Past & Present Champions Series – Guillermo VilasTim Strawn
Guillermo Vilas is to this day, is still considered to be one of, if not THE best Argentinian player to emerge from that country. He attained a career-high ranking of number 2 in the world in 1975, had a won-loss record of 951-297, and won a total of 62 titles. Let’s take a look at his marvelous career through the eyes of famed tennis historian Bud Collins.
Seldom has a player found such empathy beyond his own borders as did Guillermo Vilas, the “Young Bull of the Pampas” during his pro career. As the foremost Latin American male, he is the only Argentine men’s player to be tapped for the Hall of Fame (1991), and the first to win major titles (four of them). The burly 5-foot-11, 175-pound left-hander captivated audiences everywhere with his sportsmanship and sensitivity of a poet – which he is. An appealing head-banded figure of the 1970s and early 1980s, his chestnut hair flowing below his shoulders, Vilas was the epitome of strength and fitness, endurance and patience on the court, outlasting opponents from the baseline with his high-rolling top-spinning strokes – hour after hour, a destructive metronome.
His 1977 was a monumental year in the game’s history: He won 17 of 33 tournaments (tying Rod Laver’s record) on a record of 145 match wins against 14 losses. Among his souvenirs were an Open Era winning streak record of 46 matches and the French and U.S. titles. His streak, begun after Wimbledon, was stopped at Aix-en-Provence in September by Ilie Nastase, who used one of the controversial “spaghetti” rackets that produced weird strokes and bounces. Vilas quit in disgust; such rackets were shortly banned.
Although he reveled in the backcourt, Vilas startled Jimmy Connors with volleying forays that turned the U.S. Open his way, and set off a wild celebration after he’d won the last championship match in the 54-year-old Forest Hills Stadium, 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 6-0. Joyous fans carried him on victory laps within the concrete arena, as though he were a triumphant bullfighter. Though grass seemed anathema to the clay-loving Vilas, he did win the Australian twice (1978 and 1979) and the Masters of 1974 at the same place, Melbourne’s Kooyong. Perhaps he wasn’t a serve-volley smoothie, but his Australian Open record is excellent: Two titles plus a final-round loss to Roscoe Tanner in 1977, and a 16-match streak to a semis loss to Kim Warwick in 1980, 6-7, 6-4, 6-2, 2-6, 6-4.
As Argentina’s foremost Davis Cupper he took great satisfaction in bulwarking three American Zone wins over the U.S. (1977, 1980, 1983). Vilas won all six of his singles on the Buenos Aires loam, including victories over John McEnroe the last two years. In 1981 he led Argentina to the Cup round, a narrow 3-1 defeat by the U.S. in Cincinnati where, in the fifth set, Guillermo actually served for an improbable doubles victory at 7-6, and an unrealized 2-1 lead (with Jose-Luis Clerc) against McEnroe and Peter Fleming. Vilas and Clerc were hardly a team, or doubles players; McEnroe and Fleming were the best. But the match, lost 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 4-6, 11-9, showed Guillermo’s heart and desire on behalf of his homeland.
He was in four French finals, but couldn’t get past the Swedes, losing to Bjorn Borg in 1975 and 1978 and wearing down before 17-year-old Mats Wilander in 1982. It was his last major final in a career that landed him in fifth place among the all-time pro winners headed by Connors: 62 singles titles, even with Borg. His career prize money amounted to $4,904,922. It was in Paris, 1973, that he first gained notice, removing defending champ Andres Gimeno from the French in the second round, 6-2, 5-7, 8-6. Beginning in 1974 he graced the World Top Ten for nine straight years, No. 2 in 1977. He was born Aug. 17, 1952, in Mar del Plata, Argentina, where he grew up.
– bio courtesy of Bud Collins & the ATP
I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Vilas at Wimbledon when he came into the stringing room to drop off some racquets. He was quite the gentleman, taking time to pose for pictures with the crew and hanging around to visit while I strung some racquets for him. Interestingly enough, he told me that he felt safe in the stringing room, where he could get away from the crowds and the press. I think many fans never stop to think or realize just how much players like Vilas have no real refuge from the press or fans, even when they’re in a restricted area like the practice courts at Wimbledon. I’m guessing that’s why he hung around for so long with us behind the admin desk. No one, not the press or anyone else, could just wander into the stringing room without the proper credentials. Regardless of the real reason he hung with us so long, we were all glad to see him stick around. What a nice guy!