Guillermo Vilas - "I was tormented by the idea that it was all a dream"
The first South American to win Roland-Garros, in 1977, Guillermo Vilas was a trailblazer. One of the most iconic tennis players of the 70s, a leftie with a topspin-heavy forehand and a tireless engine, he heralded a veritable revolution on the red dust together with Bjorn Borg. Many of his records on the surface stood the test of time, only being broken by one Rafael Nadal, who shares many parallels with the Argentine, including certain stylistic similarities and a refusal to settle for success solely as a dirt-baller. A sensitive soul despite his regular steamrollering of his opponents (he has even published collections of poetry), the 49-time clay-court titlist opened up to us about his Roland-Garros triumph and his career in general in this forthright interview.
His first steps in tennis
"As a kid, like everyone in Argentina, I was football-mad – beach soccer was my favourite! But I'm fortunate to come from a pretty well-off family and my dad was the president of the Mar del Plata Yacht Club, who had their own tennis courts. One day, he dragged me along with him to a team match. I walked into the club and my mind was blown: I saw these fantastically dressed guys using English words – "game", "set" – and admiring a man out on court by the name of [savouring each syllable] Ash-ley Coo-per [a top-class Australian player who won a Small Slam in 1958]. I was immediately smitten with that classy atmosphere, the way people applauded knowingly… Playing football with my mates was nice enough, but competitive action wasn't a barrel of laughs: when a player would make a mistake, the spectators would respond by insulting all the female members of his family. I loved football and being a goalkeeper, but I wasn't cut out for playing at a stadium: if someone says something about my mum, I flip out! So I told my dad I wanted to play tennis; we went off and bought my first racquet, which was blue, and I started playing in our garage day and night, for up to eight hours a day."
"My dad found a teacher, the Rosario-based Felipe Locicero, who'd already produced a fair few good players. He made him come to Mar del Plata, enabling him to quit his other job as a hairdresser and become a full-time coach. Felipe made me the player I was. He taught a new brand of tennis, with the famous topspin which was gaining in popularity. In his eyes, topspin was the future and he showed me photos of players' strokes so that I could imitate them – we didn't yet have television back then! He wasn't just my teacher: he was my best friend. I'd wake him up at 07:00 in the morning, make him a cup of tea, and then we'd look over the pictures thousands of times. We dissected the swing based on those images. He'd always choose topspin-heavy shots: Manolo Santana's forehand, Nicola Pietrangeli's backhand. There was some Rod Laver too, of course: he was the sport's marquee player at the time. As a fellow leftie, I told Felipe that I wanted Laver's left arm. 'OK, but you've got to volley single-handedly, and you'll have to train for hours on end,' he replied. I did just that, and that's how I ended up with such a hulking left arm of my own. At the end of the day, you always take your cue from someone!"
"We worked on putting topspin on all my strokes: the guys we modelled my game on could only do so for one or two shots, not for their whole repertoire. All the work I put in – on my forehand, backhand, volleys and lobs – gave me the edge over [most of] the rest, although little was I to know that halfway across the world in Europe, there was a Swede of my age who had adopted the same approach, in his case as a result of a childhood playing ping-pong and because it tallied with his natural movements! When we broke through, Björn Borg and I had a huge head start on the other players, including our peers. In particular, they couldn't hit through high balls: if you moonballed them, they'd retreat further and further, not knowing what to do with the ball. I can't tell you how many players complained of a sore shoulder after matches against us!"
Highlights - Vilas vs Gottfried, Roland-Garros 1977 final
His Roland-Garros love affair
"I won my first Grand Slam match at Roland-Garros in 1972, when I was 19. I hadn't made much of an impression over the preceding clay season but I cheekily went to Paris to try my luck. I got myself introduced to Benny Berthet [a kingpin behind the scenes at Roland-Garros and the captain of the French Davis Cup team] to ask him whether he had any spots left in qualifying. He didn't know anything about me, obviously. He asked me what my credentials were. I told him that I'd held match point against Cliff Richey in Buenos Aires a few months earlier. 'That's not much to write home about,' he retorted. "Being match point up isn't the same as winning." He was right, it wasn't much, but after making me wait for four days, he gave me my chance. And I seized it: I won my qualifying match against an accomplished pro, Kim Warwick, 6-3, 6-3, and then beat No.5 seed Bob Hewitt in five sets in the main draw. It was on what's now Court No.3. That marked my arrival in the big time."
"In 1974, I had my first great season, winning the end-of-year Masters Grand Prix by overcoming Ilie Nastase in the final – on grass! Then, in 1975, I reached my first Roland-Garros final, losing to Borg. We'd started to sweep up on clay… Though there was a brief interlude in 1976: that year they decided to go with Tretorns as the official tournament balls. Tretorns were a nightmare for topspinners, because they didn't take spin. So Adriano Panatta, with his drop shots and serve-volleying, had a field day. Not even Borg could do anything about it."
"I'd always dreamt of winning Roland-Garros, and I'd wake up in the middle of the night with my heart racing, convinced I'd dreamt it all"
"I started working with Ion Tiriac, who'd previously coached the likes of Ilie Nastase, Manuel Orantes and Panatta. I'd seen him in action and knew he could help me. I told him that I was afraid. I admitted it. I was winning a lot of smaller tournaments but on the big stage, I was playing full of fear. I was freezing. With my game, I had the ingredients to win the big events, but I had a mental block. Before we put pen to paper, I made Ion promise me that I'd win a Grand Slam. He did so, telling me, 'You're going to do what I say and win.' That was at the beginning of 1977. A few months later I won Roland-Garros, and then the US Open followed. That was the most incredible year of my life: I captured two Grand Slam titles, made the final of a third in Australia, and won 16 tournaments in total and 134 matches, which is an Open Era record for a single season, including 46 in a row, another record."
"I handed out loads of bagels at Roland-Garros that year, and the final against Brian Gottfried was the shortest ever [6-0, 6-3, 6-0]! When the umpire said 'Game, set and match', it all sunk in. I turned towards Ion and said, 'It's over, I did it!' It had taken a long time, it'd been a slow, uphill struggle, but it'd happened. I'd agonised so much over winning a Grand Slam. I'd spent all those years in the shadow of Borg, for whom everything came much easier than it did for me. I finally cracked it at Roland-Garros that year. I didn't sleep properly for a month afterwards! I was tormented by the idea that it was all a dream. I'd always dreamt of winning Roland-Garros, and I'd wake up in the middle of the night with my heart racing, convinced I'd dreamt it all."
Roland-Garros 1977 champion: Guillermo Vilas!
His relationship with Borg
"Borg and I were friends. In the early days, we often used to play doubles together. In 1975, we even reached the Roland-Garros semi-finals, but we decided to pull out because we'd both qualified for the singles semis – and we ended up facing off in the final. It was a similar story the following year at Wimbledon, where we withdrew in the fourth round because we were set to clash in the quarter-finals in singles. After that we stopped playing together – and we broadly speaking stopped playing doubles entirely – because it was getting too awkward being doubles partners and rivals in singles. It's funny, because Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova went through the exact same thing at the same time."
"During practice, we'd spend hours hitting angled cross-court shots, aiming for the edge of the service box. The idea was to create sharp angles and master the technique for imparting topspin on the ball – lest anyone forget, we played with wooden racquets, so control was a challenge. We had a little game we'd play when we teamed up in doubles: we'd try to make our opponents drop their racquets when they were straining to return one of our shots. Whichever of us succeeded in doing so fewer times would buy the other dinner afterwards. One year at Roland-Garros, a Russian whose name escapes me [Anatoli Volkov or Teimuraz Kakoulia in 1976] dropped his racquet 20 times – that's how much he struggled with our topspin!"
"At the beginning, Bjorn and I used to chat a lot. One year, in Tokyo, we noted how his biggest strength was my weakness and vice versa: his specialty was the topspin forehand, whereas mine was the backhand. And we both had trouble on the other wing. We shared our secrets with one another. That's how I improved my forehand and he honed his cross-court backhand. But the difference was that while it took me months to add strokes to my game, he could absorb anything in half an hour. Borg was a sponge: he soaked up other players' strong points and made them his own – or found the way to nullify them. He didn't say a lot, but he understood everything right away. Borg was a finely crafted machine, whereas I was a grafter, a scrapper. I had to work really hard to incorporate new things."
"The first time I laid eyes on "Rafa", I saw myself in him"
"That's also why it became increasingly difficult to spend time or practise together. For me, in particular, it was like coming up against a sort of mirror; we had the same game, except I was a little more powerful, while he was far faster. That small advantage gave him the clear upper hand in our meetings. So we kept our distance for the rest of our careers, before picking up where we'd left off right away afterwards. I remember being at his wedding and him asking me, 'Why did we ever drift apart?' I knew the answer all too well!"
"It got to the stage that Tiriac and I went to the other extreme, almost always training in total privacy. During tournaments, we'd keep to ourselves. I'd hardly speak with the other players. But when my involvement at the event was over, I'd pull down the walls I'd put up and become highly sociable again."
"Just like we, in a sense, left our predecessors behind, the next generation arrived with a style of play that held the key against our game. Granted, it was the end of the wooden-racquets era, but there was also a natural evolution; after all, players always develop in opposition to the prevailing trends. We had the beating of our elders, and the players who emerged on the scene afterwards were a match for our brand of tennis: [Ivan] Lendl and [Boris] Becker through power, [John] McEnroe and [Stefan] Edberg through their attacking game. They were, in turn, superseded by counterpunchers like Agassi and Courier. Sampras, meanwhile, rose above the rest because he combined both attacking quality in the forecourt and power from the baseline."
"If I had to pick one current player I identify with, it'd be Rafael Nadal. The first time I laid eyes on 'Rafa', I saw myself in him. Because of his game, obviously – like mine, it's based on topspin and great court coverage – but also because of his work ethic. There are no secrets to success or shortcuts to perfection: you've got to spend hour upon hour out on court, doing the same things over and over. Practice makes perfect."
Guillermo Vilas is one of the four South Americans who won Roland-Garros, with Andres Gomez (Ecuador, 1990), Gustavo Kuerten (Brazil, 1997, 2000 and 2001) and Gaston Gaudio (Argentina, 2004).