As we bid adieu to Roland Garros, we look back at one of the greatest French Open runs of all time—in one of the most dominant single seasons of all time.
Guillermo Vilas pawed at the clay with his white Puma sneakers as he waited for his opponent to serve. The 24-year-old native of Argentina, who was known as the game’s most soulful philosopher, looked more pensive than ever as he stared at the baseline. At long last, his moment had arrived.
The year was 1977 and the place was Roland Garros. Vilas was playing Brian Gottfried in the French Open final and, for the first time at a Grand Slam event, he had reached championship point.
Sporting a small tree trunk for a left arm, the Young Bull of the Pampas had bludgeoned his way through the draw, losing only one set, and he had surrendered just three games to Gottfried. One more point and Vilas would win the most lopsided men’s singles final in French Open history.
Still, while he was ahead 5–0 and had reached championship point, Vilas had reason to be nervous. Two years earlier, in the semifinals at the U.S. Open, he had led Manuel Orantes, 5–0, 40–0—triple match point—in the fourth set before losing in five. But that was just the most infamous of his late-round defeats. Losses in the finals at the French Open, the Italian Open, the Australian Open and the U.S. Pro Championships had led the Argentine press to dub Vilas the “Eternal Second.”
As Gottfried trudged to the line, Vilas’ eyes darted toward his coach, Ion Tiriac. The glowering Transylvanian with the bushy beard, whose every twitch was suspected of being a signal to Vilas, had spent the last year steering his student, with a Svengali’s assurance, toward this moment.
“In 1976, I prepared to try to win my first Grand Slam,” Vilas recalls today. “I thought of all the details, but after three or four months I realized...that I could have brilliant ideas on the court, but I wouldn’t go beyond without a strategist.
“The next year, we already knew more, and Tiriac had promised that I would win a big tournament.”
Tiriac changed Vilas’ foot position on his serve, developed his backhand slice and encouraged him to be more aggressive. He drove him through lacerating, six-hour practice sessions. To Tiriac, Vilas was raw physical material; if he was going to make use of it, though, this sensitive soul—Vilas “couldn’t kill a fly,” Tiriac said—needed to toughen up.
Off court, Tiriac became a father figure to Vilas; no coach and player had ever been so attuned to each other during matches. Opponents joked that Vilas needed to look over to Tiriac to make sure it was OK to shake hands.
Yet the big win eluded them. Vilas began the 1977 season by losing in the Australian Open final to Roscoe Tanner. According to Vilas, though, that defeat gave him the final piece to his Grand Slam puzzle.
“I decided to play the Australian Open for the first time,” Vilas says, “and I was not wrong. I lost the final to Tanner, but I made strategic mistakes. I practiced 30 or 40 minutes before entering the court, and that was not enough. I took it as a lesson and from there I worked several hours before each major final.”
For Vilas, there was nothing that a few more hours on court couldn’t solve. At the ‘77 French Open, the hard work had finally paid off.
When Gottfried went into his service motion, Vilas began bouncing on his toes maniacally, as he did before every service return. Four shots later, a forehand pass proved too powerful for the American to handle. Vilas, the Eternal Second, had finished first.
“It was like breaking a giant piece of glass that was hanging over my head,” Vilas says.
The French crowd, which loved Vilas’ bohemian blend of the physical and the philosophical, roared its approval. A few spectators charged onto the court and tried to pull his headband off. It was a sign of things to come that summer.
In 1977, Vilas won 46 consecutive matches—a men’s Open era record—and 53 straight matches on clay, a mark only eclipsed by Rafael Nadal 29 years later. By season’s end, Vilas had won 17 titles and amassed a 145–14 record.
Asked to explain his rise to Grand Slam glory, Vilas summed it up:
“Once you win a big title, you want to win another one. If you win two, you want a third, and then you want them to build a statue of you in the middle of Buenos."
The end finally came with a defeat to Bjorn Borg at the season-ending Masters. Somehow Vilas had avoided facing his nemesis during his win streaks, but he couldn’t avoid him forever.
In the 1978 French Open final, Borg beat Vilas easily. For the Argentine, though, there will always be ’77.
“I got everything in one year, what other players get in five or six,” he said.
While the No. 1 ranking is missing, Vilas’ other statistics from 1977 have become legendary. At a time when the pros claim exhaustion after 70 wins, we can only look back in awe at Vilas’ 145.
“Tennis is always the same,” he says. “Each player adapts to the time he’s in. In 1977, I decided to play an almost unreasonable amount of weeks. Today, the best players enter fewer tournaments because they’re the ones they consider necessary to reach their goals.”
Vilas was destined to remain the Eternal Second. But 40 years later, his 1977 season remains unsurpassed.
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