Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
Years played: 1969–1992
Major titles: 4*
When Vilas burst onto the pro tour in 1974 at age 21, he was like a ray of brilliant sunshine. The outfits he wore were bright yellow. But that wasn’t all that was exotic about this sensitive youth. His hair was long, and he came from a country, Argentina, that was new to tennis fans of an Anglo-dominated era. Vilas recited poetry, studied Buddhism, dropped out of law school and wore a bracelet to honor the fallen in Vietnam. With his arrival, the counterculture of the 1960s finally invaded the clubby world of pro tennis.
“I liked the creativity of the game,” Vilas told Sports Illustrated. “When someone said, ‘Come to the court,’ it was like saying, ‘Come paint,’ only better.”
Yet this soulful athlete succeeded with a style based not on aesthetic beauty, but brute physical prowess. Nicknamed the Young Bull of the Pampas, Vilas bludgeoned opponents with his tree-trunk left arm and used his iron-man stamina to grind them into his beloved red clay. Eight-hour practice sessions helped Vilas put together a season in 1977 that was unrivaled in its combination of excellence and endurance. That year, he won 17 events, including two majors, and his 145-15 record included a men’s-record 46 straight wins.
Vilas’ career statistics were suitably Herculean: 23 years on tour, 929 wins, 62 titles (49 on clay), four majors. But one number would elude him: 1. “The Eternal Second,” as he was dubbed by the Argentine press, was always a half-step behind his more famous colleagues Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors—somehow, Vilas would even finish 1977 ranked No. 2 behind the American. Looking back, though, this poet-player’s mix of the physical and philosophical remains what it was when he made his debut: something unique and exotic under the sporting sun. Vilas may have been eternally second, but he never played second-fiddle.
Defining Moment: At Forest Hills in 1975, Vilas led eventual champion Manuel Orantes by two sets to one and 5-0 in the fourth set—before somehow losing. So it was poetic justice that this sometime-poet returned to the scene of that disaster in 1977, and became the first South American man to win the US Open.
Watch: Guillermo Vilas wins the 1977 US Open