Relax, America, it's not as if it never happened before. If Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia could all do it within the last 11 years, why should it come as a surprise that Argentina, led by Guillermo Vilas, bounced the U.S. out of the Davis Cup, 1977? When you have to travel 6,000 miles on short notice and play on the other guy's turf—a soft red clay he grew up on—before a screaming, drum-beating crowd that makes you feel like Illinois at Ohio State, even a Ricardo Cano can begin to look like Bill Tilden.
The coup de gr�ce came on Sunday when Vilas beat Dick Stockton in four sets to make it 3-1 Argentina, but the drum rolls started on Friday, when Cano joined Edison Mandarino, Miguel Olvera, Jairo Velasco and Ivan Molina, some of the giant killers who have turned South America into a graveyard for U.S. cup teams. Cano is 25, stocky and ranked 61st on the world list. In other words, beatable. But not Friday at the Buenos Aires Lawn—that's right, lawn—Tennis Club. Not with his wife, mother, father and two brothers joining a crowd of 5,500 to chant "Cano, Cano, Cano" every time Ricardo did something splendid. "Silencio, por favor," called the umpire repeatedly, wasting his breath.
The U.S. team had figured that Cano was the key to victory. Beat him twice, win the doubles and it wouldn't matter how gloriously Vilas performed. Captain Tony Trabert was pleased with the draw—Stockton against what figured to be a nervous Cano in the opening match, then Brian Gottfried, hot all year, against Vilas, whom he had defeated in their last two meetings. Go to bed Friday night leading 2-0. Sweet dreams.
Cano was indeed nervous. "At the start, the middle and the end," he said later. Stockton's first serve was an ace. He won the game at love. He broke Cano's serve and won his own again. After three games Cano had won two points. The drum in the bleachers was silent. Cano won a game, giving the crowd hope, but Stockton was hitting hard, and he closed out the first set 6-3. It hadn't taken long. Everything was going to plan.
Remarkably, that was the only set the U.S. was to win all day. Cano began to hit shots that had the crowd yelling, "Toque, toque" meaning good touch. This was his home—slow clay—and he began to respond to the challenge.
The crowd didn't know it, Cano didn't know it, but Stockton was in pain. In the third game of the second set he injured his back, a chronic problem for him. He wears a brace, and when he volunteered to play in place of Harold Solomon, who had to withdraw just before the competition, he warned that his back might act up.
Cano won the second set 6-4. In the middle of it he swept eight straight points that had everyone in the stadium clapping to the beat of the drum. "Silencio, por favor." The third set seesawed until Stockton led 5-4, serving. Cano ripped through four straight points, broke him at love and won 8-6. Cano won the fourth set 6-4, the match ending in frenzy with fans flooding the courts and Cano heading for the dressing room.
It was easily the most important win of his life. Friends pushed through to shake his hand, and presently his wife Claudia appeared at the edge of the crowd. Ricardo Cano may have been 61st on the world list, but in Buenos Aires at that moment he was n�mero uno. Well, make it dos. For even as Claudia was giving him a hug, a roar from the stadium crowd above announced that Vilas had entered the arena.
In Argentina 24-year-old Guillermo Vilas is, with the possible exceptions of Carlos Monzon, the middleweight champion, and Jorge Luis Borges, the writer, the most famous person in the country. Willie, they call him. Swarthy, muscular, thick-chested, his long hair kept in place by a headband, he is Argentine tennis.
Vilas had had a hard time warming up. A swarm of kids surrounded him as he was hitting on an outside court, threatening to take his racket, his headband, finally forcing him to flee. Inside the stadium he was more secure. If center court in Buenos Aires is home for Cano, it is heaven for Vilas. Going into the match he had not lost in singles there since 1973—some 30 victories in a row.