Guillermo Vilas broke through at the 1977 French Open—then went 145-14

by: Steve Tignor | September 18, 2017

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Guillermo Vilas’ Herculean, 145-win campaign in 1977 may have been the greatest single season of all time. But it still wasn’t enough to make him No. 1. (AP)

Before autumn's arrival on Saturday, we'll relive one of tennis' most memorable summers. The 1977 season was one of the most colorful and enduringly significant in the game's history. Over the next three days, we’ll celebrate the 40th anniversary of that most memorable of sporting summers.

Part 1: The Eternal Second

Guillermo Vilas’ Herculean, 145-win campaign in 1977 may have been the greatest single season of all time. But it still wasn’t enough to make him No. 1

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 US 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. 

From the beginning, Vilas had a style that matched the times. In 1974, he made his Top 10 breakthrough as a 21-year-old. His hair was long and his outfits were yellow. He published poetry, collaborated with a jazz-rock band and wrote a screenplay. He dropped out of law school, studied Buddhism and wore a bracelet to honor the dead in Vietnam. With Vilas, the counterculture had come to the clubby world of pro tennis.

“I liked the creativity of the game,” Vilas told Sports Illustrated’s Curry Kirkpatrick. “When someone said, ‘Come to the court,’ it was like saying, ‘Come paint.’ Only better.”

Vilas climbed the rankings, but stalled short of the top. The question, as TENNIS Magazine’s Peter Bodo wrote, was whether he could resolve “the tension between his soulful personality and his character as a competitor.” Tiriac helped him cross that bridge. 

“With Tiriac, I progressed at twice the speed in half the time,” Vilas says. “He had a great vision of the game.”

“As his constant companion,” Bodo wrote, “Tiriac could make it easier for Vilas to become a loner, like so many of the game’s great champions.”

In 1977, Vilas played like the greatest of those champions. It all started during his title run on indoor carpet in Springfield, MD, in February.

“I changed the movement of my serve, and the position of my body,” says Vilas, who defeated Stan Smith in a four-set final. “It helped me for the rest of the season. My new philosophy made my mind less tired.”

Later that year, after his breakthrough at Roland Garros, Vilas’ new philosophy was on full display at a much bigger American event: the US Open. After 53 years, the Open was being held for the final time in Forest Hills. The tournament also came at the end of New York’s sinister “Summer of Sam,” and the surrounding sense of lawlessness and controversy seeped through the club’s Tudor gates. Overflow crowds swarmed the grounds. A fan was shot during a night match. Renée Richards, a transsexual who had played the event as a man, made headlines when she entered the women’s draw. Jimmy Connors waged war with the crowds, which had turned against their country’s No. 1.

The player they had turned toward was Vilas. When it was announced that one of his matches would be rescheduled, a stadium full of fans staged a sit-down strike—“We want Vilas!” they chanted. Tournament officials reversed course and put him on.

The atmosphere for the final between Vilas and Connors was every bit as riotous, and anti-American. “This crowd wants blood,” Arthur Ashe said. Vilas gave it to them by bouncing back from a first-set loss to win in four. His Tiriac-inspired slice backhand was the key.

“I was trying to go past my limits that year, and make adjustments to address difficult moments,” Vilas says. “In the final at Forest Hills, I used my tactics at the start and lost the first set. [Beginning] in the second set, I applied what Tiriac told me.”

Afterward, Vilas’ fans stormed the court and pulled his headband away—“I thought they were going to rip my head off,” he says—before carrying him around the stadium.

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 Aires.”

There was no end to what Vilas wanted, and got, in 1977. After the US Open, he won titles in Paris, Tehran, Bogota, Santiago, Buenos Aires and Johannesburg. For him, playing that much was a matter of survival.

“The 1977 season was exhausting for me, not only physically, but mentally,” he says. “I could not stop playing, because I needed the pace of competition. I struggled if I stopped for a while.”

There was a temporary halt in Aix en Provence. In the final, Vilas played Ilie Nastase, who was using a soon-to-be-banned set of “spaghetti” strings which created massive topspin. After surrendering the first two sets, a sore-shouldered Vilas retired in disgust.

“I didn’t lose against a player,” Vilas said. “I lost against a racquet.”

But Vilas picked up where he left off, winning his next 28 matches. If you discount the Nastase match, his consecutive-win record would stand at 74.

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.

Everything, that is, except the No. 1 ranking. While Vilas won more than anyone in 1977, Connors retained the top spot. In those days, rankings were based on an average of results; going by today’s system, Vilas would almost certainly have finished No. 1.

“I was winning and winning and could never take the next step to No. 1,” Vilas says. “The answer was always the same: ‘Still second.’ I felt helpless.”

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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