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Curry Kirkpatrick
May 29, 1978
Introspective, articulate, exceedingly sensitive, Guillermo Vilas of Argentina is a world apart from compeers Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg
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May 29, 1978

Guillermo Vilas

Introspective, articulate, exceedingly sensitive, Guillermo Vilas of Argentina is a world apart from compeers Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg

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Though Vilas' father, an escribano ( South America's version of the British solicitor), still lives in Mar del Plata, his mother long since moved away to live with Vilas' 22-year-old sister, Marcela, in Buenos Aires. Vilas has his own small penthouse apartment in a Buenos Aires suburb called Olivos, two blocks from where the Argentine presidents resided before the Peronistas were deposed in 1976. Everywhere one looks from Vilas' corner windows, there is water: swimming pools and yacht harbors and rivers. The mammoth Rio de la Plata, formed by the confluence of the Paran� and the Uruguay, laps the banks of the city downtown, past the docks of the historic La Boca—a collection of rainbow-hued tenements comprising what must be the world's most charming slum—before flowing into the Atlantic Ocean 150 miles away. "On a clear day you can see across to Uruguay—little hills, the tips of mountains," says Vilas.

Last year Vilas purchased a condominium in Punta del Este. Moving from Mar del Plata to Punta del Este is analogous to leaving Atlantic City for Southampton. Given $300,000 bonus pool money, you'd move, too. His apartment in Olivos is a study in eclectic taste. In the kitchen there is a lucite phone to which a girl friend often is attached. Arturo Romero, the former law school roommate and a zany who takes acting lessons and thrills everyone with his version of Dustin Hoffman as Ratso Rizzo, lives with Vilas. Tiriac, Tiriac's tall, blonde wife Mikette and their 18-month-old baby have an apartment in the same building.

Van Gogh reproductions, Oriental tapestries, a spaghetti racket, fresh flowers, bongo drums, boxing headgear ( Vilas and Romero often spar for exercise), a couple of trophies and the standard hi-fi-stereo-and-tape-deck monster machines decorate the penthouse. Cassettes are everywhere. One is a radio play-by-play of Vilas' victory over Roscoe Tanner in Washington, D.C.; most are of Chuck Mangione, Chick Corea and all that jazz.

It is rumored that Vilas will soon purchase a huge ranch in the provinces, but for now, during his brief moments in Argentina, this is the stopping-off place. It is where Vilas says he "hangs." Vilas does not even visit Mar del Plata anymore. There is a reason.

"My old house was out in the country," says Vilas. "A quinta, a house with lots of land. Crops, gardens, fruits, vegetables. I used to play outside in the biggest tree in the world. Alone, just me. I didn't need anybody else. I was roaming a lot. Much time to think. The house is changed now. Everything is different. It is part of the town. No more crops. No dirt roads. No land. It is so sad. Once I wanted to show the big tree to a girl who was important to me, but it wasn't big anymore. Everything when you were young was so big, you know. Everything I was dreaming about was different. It was such a great experience. I wanted to relive it. It didn't work. I go back now to look and I get very depressed."

Argentinians are mostly of Spanish or Italian origin and they have strong family ties: one for all, all for one. So, in the old days, did the family Vilas, which is of Basque descent. That feeling is gone now. Vilas' parents were separated for good about the time Guillermo went off to law school. Though he will not speak of it, friends say he was crushed and perhaps he has not recovered. His search for a surrogate family seems to continue. Or perhaps it has ended with Tiriac.

Vilas repeatedly grieves that he must endure long travel, airplanes, restaurant meals, strange beds and hotel rooms. Most of all, hotel rooms. A hotel room is not a home, and this is a man who greatly misses his home.

"We could see this from the beginning," says Chilean player Jaime Fillol, who has known Vilas longer than most. "Guillermo always seemed to need somebody else. He was close to me for a while, then to Manuel Orantes. Nobody lasted more than three or four weeks. He was always looking for something new, for some answers. When either of his parents was on tour with him, he was unsure, uneasy. He was morose and blue. Then he got into Buddhism and Yoga and other Asian philosophies, which are nearly impossible to apply to your life if you were brought up in a Western society, in a Catholic style. Now he lets Tiriac worry about as many things as possible. He seems more settled. But also, more removed from the rest of us."

For a time he and Borg became fast friends—Vilas bought an apartment in the same condominium in Monaco in which Borg lived, the two practiced every day and they ate meals together. But Borg was on the verge of his engagement to Mariana Simonescu, while Vilas was surveying a field of international wonder women, including a "Miss World Beauty," 32-year-old Mirta Massa. As Borg began to defeat Vilas regularly and Tiriac entered the picture, their friendship waned. Yet Borg's dominance in their matches—12 wins to four, lifetime—while attributable in part to his greater consistency, is probably as much a result of Vilas' lack of a killer instinct against a friend. As Tiriac says of his ward, "This guy not capable in life to kill a fly."

The hero worship that surrounds Vilas in Buenos Aires—one evening last winter his arrival at the restaurant Los A�os Locos (The Crazy Years) was accorded a standing ovation, after which a dozen waiters lined up for individual pictures with Vilas for the best part of an hour—is testimony to the depth of feeling Argentinians hold for their Numero Uno de Tenis. But for a better understanding of his national celebrity, it is necessary to travel with Vilas to a place such as Tandil, a hamlet some 2� hours south of Buenos Aires by prop plane. Tandil is in the flatlands, a green and fertile place with roads lined by jacaranda trees and fields full of cattle. Vilas flew there for an exhibition match with Tiriac and the inauguration of a new indoor tennis club; his father. Jose Roque Vilas, met him at the military airport. If 60-year-old Jose Roque could be persuaded to wear a Peter Frampton hairpiece, he and Guillermo could pass for twins. They have the same robust energy, the magnetism, the kind, mannerly ways. And the same eyes. At once soft and piercing—and clear, stark, incredibly blue. Listings of tennis' best-looking men usually begin with Adriano Panatta, the Italian; then comes Vilas.

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