So Vilas left
school forever. In 1973 he began his voyages around the tennis globe. The
following summer there arrived on the American clay circuit a powerful,
lefthanded, full-fledged new star and anomaly: a flashing-eyed, head-banded
South American who didn't moan and complain at line calls, didn't
temperamentally quit at the slightest hint of trouble and didn't seem ever to
Vilas had played
poorly on the WCT winter-spring tour that season, but in July he had won the
Swiss and Dutch Opens and then in the U.S. reached the finals at Washington. In
August he won Louisville and made it to the quarters at Indianapolis. He
defeated Borg, Tom Okker and Orantes to win Toronto before reaching the
semifinals in the U.S. Pro at Brookline. In seven weeks his record was 34-3 and
he had earned $70,000. In short order he then won eight Grand Prix titles and
jumped from No. 35 on the money list to No. 1.
The press did not
know what to make of this scraggly-haired strongman who wore sash belts, POW
bracelets and macaroni necklaces while quoting Neruda and Krishnamurti, whoever
"I am the No.
1 sportsman in Argentina," Vilas told everybody. "Of course in
Argentina we don't have many sportsmen." But the Argentine magazine Gente
soon abandoned its cover-girl format to feature Vilas, and a taped tennis
match—Vilas vs. Fillol—was shown on Buenos Aires television for the first
At the end of
1974 Vilas pulled off the upset of the decade when he won the Masters on grass
in Melbourne, sometimes playing in 125� heat as he ripped through John
Newcombe, Onny Parun, Borg, Raul Ramirez and Nastase. In 1975 Vilas beat a
fading Rod Laver at Boston by 6-3, 6-4. after which Laver said, "I saw a
great player out there."
clippings made Vilas' countrymen expect too much. Because his baseline game had
been born on red dirt, he was vulnerable to an aggressive charger, and he was
still beset by familial problems. Vilas kept winning all his matches—except the
In 1974, Rome
semifinals: Vilas had Borg put away, but lost. In 1975, Rome semis: he was far
ahead of Orantes, but lost again. In 1975, Paris finals: Vilas was wiped out by
Borg. In 1975, U.S. Pro finals: wiped out by Borg. In 1975, U.S. Open
semifinals: having given up only 18 games in 12 sets at Forest Hills, Vilas led
Orantes 2-1 in sets and 5-0 in games and had five match points. He lost all of
them and the match, 4-6, in the fifth set.
In 1976, Rome
finals: Vilas blew a one-set lead to lose to Panatta. In 1976, Paris
semifinals: Vilas blew a bigger lead to lose to Harold Solomon. In 1976, Forest
Hills semifinals: blown out by Connors. In 1976, Masters semis: lost 6-8 in the
fifth to Wojtek Fibak. In early 1977. Australian Open: wiped out by Tanner.
embarrassing loss to Orantes at Forest Hills in 1975, Vilas turned to Tiriac.
For all his guff and bluster and Count Dracula reputation, behind Tiriac's
hirsute countenance is one of the game's most perceptive minds. Tiriac never
got enough credit when he was honing Nastase's brilliance into marketable
victories, and he finally wearied of Nastase's selfishness. In Vilas he had a
lesser talent but a more pliable student.
It took time.
"For Nastase, tennis was all a game, all play," says Tiriac. "For
Vilas, it is all work." Vilas worked hard, four, five, six hours a day of
running and exercises and hitting balls. "I make him run when he very
tired," says Tiriac. "I make him stretch muscles when he very cold.
Vilas strong? I play ice hockey. I think I am strong. If we arm-wrestle, this
guy snap my arm off quick. Laver strong? This guy snap Laver in two