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Vilas' strength is a source of wonderment to his fellow pros. Ashe says he was practicing with Tiriac and Vilas in Australia once and had to stop out of sheer exhaustion. "Guillermo trains like nobody I've ever seen," says Ashe. "Tiriac trampolines those balls to the corners and yells 'Run. run, run,' and Vilas runs. He's not naturally gifted, you know. The kid is such a brute, he just muscles his way to the ball."
Finally, in 1977 came the breakthrough, with his victories in the French Open, the U.S. Open and his Grand Prix records. But some players consider Vilas' most impressive feat last year to be a loss. That was at Aix-en-Provence in October when Vilas defaulted and walked off the court, hopelessly behind 2-6, 5-7 to Nastase and the infamous spaghetti racket.
The ILTF had banned the use of the racket, the prohibition to take effect the day after the tournament ended. Nastase used it to drop and lob and run Vilas into the dusty clay as the crowd chanted, "Take the racket off! Take the racket off!" Vilas had just completed a five-set semifinal against another spaghetti-wielder, Patrick Deblicker, which did not exactly help prepare him for Nastase.
" Nastase with his top spin off the spaghetti racket is impossible to play against unless you have the racket yourself," says Gene Mayer, a touring pro. "Guillermo worked his tail off. I've never seen him try harder. Those two sets were like seven. It's a miracle—a monument to his strength—that he got those five games in the second set. Only he could get five. As far as the players are concerned that wasn't a loss. Vilas' clay-court streak was still alive."
Ah yes. The Streak. Since pro tennis entered the Open era 10 years ago, no man has done what Vilas did on clay in 1977. During one stretch he won 57 consecutive clay-court matches as he swept nine tournaments. Between his walkout on Nastase and his default at the end of the year to Eddie Dibbs in the round-robin Masters at Madison Square Garden. Vilas won another 30 matches and six more tournaments in a row. After he lost to Billy Martin on grass at Wimbledon. Vilas went the rest of the year without losing (except by default) until Borg caught him in the Masters semis. Vilas' match record for the season was 139-14.
"I did not do this by changing any stroke," says Tiriac. What Tiriac did do was alter Vilas' footwork on serve (bringing his left foot parallel to the right, shortening his stride) to add power and length to his flat deliveries. Also, Tiriac introduced Vilas to the backhand slice. He urged him to be aggressive, to come to the net more than once a week. He taught him a lexicon of hand signals that now flow continually between the two men during matches. Most important, Tiriac showed Vilas how to think and concentrate and hang in and forget what Gandhi and those other peace freaks wrote. He wanted Vilas gaucho-tough in those crucial moments that determine championships.
"I want this guy to keep head and not become mechanical," says Tiriac. "I want to make him sure of his ability. You must realize guy only started volleying last year. He still does not know how. I must attack to beat Connors and Borg. I know this. Connors I handle. But Borg is so natural, very patient guy. He out-steady everybody, not just Vilas. I don't give a hell if Borg beat me 10 more times straight. I just want to play him right. Attack. And I will. I am far away from capabilities in every part of game. I need year and half, two years. If anybody beat Vilas then, I shake person's hand and say you are phenomenon."
All of Tiriac's work—and Vilas' sweat—paid off in those glorious two weeks of Paris a year ago when the Argentinian blasted his top-spin artillery, not to mention all those "gutless" and "no heart" labels, past a bewildered Brian Gottfried to win the French final 6-0, 6-3, 6-0. "I cannot explain how I feel about this first big one," Vilas says. "It was like breaking a giant piece of glass that was hanging over my head. I was full, like plenitude. It was like I felt maybe I would never win again, but I could look back and say, 'I won there' and, 'I was a great player that one time.'
"I don't want to sound like Muhammad Ali. I know it is very complicated to pick No. 1. But I think No. 1 is the player who played the best for the whole year. Maybe it's not the best player. Maybe I'm not the best. But I played the best for the longest time."
And, of course, he did. When Vilas beat Connors at Forest Hills, it was a shocking enough upset. But his 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 victory in the rematch at Madison Square Garden in the Masters was even more impressive. Here were Jimbo's conditions—an indoor match, a revenge motive, a faster Supreme Court surface, smoke, beer, hot dogs, gripping tension, dazzling celebrities and a record 18,590 house screaming for blood—and here was Vilas darting his eyes from Connors to Tiriac and back; here he was moving his lips and thinking aloud; here he was firing his bullets and dodging the other guy's in return right up to the final moment. Neither seemed even to blink. Ultimately, Vilas outfought the street fighter on his own mean streets.