A Sporting Life – taking on the challenge to put together sports and style (not exactly natural bedfellows), and making a plea for outdoor sports
It’s clay-court season and Rafael Nadal just won his tenth Monte Carlo title yesterday, becoming the only player in the history of tennis to win the same championship ten times. It was also his 50 clay-court trophy, beating Guillermo Vilas’ until-last-year record of 49. You may have read about Nadal a couple more times here on the blog or on my Instagram, so regardless of his milestone achievement, I don’t want to repeat myself. Instead, today I am going to talk about the other Spanish-speaking champion of la terra batuda – the aforementioned Vilas, considered the best Argentinian tennis player of all time.
When I started this series, I meant to make it mainly about former sports champions, about those times when players combined substance and image, and defined a game. And as long as we talk about tennis, the stars of the modern men’s game will never arise the kind of passion and adulation tennis players generated a few decades ago. My father, who is much more advised to talk about those times than me, says that the top five players of those years were unequivocally more valuable than those of today. Vilas was one of them. His tennis was skillful, accurate, consistent. Tennis may be more spectacular and rapid today (due to space-age rackets, new technologies, improved equipment, more rapid court surfaces that unfortunately sometimes produce better servers than complex tennis players – and, frankly, that is what my problem with Serena Williams has always been), but the players were undoubtedly more talented back then, continues my dad. And there is more than that. In the wood-racket era, the tennis stars of the 1970s and 1980s dominated the sport not only with their abilities, but also with their personalities, as James Kaplan was pointing out in a New York Times articles some years ago. And the style of the head-to-head rivalries counted as the third player on the court. “Artistry has yielded to velocity.”
Even if he was strangely inefficient at the French Open, winning only one of his four finals there (it must be noted though that he lost to Björn Borg twice and to Mats Wilander once, in 1982, at the Swedish player’s first attempt at Roland Garros – only Nadal would also win the title at his first attempt, in 2005), the left-handed Argentine’s command of play on clay is undisputed. In the late 1970s, Vilas went on a title-winning rampage, making history with his winning streak of 53 straight wins on clay in 1977, a record that Rafael Nadal later eclipsed with 81.
Known for his one-handed backhand and smashing good looks (apparently Borg had a rival even in sweating a headband), Guillermo Vilas fused success with stardom. PUMA’s iconic “GV” line was reintroduced in 2007, in homage to the Argentine legend who, back in the day, paired with the brand to create a line of tennis shoes that matched his winning style.
Related A Sporting Life entries: Roger Federer / Rafael Nadal / Jean-Claude Killy / Nacho Figueras / Björn Borg
photos: 1-Björn Borg and Guillermo Vilas, Suntory Cup, 1982 / 2- Argentina Exceptión, 1975