Don't Cry For Them, Argentina

Guillermo Vilas and Jose-Luis Clerc do not shed a tear for each other, but they sent the U.S. Davis Cuppers home weeping
March 14, 1983

I wanted to show my people that I'm really Argentine. It was very important, especially at this time, to win for my country. This is one of the very few times I think I'm a member of the team.
—Jose-Luis Clerc, after beating John McEnroe

All those people you meet in Davis Cup tell you you have to win because you're representing your country. People talk about a team. But when you get out there, you're all alone between four lines, with only the ball. Then it's just you. A team is not a marriage.
—Guillermo Vilas, after beating McEnroe.

The parlay for 1983 is the 76ers and Argentina. It looks as if it might be their year. For last week, upon the red ground-brick courts of the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club, where there's no lawn and American Davis Cup teams invariably crumble into bad memories, Clerc and Vilas whipped McEnroe and his compatriot, Gene Mayer, in the first round of this year's competition. The U.S. had won the Cup in four of the last six years and two years running. Not coincidentally, the two Yankee defeats in that span had come in Buenos Aires.

What a week it was in Argentina. When was the last time any tie featured four players ranked among the Top 10 in the world? When was the last time America was the underdog in any tennis competition? When was the last time the controversy swirled not about the U.S. but the opposition? La Prensa of Argentina may have called McEnroe El Irascible, but Clerc and Vilas went through a minuet that rivaled the best of Steinbrenner and Martin. For Argentina the victory was the first glimmer of a national comeback, the first international event of any consequence held in the country since war and death and generals joined to shut out the light a year ago.

Perhaps no tennis team ever embodied so much of the character of the nation it represented as Argentina's did. There's an old joke in Buenos Aires that God Himself was so chagrined when He realized how much He had bestowed upon Argentina that the only way He could even things up for the rest of the world was to make Argentines. Certainly Argentina is as close as we come to a Babel these days. Many of its denizens seem to be confused about their identity, thinking first of themselves not as Argentines but as products of a foreign heritage. At a dinner party last week, a rancher's wife explained the situation succinctly: "The trouble with Argentine men is that they all want to dress like the British, think like the Italians and act like Americans."

Ah yes, and both Vilas and Clerc have a good deal of French blood. Moreover (astrologer's delight?), they were born six years but only one calendar day apart—in August, no less—two displaced Gallic Leos who would rule the same crowded den. In the past, each barely acknowledged the existence of the other, except when backbiting like fishwives or trying, at the other's expense, to squeeze the national tennis federation out of a few more hundred million pesos, of which there are now 80,000 to the dollar.

Less than a week before the tie, Vilas, the older of the two at 30, hadn't decided whether he would play against the U.S. Last year Clerc, in protest against Vilas' getting the lion's share of the Argentine team's receipts from Davis Cup play, skipped the first round, against France. His absence cost Argentina the tie. It also cost the country a seeded position for 1983, which helps explain why the world's two best teams ended up squaring off in the opening round.

There had been speculation that Argentina would consent to play in the States rather than at home because of residual anti-American feeling from the Falklands/Malvinas war. That conflict may have been the only thing—save futbol—that has ever truly united the nation. However, the Argentines were so disillusioned upon discovering how the junta had conducted the war that they quickly redirected their antipathy from America and England to their own government. The crowds at the Lawn Tennis Club were partisan but warm, and the officiating was scrupulously fair. "You see," says an American businessman who was tossed in jail during the war, "one of the greatest gifts of the Argentines is a short memory." Obviously, he should know.

An expression often heard in Argentina is màs o menos (literally, "more or less," but implying, "things could be better, things could be worse"). The phrase sums up local attitudes toward war and inflation, debts and high interest rates, generals and opportunists, the fact that 6,000 enemies of the junta have been missing since the mid-1970s, steaks and wine. The restaurants are jammed, the beaches packed, the shopping mall along the Avenida de Florida thronged, the tennis matches sold out. Business as usual. The kids were going back to school Monday after their summer vacation, and insiders were buying up black market U.S. dollars in anticipation of a new devaluation. Argentina is testament to the late-20th-century frame of mind: a determination to have our cake and eat it too. Màs o menos.

Clerc's problem is that Vilas is far more popular among their countrymen than he is. Argentines feel that Clerc has somehow tarnished the image of their original campéon. Vilas has won four Grand Slam titles, and he makes the gossip columns the world over for dating beauty queens and princess beauties. (The players on tour, not so impressed, sometimes call Vilas "Prince," as in, "Hey, Prince, pass the salt.") Clerc is taller than El Campéon, better looking, better built, more agreeable and at times has been ranked higher. But he never has caught on. Vilas has heart, a corazón as big as all outdoors. Clerc, the people say, merely possesses talent, a fringe commodity in a land where inflation sprints at 500% per annum. Vilas looks as if he were playing up through the dirt, his shoes, socks, even his knees damn near covered with red grime. Clerc wears a dainty gold wristwatch even on the court. He walks the streets of Buenos Aires virtually unnoticed by the people Vilas casually calls "my public." You know what Clerc's nickname is? Batata. That means "sweet potato."

But on Thursday, at the drawing the day before the tie, in public, for all the world to see, El Campéon carefully shook Batata's hand. Argentina had lost a war and the World Cup, and it had never won a Davis Cup. Now it was time to join together and remedy that.

The next day, after Vilas, as expected, had disposed of Mayer (6-3, 6-3, 6-4) in the opening match, McEnroe and Clerc took the court under an unrelenting afternoon summer sun. Clerc assumed command soon, and when he won the first set 6-4, he spiked the ball he held. Spiked it! Batata? Then he really poured it on. Poor McEnroe staggered about, his pasty, city nose shining bright red. Upon his brow he wore a bandanna. The way he was playing, it looked more like a tourniquet to the brain. "No feel," he kept saying to Arthur Ashe, the U.S. captain, during changeovers. "I just don't have any feel out there." Members of the American contingent sent notes to Ashe—have him try this, do that—but Ashe didn't even bother to pass them along. To what purpose? McEnroe couldn't do a thing.

The stands were going berserk. High in a corner, where a score or more of loud fans in T shirts with horns and whistles and flags had been let in free to lead cheers, the national soccer song swept down: Vamos, Argentina, Vamos ("Let's Go, Argentina, Let's Go"). The azure flags mixed with the high azure sky. In the first five games of the second set, El Irascible got all of seven points, and Clerc won the set 6-0.

Now Ashe began to rub DMSO into McEnroe's sore left shoulder, and a spark began to glow. The bandanna came off, and he kept his southpaw sleeve rolled up in the manner of the punk rockers he fancies. He began to use the whole clay court and, better, to serve and volley as if it were tile. By a quarter to seven the match was four hours old; the sun, low in the sky, was glimmering off the smoke that rose from the grills at the concession stands, and the score was even—6-4, 6-0, 3-6, 4-6.

Ashe had continued to rub in the compound. The spectators were hollering, a Greek chorus for every point. "Silencio, por favor, silencio," the umpire kept calling. The disruptions didn't bother Ashe. They were permitting McEnroe to rest after every point, which was just what he needed. Finally, the Argentine team caught on and began to wave to the crowd to knock it off. Who would ever think that the noise from a packed Latin gallery of 10,000 could damage the good cause? The T-shirted ones kept screaming and singing, even as Clerc's teammates beckoned them to stop.

Such ironies abounded. In the fourth set, for example, Clerc had had only a single troublesome service game, and it cost him the set. McEnroe, on the other hand, had been forced to sweat blood in five straight service games, fighting off nine break points along the way. Yet we are so conditioned to football experts attributing every known action of mankind to momentum, that any student of life knew without doubt the fifth set therefore belonged to McEnroe, to the man coming back.

"No, fifth sets are different," Ashe would say that night. "Momentum stops at the fifth set." Besides, despite all that is vouchsafed on behalf of momentum, it has a flip side. It's a great deal less enervating to give up a lead than it is to struggle to appropriate one. As is so often the case on such occasions, whatever the sport, McEnroe took a deep breath of relief as soon as he drew even. By the time he exhaled, the momentumless Clerc had broken him for a 2-love edge. Some of the U.S. contingent began clamoring for Ashe to exercise his option to call play off for the night, but he sat tight in the gloaming until Clerc ran the score to 5-2, at which point Ashe called a halt. "The most pressure is trying to serve out a match," he said later. Let Clerc try and do that with as little preparation as possible the next morning. That was Ashe's plan.

The task was clear. McEnroe would have to hold serve and then break to draw even on service. Clerc would have to hold to win the match—and, quite likely, the tie and the 1983 Davis Cup as well. Batata, sequestered on the Avenida de Florida at the Plaza Hotel with his private coach, Patricio Rodriguez, and away from his wife and child and team, tossed and turned all night. El Irascible, a few blocks away at the Sheraton, the American bivouac, was so exhausted he couldn't even finish a beer with dinner. He left a fashion show that followed, not being up even to ogling models in leather and furs.

On the morrow McEnroe came out smoking. He held at love and then broke at 15. So the momentum was all his once again. That and 40,000 pesos (as we used to say) will get you a cup of coffee. McEnroe had expended so much psychic energy catching up that he didn't have enough left to win. As he admitted afterward, suddenly, when he was even, when it should have been easy, he "got uptight." It was all he could do to hold for 5-all, saving three match points. In his next service game the string ran out. At 15-40 McEnroe sent such a simple backhand far over the baseline that Clerc could only stand and gape in astonishment before he exulted for what he had done for himself and his country.

America got its first point late Saturday afternoon when McEnroe and Peter Fleming, his regular stablemate, won their 10th Davis Cup doubles match in 10 tries. Clerc and Vilas, making a rare appearance as doubles partners, gave the Americans fits before losing 2-6, 10-8, 6-1, 3-6, 6-1. For McEnroe the match was another day at the office. He tried to go into the stands after one obstreperous fan, twice loudly applied a coarse epithet to the entire assemblage, and later picked up a penalty point. These activities served only to postpone the denouement another day.

Vilas was magnificent on Sunday against McEnroe in clinching victory for Argentina. McEnroe had two chances to go up 5-2 and double break in the first set, but he squandered them both and then, remarkably, lost 15 straight games. The obituary read four, love and one. "Da la, Campéon; da la, Campéon" ("Give it to him, Champion"), the crowd sang at the end, rocking the joint.

McEnroe was exhausted, from the heat and from the 10 sets he'd played the two previous days. He needs more work on the practice courts, having been away resting his shoulder, which he injured while defeating Ivan Lendl in Philadelphia six weeks ago. The problem is tendinitis—"just a dull pain," says McEnroe—and he plans to return to playing, next week in Munich. That decision might not be worth fussing over, except for the fact that McEnroe rushed back too soon from an ankle injury at this time last year, and he wasn't the same for months.

The Argentines next must meet Italy—in Italy—in July. Within a few minutes after he sealed the win, Vilas was already saying he wasn't sure whether he'd be available for the tie. As for Clerc, he decided he was injured, so a substitute had to be dispatched to play Mayer in the final meaningless match. The last time the two Leos beat America and McEnroe, in 1980, their continuing disputes were blamed for a desultory loss to Czechoslovakia a few months later. A team is not a marriage. Or anyway, teams, like marriages, can sometimes be annulled. Màs o menos.

PHOTORUSS ADAMSThe Argentine team enjoyed the unflagging support of a boisterous Buenos Aires crowd. TWO PHOTOSRUSS ADAMSThere was an exultant bit of body Latin from Clerc when he finally defeated McEnroe, who got shoulder rubs of DMSO from Ashe. PHOTORUSS ADAMSIn the doubles on Saturday, the rare pairing of El Campéon and Batata made a five-set run at McEnroe and Fleming before losing. PHOTORUSS ADAMSMayer got beat 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 by Vilas in the opening match.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)