I wanted to show my people that I'm really Argentine. It was very important, especially at this time, to win for my country. This is one of the very few times I think I'm a member of the team.
—Jose-Luis Clerc, after beating John McEnroe
All those people you meet in Davis Cup tell you you have to win because you're representing your country. People talk about a team. But when you get out there, you're all alone between four lines, with only the ball. Then it's just you. A team is not a marriage.
—Guillermo Vilas, after beating McEnroe.
The parlay for 1983 is the 76ers and Argentina. It looks as if it might be their year. For last week, upon the red ground-brick courts of the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club, where there's no lawn and American Davis Cup teams invariably crumble into bad memories, Clerc and Vilas whipped McEnroe and his compatriot, Gene Mayer, in the first round of this year's competition. The U.S. had won the Cup in four of the last six years and two years running. Not coincidentally, the two Yankee defeats in that span had come in Buenos Aires.
What a week it was in Argentina. When was the last time any tie featured four players ranked among the Top 10 in the world? When was the last time America was the underdog in any tennis competition? When was the last time the controversy swirled not about the U.S. but the opposition? La Prensa of Argentina may have called McEnroe El Irascible, but Clerc and Vilas went through a minuet that rivaled the best of Steinbrenner and Martin. For Argentina the victory was the first glimmer of a national comeback, the first international event of any consequence held in the country since war and death and generals joined to shut out the light a year ago.
Perhaps no tennis team ever embodied so much of the character of the nation it represented as Argentina's did. There's an old joke in Buenos Aires that God Himself was so chagrined when He realized how much He had bestowed upon Argentina that the only way He could even things up for the rest of the world was to make Argentines. Certainly Argentina is as close as we come to a Babel these days. Many of its denizens seem to be confused about their identity, thinking first of themselves not as Argentines but as products of a foreign heritage. At a dinner party last week, a rancher's wife explained the situation succinctly: "The trouble with Argentine men is that they all want to dress like the British, think like the Italians and act like Americans."
Ah yes, and both Vilas and Clerc have a good deal of French blood. Moreover (astrologer's delight?), they were born six years but only one calendar day apart—in August, no less—two displaced Gallic Leos who would rule the same crowded den. In the past, each barely acknowledged the existence of the other, except when backbiting like fishwives or trying, at the other's expense, to squeeze the national tennis federation out of a few more hundred million pesos, of which there are now 80,000 to the dollar.
Less than a week before the tie, Vilas, the older of the two at 30, hadn't decided whether he would play against the U.S. Last year Clerc, in protest against Vilas' getting the lion's share of the Argentine team's receipts from Davis Cup play, skipped the first round, against France. His absence cost Argentina the tie. It also cost the country a seeded position for 1983, which helps explain why the world's two best teams ended up squaring off in the opening round.
There had been speculation that Argentina would consent to play in the States rather than at home because of residual anti-American feeling from the Falklands/Malvinas war. That conflict may have been the only thing—save futbol—that has ever truly united the nation. However, the Argentines were so disillusioned upon discovering how the junta had conducted the war that they quickly redirected their antipathy from America and England to their own government. The crowds at the Lawn Tennis Club were partisan but warm, and the officiating was scrupulously fair. "You see," says an American businessman who was tossed in jail during the war, "one of the greatest gifts of the Argentines is a short memory." Obviously, he should know.
An expression often heard in Argentina is más o menos (literally, "more or less," but implying, "things could be better, things could be worse"). The phrase sums up local attitudes toward war and inflation, debts and high interest rates, generals and opportunists, the fact that 6,000 enemies of the junta have been missing since the mid-1970s, steaks and wine. The restaurants are jammed, the beaches packed, the shopping mall along the Avenida de Florida thronged, the tennis matches sold out. Business as usual. The kids were going back to school Monday after their summer vacation, and insiders were buying up black market U.S. dollars in anticipation of a new devaluation. Argentina is testament to the late-20th-century frame of mind: a determination to have our cake and eat it too. Más o menos.
Clerc's problem is that Vilas is far more popular among their countrymen than he is. Argentines feel that Clerc has somehow tarnished the image of their original campéon. Vilas has won four Grand Slam titles, and he makes the gossip columns the world over for dating beauty queens and princess beauties. (The players on tour, not so impressed, sometimes call Vilas "Prince," as in, "Hey, Prince, pass the salt.") Clerc is taller than El Campéon, better looking, better built, more agreeable and at times has been ranked higher. But he never has caught on. Vilas has heart, a corazón as big as all outdoors. Clerc, the people say, merely possesses talent, a fringe commodity in a land where inflation sprints at 500% per annum. Vilas looks as if he were playing up through the dirt, his shoes, socks, even his knees damn near covered with red grime. Clerc wears a dainty gold wristwatch even on the court. He walks the streets of Buenos Aires virtually unnoticed by the people Vilas casually calls "my public." You know what Clerc's nickname is? Batata. That means "sweet potato."