention all those"gutless" and "no heart" labels, past a bewildered BrianGottfried to win the French final 6-0, 6-3, 6-0. "I cannot explain how Ifeel about this first big one," Vilas says. "It was like breaking agiant piece of glass that was hanging over my head. I was full, like plenitude.It was like I felt maybe I would never win again, but I could look back andsay, 'I won there' and, 'I was a great player that one time.'
"I don't wantto sound like Muhammad Ali. I know it is very complicated to pick No. 1. But Ithink No. 1 is the player who played the best for the whole year. Maybe it'snot the best player. Maybe I'm not the best. But I played the best for thelongest time."
And, of course,he did. When Vilas beat Connors at Forest Hills, it was a shocking enoughupset. But his 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 victory in the rematch at Madison Square Garden inthe Masters was even more impressive. Here were Jimbo's conditions—an indoormatch, a revenge motive, a faster Supreme Court surface, smoke, beer, hot dogs,gripping tension, dazzling celebrities and a record 18,590 house screaming forblood—and here was Vilas darting his eyes from Connors to Tiriac and back; herehe was moving his lips and thinking aloud; here he was firing his bullets anddodging the other guy's in return right up to the final moment. Neither seemedeven to blink. Ultimately, Vilas outfought the street fighter on his own meanstreets.
Those who werelucky enough to witness the event knew they had seen magic. The match was goodenough, in fact, to write a book about, and Vilas comes well-armed for thattask as well. Jonathan Segal, an editor at Simon & Schuster who is workingon a book with Vilas, says, "Guillermo has a great sense of the absurdityof things. In time he could become a full-fledged writer."
Vilas says,"To write is very special. I think I started when I was alone in the fieldsand the trees. I had so much time then. I am lucky now. I don't have to worryabout selling books. I can write what I feel. I can write for myself."
Vilas beganwriting in secondary school but a teacher discouraged his efforts by throwingaway his work. When Vilas went out on the tour, he kept a diary. He scribbledon napkins, programs, the back of his hand. An idea would come and Vilas wouldgrab onto it and write it down. He says he had written three books before hepublished Ciento Veinticinco (125), a 1975 paperback of prose and poetrydealing with man's loneliness and the emptiness of life.
Vilas put out 125entirely on his own. He wrote it, designed the cover and paid the printer. Thebook is "the fruit of my moments of greatest anguish," he says, but hewill not reveal the meaning of the title. There are chapter headings such asIlusiones, Nostalgia, Impotencia. The book is ironic, sarcastic, funny and sad,but it was bombed by the critics. When asked what he thought of 125, Jorge LuisBorges, Argentina's first man of letters, who is now 78 and blind, said,"Just imagine me playing tennis."
Vilas isundeterred. In conversation he is obsessed with cosmic subjects—fear, age,death. His screenplay, which he labored over in longhand all last summer, isentitled The Deciding Years. It is about a suicidal man who is talked out ofcommitting suicide. Two songs he wrote with his friend Spinetta are calledAngels, Angels and Children of the Bells, but Spinetta says he had to convinceVilas to make the lyrics in Children of the Bells happy, not sad.
"Whensomething nice happens to me, I live it," says Vilas. "When somethingsad happens, I write it. I cannot write when contented. Stupid things come out.But time passes and I get depressed. When I am traveling, I am unhappy. I amthinking about death a lot. In my screenplay, everybody dies."
When Vilas was18, a friend committed suicide. A few years ago he met a girl who wore acontainer of poison on a chain around her neck. In 1976 after Wimbledon, Vilaswent into analysis to explore the feelings and experiences that always seemedto surface in his writing.
"Is it me inmy screenplay?" he repeats a question. "It doesn't have to be me, butit can be me. I change and find different things in people, includingmyself."
In 125, in hischapter on illusions. Vilas relates the story of a little boy who digs a holein the sand and pours buckets of water into the hole. The boy asks his fatherfor some ice cream, and the father says the boy can have the ice cream as soonas the hole is filled with water.
After he finishedwriting Ilusiones, Vilas says he was reminded of his father and himself on thebeach at Mar del Plata. He says he laughed, remembering. Then he cried. Vilassays in that moment he realized he had grown up There were no illusionsanymore.
Since then wehave heard less of Vilas the writer and more of Vilas the tennis player. Whichis the logical progression. When something nice happens. Guillermo Vilasdoesn't write it, he lives it.