Class of 1991
World No. 2 (1975)
Grand Slam Results
4-time major champion and 4-time finalist
Overall Record: 1146-436
Singles Record: 929-286
Doubles Record: 217-150
Member of the Argentine Davis Cup Team 1970-1974,1976-1984
Overall Record: 57-24
Singles Record: 45-10
Doubles Record: 12-14
In the 1970s, tennis skyrocketed in popularity largely because the game had a plethora of personalities and playing polished styles as disparate as night and day. There was the stoic Björn Borg, the combative Jimmy Connors, the “nasty” Ilie Năstase, cerebral players like Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe, Aussie stars John Newcombe and Ken Rosewall who were transitioning into professional game, and of course the indefatigable John McEnroe, but he ruled the 1980s.
Then there was Guillermo Vilas.
The Argentinian-born Vilas was a deep breath of fresh air in a game that didn’t necessarily need an infusion of oxygen, but the player known as the “Young Bull of the Pampas” was so athletically and intellectually intriguing that he was hard to resist as one of the most popular and celebrated players on tour. His left-handed strokes were graceful and poetic, and for good reason, Vilas was a published author of poetry and as polished a player as tennis has ever witnessed. Vilas wrote screenplays and songs, not your normal diversion for a touring professional. On and off the court, he was a serious, concentrated thinker. Vilas dabbled in music, was a heavy reader, philosophical about tennis and life. Vilas was articulate with the media and publicly had a pristine reputation, largely because he was too busy winning tennis matches. “I am the No.1 sports man in Argentina,” Vilas told Sports Illustrated. “Of course, in Argentina we don’t have too many sportsmen.”
In the Open Era, Vilas was the second player to win more than 900 matches. He captured 62 ATP championships and four major singles titles, the Australian Open in 1978 and 1979 and the French and US Opens, both in 1977. The powerfully built 5-foot-11, 175 pound Vilas wore his hair long and his ever-present colorful headband was as much a trademark of the man as his heavy, looping topspin drives that would force opponents into endless rallies and frustration. Vilas’s patience and focus were unparalleled. When you combine that with supreme athletic fitness, graceful and smooth court movements and heavy balls to return, Vilas was not invincible, but certainly hard to crack. In his career, he reeled off a 46-match all-surface winning streak (ranking third all-time behind two achieved by Borg) and amassed a 57-match winning streak on clay, a surface that had Vilas’s imprint all over it – his first seven ATP tour victories were won on clay and 15 of his first 20 from November 1973 to February 1977. Overall, 644 of his victories were on clay, the all-time record.
Hailing from Mar de Plata, one of Argentina’s largest resort cities, Vilas arrived on the professional scene in 1970, two years after the Open Era. He was a finalist at the 1975 French Open (6-2, 6-3, 6-4 loss to Borg), and a semifinalist at the 1975 and 1976 U.S. Open. When the calendar rolled into 1977, Vilas embarked on his finest, and most remarkable year on tour, perhaps not coincidentally, since that was the year his closest friend Ion Țiriac became his coach. What Țiriac brought to the table was threefold: improved focus, an enhanced serve, and a willingness to attack the net more often. Vilas compiled a 145-14 record, won 17 of 33 ATP singles championships, was a finalist at the Australian Open, won the French and U.S. Opens and captured his third Grand Prix (1974, 1975, 1977). He set all-time records for most titles (17) and wins (145) and amassed his all-court and clay court winning streaks.
The 1977 season began with a No. 1 seeding at the Australian Open and an eventual final against No. 2 Roscoe Tanner, who had defeated Rosewall in the semifinals, 6-1 in the fourth. The hard-charging serve-and-volleyer Tanner, who made his mark with a rocket serve, pinned a tough 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 loss on Vilas. At the 1977 French Open, Vilas was in pristine form, however, winning every match except his second rounder against Chilean Belus Prajoux in straight sets. Come the final, the third seeded Vilas crushed No. 5 seed Brian Gottfried, 6-0, 6-3, 6-0, to win his first major. In 1978, Vilas made a deep run towards winning a second straight French Open, but the maestro Borg was just about to start his run of four straight championships (1978-81) and disposed of Vilas, 6-1, 6-1, 6-3. He had one last major final in his 19-year career on tour, also at the French in 1982. Swedish mastery continued, as unseeded Mats Wilander took the title in four sets, upsetting the No. 3 seed Vilas, 1-6, 7-6, 6-0, 6-4.
Winning the 1977 U.S. Open over Jimmy Connors at the last championship held at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills was Vilas’s greatest triumph on tour. In a tension-filled 3 ½ hour final, Vilas dramatically altered his playing strategy. Instead of pounding away from the baseline with his looping, heavy topspin forehand drives, he took to net frequently, and the tactic had Connors on his heels. After dropping the first set 6-2, Vilas regrouped and re-strategized, putting pressure on Connors by disrupting his natural driving passing shot he liked to take high and drill. Vilas approached the net by placing softly stroked sliced shots into the center of the court that, in this match, were problematic for Connors. Vilas won the next three sets, 6-3, 7-6, 6-0; the last set was over in a blur, and eight minutes after the match, Vilas was hoisted atop the shoulders of a frenetic crowd that relished in his improbable victory. He concluded the 1977 season 21-2 in major competition and peaked at No.2 in the world rankings behind Connors, though it was widely considered he was the real World No. 1. He was ranked among the Top 10 nine times.
Vilas played in an era where the racquets couldn’t decide a match outcome as they do today. Vilas used his racquet like an artist employs a paintbrush, and even on hard courts where timing needs an adjustment, Vilas was skillful imprecator. In his two Australian Open triumphs, neither one of his opponents were household names, but each counterpart played well enough to compete for a major championship, and Vilas disposed of both with similar aplomb. In 1978 he defeated Aussie John Marks, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3. The following year he ousted American John Sadri, 7-6, 6-3, 6-2.
Although grass was never his favored surface (Vilas was 15-11 at Wimbledon and a quarterfinalist twice in 1975 and 1976), he was more than capable of playing on the surface. He won the 1974 year-end Championship in Melbourne on grass over Năstase, 7-6, 6-2, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4. From 1970 to 1984, Vilas played Davis Cup for Argentina, compiling an impressive 45-10 record in singles. The team earned three huge American Zone wins over the proverbial favorite U.S. team in 1977, 1980 and 1983. Vilas went 6-0 in singles, defeating McEnroe the last two years. In 1981, the Vilas-led Argentina team to the 1981 final against the U.S.
In 2005 TENNIS Magazine ranked Vilas 24th on its list of the 40 Greatest Players of the Tennis Open Era. He was pictured on the October 1982 cover, poised to unleash a backhand with the cover story titled, “Guillermo Vilas: How He’s Found A Tennis Life.”
Australian Open: W 1978, 1979
French Open: W 1977
Wimbledon: QF 1975, 1976
US Open: W 1977