Guillermo became one of the most popular names in Latin America following the grand success of Vilas on the Tennis Tour. Guillermo Coria and Canas were both named after him. Bjorn Borg could never correctly pronounce his first name. That did not stop them from becoming good friends. They used to eat out and practice together, their work ethics and love for yogurt bound them. Their long flowing hair, Borg’s blonde to Vilas’ dark, were kept fastened behind headbands. While the Swede’s bands were more business-like, the Argentine sported coloured, hippy ones. But both of them were tough, intense workhorses- the ice man and the iron man, slaves to the sport, incredibly fit and devilishly disciplined- far away from the freedom which the hippies sought. Borg escaped early into it with his premature retirement at the age of 26, Vilas had to wait till Alzheimer struck.
There is no reason why Guillermo Vilas’s sporting life should be viewed through the tragic lens as the tone of the documentary suggests. Considered as the third greatest Clay court player after Rafa and Borg, Vilas reached four French Open finals- winning it in 1977 by beating Brian Gottfried, and losing finals to Borg (1975,78) and Wilander (1982). He also won a US Open on Green Clay at Forest Hills in 1977 by defeating Jimmy Connors. “Grass is for cows”, he used to say, yet managed to play three Australian Open finals- losing to Roscoe Tenner in 1977, but winning it in 1978 and 1979. He won four Grand Slams, one year-end Masters, nine Grand Prix Super Series and a total of 62 ATP tour titles. His 46 tour wins streak, achieved in 1977, is still a record. Although is it is dubbed as an all-court record, all of these 46 wins came on clay. After he retired from a controversial match against Ille Nastase, who wielded a Spaghetti Racket (soon after declared illegal), Vilas further went onto win 28 more matches, 23 on clay and five more on hard courts. Due to the same retirement was broken his clay court winning streak of 53 matches, a summit which was later surpassed by Rafa (who extended it to 81!).
Long before Del Potro arrived on the scene and started receiving wild support everywhere by the Argentine crowds passionately singing Ole! Ole!, Guillermo Vilas had captured the imagination of Latin Americans with his exploits. It was the age of F1 driver Carlos Reutemann, great middleweight boxer Carlos Monzon and footballer Mario Kempes, who had won the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball as Argentina lifted the World Cup in 1978. But Vilas’ style of play in which he was not afraid to lose, his limbs of steel, coloured bandanas and flowing long hair turned him into a heartthrob, someone who developed and started executing the tweener or the “Gran Willy” shot (named after him). He loved to listen to the music of Jimi Hendrix, and to the philosophical and spiritual expositions of Jiddu Krishnamurthy. Guillermo playing throughout the year, like a workhorse, with his burly, moustachioed Romanian coach Ion Tiriac watching, usually with a cigarette between his fingers, was a common sight between 1975 and 1983.
The 1977 Season was obviously Guillermo Vilas’ season – 16 titles, 2 Slams, 3 Slam finals, a record of 130-15 and wins in 72 of the last 73 matches. Although many prestigious tennis magazines (like the World Tennis) listed him as World Number One, the ATP rated him as Number Two behind Jimmy Connors. This caused a huge controversy, but the demons soon fell into a long sleep, until they were awakened by an intrepid Argentine tennis journalist, Eduardo Puppo in mid 2000s.
Eduardo began checking up on score sheets, tournament records and Vilas’ tapes and journals, and initially focussed on the 1977 season. To make sense of the huge data, he sought help from a Romanian software engineer and tennis enthusiast, Marian Ciulpan. Gradually they realized that there were computer calculation errors, and inefficiencies in how the ATP arrived at the rankings. The duo reworked 280 weeks of rankings between 1973 and 1978. As per the ATP they had published 128 rankings out of these 280, meaning that the remaining 152 weeks should have had empty positions. But that was not the case. For example, Connors had been given 39 unpublished weeks along with 13 published ones in 1975. Guillermo had reached the peak on September 22, 1977, and had remained there for five weeks. Then again, he scaled the summit in January 1976 for two more weeks. The “empty weeks” had been miscalculated.
But the detailed analysis, running into 1200-odd pages, failed to convince the ATP. They could not refute the data, of course, but indulged in subtle word play, saying that history could not be rewritten, and all that. Perhaps they (wrongly) feared that this might open a can of worms. Eduardo and Vilas (through his lawyer) have kept up the fight. In 2019, ATP finally refused to change the records for the third time, and considered the matter closed at their end. The matter is now under litigation.
That history cannot be rewritten is a very thin defence. The great Australian female player, Evonne Goolagong ( four AO, two Wimbledon and one French Open titles) was ranked Numero Uno for two weeks in 1976, but this was not reported then because incomplete data had been used to calculate rankings. The mistake was owned up by WTA in 2007, and Goolagong was recognized as a legitimate Number One. Vilas’ case is exactly similar, yet the ATP officials have chosen to bury their heads in sand. This is Sports Bureaucracy at its very worst!
Diego Maradona drew all the right lessons from the unfairness meted out to Vilas. The Hand of God was required if the Third World was to make its mark. Perhaps His Hand would rise someday, and force ATP into giving Guillermo Vilas his due. Until then, Willy remains the Unofficial World Number One in people’s hearts.
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