Guillermo Vilas: The Number One That Never Was - UBITENNIS
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Guillermo Vilas: The Number One That Never Was

UbiTennis has collected the words that journalists and reviewers around the world have written on the new Netflix documentary, “Guillermo Vilas: Settling the Score”, which depicts a 12-year-long campaign to have the ATP recognise the Argentine champion as a former world number one.

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This article was originally published by “Lo Slalom”, an Italian newsletter 

 

On rewriting history or just making it clearer, by Monica Platas, Mundo Deportivo

Now 68, during his tennis career the Argentinian won four Grand Slam tournaments. In particular, in 1977 he won the Roland Garros, the US Open and 14 more tournaments, for a career total of 62. He had a record 53-match winning streak on clay courts, a feat surpassed only by Nadal. Vilas climbed to the second spot in the world ranking on April 30, 1975, keeping it for 83 weeks, but he never reached the top.

Netflix has just released a documentary titled “Guillermo Vilas: Settling the Score”. It describes the statistical investigation of Argentine journalist Eduardo Puppo, who demonstrates how and why the ATP never recognised that Vilas should have been No. 1 in the ranking at least once during the best years of his career.

Vilas was famous for several things:  his Southpaw shotmaking, amazing topspin, long hair, and bizarre behaviour. The newly founded Grand Prix circuit made use of very rudimentary technology in order to compute the players’ ranking, a system that painstakingly lacked rigor in its calculations. Because of this, the ATP does not recognise Vilas as a former number one to this day, but Eduardo Puppo has spent twelve years campaigning for the Argentine to be given what’s due. He produced a detailed report of 25,000 pages, recalculating the rankings in the period between August 1973 and the end of 1978. He finally demonstrated that Vilas did actually climb to the top of the rankings, outperforming Borg and Connors during some periods.

The Netflix documentary film shows the reporter’s frustrated illusion and emotional exhaustion facing this daunting task, but Puppo’s disappointment for the ATP’s repeated refusal to update the records is also central to the narrative. In an e-mail, the reporter is told: “Please don’t rewrite history.” This personal, professional and emotional journey on Puppo’s part is an effective narrative way to see again the biography of Guillermo Vilas in parallel with the Puppo’s work. In the documentary, we can listen to some fragments of the tape recordings that Vilas himself recorded while traveling around the world (these fragments were actually useless due to the low quality of the sound). The documentary film poses an interesting dilemma: since the aim of Puppo’s work is to recognize the merits of an athlete’s career, is this just an attempt to rewrite the history or is it a bona fide act of justice? The documentary includes statements by Federer, Becker, Nadal, Sabatini, Wilander and Borg honouring Guillermo by acknowledging his prominence in the sport. Neither Guillermo Vilas nor his journalist friend got the recognition they were looking for, but even if it’s not the same, the documentary will forever remain as a tribute. It does not help to rewrite the history of tennis, but it helps to explain it better. 

A healed fracture by Furio Zara, Blog Overtime Festival

A man, an obsession, an injustice. A story of sports and life. This documentary is a little gem that helps to define clearly and with love the profile of a champion mocked by ill fate.

What a fabulous tennis player. Vilas is manly, intractable, but only for a just cause. Ambition’s fire burned inside him. He was the son of a lawyer, raised in the comfort of the Argentine middle class. A pure lefty, he wore a band in his hair like his frenemy Borg; an introverted man by nature, women loved him nevertheless. A poet on and off the court, he dedicated a composition to Caroline, Princess of Hanover.  One of the best players on the dirt, he considered Wimbledon a court of “grass for cows.” Never to be tamed, he was capable of sensational strokes, a revolutionary who changed the history of tennis and was a role model for those who came after him. He is the father of the “Gran Willy”, also known as the tweener. His back to the net, he hit the ball in mid-air between his legs. He said: “The idea came to my mind while observing an ad with the Argentine tennis player Juan Carlos Harriott. He hit a ball under the legs of a horse, obviously not with the racket but with a polo mallet. It seemed fantastic and I mimicked it in my game.”

The documentary was helmed by Mexican director Matias Guilbert. It shows the fondness for Vilas of authentic tennis legends such as Bjorn Borg, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Rod Laver and Gabriela Sabatini. Federer honours him by saying, “he had a great influence on the tennis players who came after him.” Nowadays, Vilas is a 68-year-old man, an aging “bandolero” from the Pampas. He is suffering due to a neurodegenerative disease – there are only few moments of mental clarity in his daily life. As the title suggests, the aim of the documentary was not just to create a tribute to an unforgettable champion, but also to finally make things right.  

The gift of imperishable memory for a man who is losing his own by Marco Ciriello, Facebook

It is a hard sell to demonstrate that mistakes were made in the computing of the tennis rankings and that Guillermo Vilas was the best player in the world at some point in the mid-1970s. Journalist Eduardo Puppo has done it, analysing matches and figures, and spent years seeking the evidence to pay tribute to this champion and to get him the accomplishment he deserves. While Puppo was looking for data, points and therefore gestures, victories, cities, fields, tournaments, racquets, Vilas lost his memory. The Netflix documentary film, “Guillermo Vilas: Settling the Score”, describes this endeavour, with the tapes recorded by Vilas reminiscing on his life, and the charts by Puppo aa a sort of backdrop to his playing career. It is a great act of love: for tennis, truth, and justice. People that do not know who Vilas is will fall in love with him. They will appreciate him not only for his lefty shots or for the strength of his game at the net. They will think highly of him also for Hendrix, for his vision of the world and his way of life, for having shown that an Argentine and a Swede (Borg) can complement each other: “Your forehand sucks like my backhand, so we helped each other.” Those who already know and love him will find more reasons to hold him in such high regard.

How Vilas’s undefeated streak came to an end, by Gianni Clerici 

An Austrian genius, Werner Fisher, invented a curious way of stringing racquets, and a Yankee philologist nicknamed them “Spaghetti Racquets”. The rotation of the ball was so impressive that an outraged Vilas withdrew from the final of the Aix-en-Provence tournament against Nastase, who played the previous match with the “Spaghetti”. This kind of racket was belatedly declared illegal, Vilas’s long streak already broken at this point.

Vilas’s tears, by Mariano Ryan, Clarín 

Is it necessary that Guillermo Vilas be recognized for what he was on a tennis court, i.e. a number one, a position he already occupies in Argentinian sports lore? And is it really essential, in order to understand his prominence, that someone should review his files and grant him the status of world-best for a few weeks, when for a whole year he clearly paced all his opponents? Is the ATP compelled to listen to the truth uncovered by Puppo in the documentary in order to provide justice? It is very likely that everything will remain as it has been until now and that the campaign will never produce the results it set out to accomplish. Nevertheless, his titles and triumphs cannot be cancelled. The image of Vilas will never change in people’s memory. A champion on and off the court. A stubborn man who wanted to be the best at what he did, and he was the best, for sure.  His tears at the end of the documentary will last.

The reason behind Guillermo’s tears, from La Naciòn 

This touching moment has its own story to tell. It happened at the end of 2016, just before the best Argentine tennis player in history moved to Monte Carlo. Vilas and Puppo were having a conversation about a book in progress. During their meeting, the camera was accidentally left on, and in that moment Vilas’s emotional distress fully showed. He couldn’t bear what he considered an injustice that had lasted for many years. Puppo holds him in the scene, hugs him and even mentions something about a tattoo on Guillermo’s left arm honouring Alejandro, the little brother he barely knew. When they became aware of the existence of that accidental registration, Puppo, Vilas and an attorney, Adrián Sautu de la Riestra, agreed that it should be included in the documentary film, despite the personal nature of the moment.

Earthly justice comes first, by Carlos Navarro, Punto de Break

The ending of the documentary is a sudden gut-punch. It’s akin to a stratospheric fifth set, an exciting title won in stoppage time. These final moments are the perfect conclusion to a journey that starts with the first steps of a young Argentine on the pro tour who ends up carving a spot for himself on the Mount Olympus of tennis. I don’t know if this beautiful Netflix documentary film will change anything. Neither the number one assigned by Tennis World magazine nor years of research can probably do that. What I do know is that it has become a proof to how humble people can do extraordinary things, of how an Argentine journalist and a Romanian mathematician could change the history of an entire sport. Vilas will end up being what he should have been because his life is in its final stages and earthly justice must come before higher ones.

The fragile Titans, by Andrés Burgo, La Nación

Fame, idolatry and eternity. But what about that number one spot? What is it to be the best? Few times I have seen a Titan look as fragile as Guillermo Vilas does in Netflix’s thrilling documentary. When I say fragile, I’m not talking about his health (that’s a private matter), but rather because, despite almost half a century passing by, the old gladiator still wants that the ATP to rectify its rankings. He is a champion, and we believe we are the ones who need champions, although maybe it’s the other way around. We believe that a champion is invincible. The ATP is more hateful than FIFA. Thinking about Maradona, a colleague reminds me of how interviews with Diego always ended in the 90s. “What do you miss in your life?” the reporter asked. “Being more beloved by the people,” Diego replied.

Borg never learned how to pronounce his first name, by Christopher Clarey (New York Times), via Twitter

The ATP did not release rankings regularly in the years when Vilas would have been the world N.1. The old system was based on players’ average results and thus penalized workhorses like Vilas. What I know for sure is he had the best season of any man in 1977. You would need a heart of stone not to feel Vilas’s pain in this film. It was not his quest in many ways. It started without him being aware of it, but being recognized as No. 1 clearly matters deeply to him. This film is also a chance to see remarkable footage of the young Vilas: flowing hair, soulful disposition and legs of steel. The strokes look languid in comparison to what Nadal & Co. do today. The game has evolved and, in my opinion, improved. But Vilas and Borg were great athletes who could have been stars today. Fun fact from the documentary: he and Borg were close friends despite the fact that the latter apparently never learned how to pronounce Guillermo’s first name.

A negative review

“My life is a discovery. I always look for meaning in every circumstance. The first time I saw fire, I burned myself and it was magnificent. It was warm and appealing, and I thought, ‘What if I touch it? Maybe the heat will get inside me. This is how I discovered the world and how I got here.’” In this way, Guillermo Vilas introduces himself in the documentary film directed by Matías Gueilburt. It’s a film about the Argentine athlete who was one of the great protagonists of world tennis in the 70s and 80s. He began hitting obsessively the ball against a wall in the garage of his house when he was six years old. The only restriction set by his mother was that he could break only one lightbulb a day. He was a stubborn son who chose an ostensibly “unprofitable career” against his parents’ wishes, a would-be lawyer in a country where idols were boxers like Carlos Monzón, Formula 1 drivers like Carlos Reutemann, and footballers like Mario Kempes. The work flows in a very scholastic way in comparison with other two that could be defined more experimental and fascinating, like “John McEnroe. In the realm of perfection”, directed by Julien Faraut and “Subject to Review”, directed by Theo Anthony. The documentary sifts through stock footage, unpublished audio (46 different samples!) recorded by Vilas himself since 1973, as well as interviews with champions who weigh in on his value as a player and on the innovations he brought to the game.

The story suddenly switches gears (and not for the better) when the world rankings come into play. The title and the opening minutes of the documentary evoke the image of a lonely man going through his growth and consecration while pigeonholing the different turning points that change his destiny from an open to a one-way path. A path with a final destination – triumph. Then, the narrative changes. From the obsessions of the man from Buenos Aires, we move to the obsession of a journalist, Eduardo Puppo, who tries to carry on Vilas’s battle. He wants to demonstrate that in some periods (especially 1975 and 1977, the year when Vilas won over 50 matches in a row) Vilas was at the top of the world rankings, despite the ATP claiming otherwise. The wish to re-write history is the reason why the quality of the documentary dips. The darkness and the demons that stir both in the champion and in his unexpected supporter vanish from the narration, losing the audience and blowing out the fire that constituted its initial appeal. (by Mazzino Montinari, Il Manifesto)

Translated by Giuseppe Di Paola; edited by Tommaso Villa

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US Open: Shelby Rogers Delivers; Serena Still A Threat To Win 24th Major

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Serena Williams - US Open (photo Twitter @usopen)

After all of these years of playing in the U.S. Open, Shelby Rogers is finally a seeded player.

 

The Charleston, S.C., native has been playing America’s premier tennis event almost continuously since her debut in New York in 2010. She’ll turn 30 years old in a few weeks and has worked her way up the rankings to 31st in the world.

That’s a big achievement from the little girl who hung on the fences more than two decades ago to watch her older sister Sabra play high school matches that eventually led to an Al-American career for Sabra at Emory University. Sabra became a psychologist and, of course, is one of  Shelby’s biggest fans.

LOOK OUT FOR ROGERS?

Rogers took the direct route. She didn’t play high school tennis, but left the classroom before high school to train in tennis, study online and play the junior circuit. She turned pro in 2009 at age 16.

Monday evening at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, It took Rogers awhile to start living up to her ranking. But once she turned the corner after dropping the first set in nine games, Shelby started looking like a seasoned top 30 player.

Rogers sort of blew The Netherlands’ slim Arantxa Rus away, taking a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory in the opening round of the U.S. Open. Rogers especially played the deciding 28th game of the match like the veteran pro she is. She hit one long forehand and netted one ball in that game, but otherwise she rode her big serve to victory in the clinching game. At 40-30, she delivered a huge first serve down the middle that Rus couldn’t put into play.

WOMEN’S RACE TO TOP PRIZE WIDE OPEN

The way things are on the women’s tour these days, with no true leader while once-amazing top-ranked Iga Swiatek tries to regain her dominance, anything is possible.

Yes, even finally a 24th Grand Slam title for Serena Williams.

But this is about Shelby Rogers. She is playing the best tennis of her career nearly a decade and a half after her life as a professional tennis player started.

With any kind of luck, Rogers could leave New York ranked among the top 25 players in the world, or maybe higher if she continues to serve and play the kind of big-ball tennis she played  in the last 19 games Monday night.

WHO’S NEXT IN LINE

So, what’s after Swiatek, who started the year on fire with a long unbeaten streak that went through the French Open and rewarded her with as many points as the confined totals of the Nos. 2 and 3 players. Of course, Ashleigh Barty’s retirement after winning the Australian Open opened the door for Swiatek’s rise to the top.

And then Wimbledon’s grass took care of Swiatek.

Nos. 2-5 Anett Kontaveit, Maria Sakkari, Paula Badosa and Ons Jabeur are all outstanding players, but none currently fit in the great column. They appear to be waiting in line for Swiatek or another Barty-like player to step forward to rule the women’s tour.

WHAT ABOUT UKRAINE’S DARIA!

Then there are almost totally unknown players such as Ukraine’s Daria Snigur. I hadn’t given Snigur much chance at all on the pro tour until her shocking U.S. Open first-round victory over multi-Grand Slam tournament winner and seventh-ranked Simona Halep. 

The last time I had thought about Snigur was when she upended Charleston’s Emma Navarro in the Junior Wimbledon semifinals and then won the Junior Grand Slam tournament.

At Junior Wimbledon in 2019, I thought Navarro, who also is now on the WTA Tour and is currently ranked 145th in the world, would roll past Snigur the way she had in the 2019 Junior French Open quarterfinals. But Snigur is so deceptive with her ground strokes that strike like lightning, she dominated Navarro at that Junior Wimbledon.

So, maybe the currently 124th-ranked Snigur may be ready to make a mark on the tour after scoring her first tour victory by defeating Halep.

NO NOVAK, BUT RAFA IS THERE

Without Novak Djokovic, the men are about as unpredictable as the women, with the exception of one player. Rafa Nadal, of course, entered this U.S. Open, with a perfect 19-0 record this year in Grand Slams.

Daniil Medvedev is the defending champion at the U.S. Open, but even though he is ranked No. 1 in the world, it’s a long road to the final for the Russian. Medvedev hasn’t always been predictable.

And already, No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas has been eliminated by a complete unknown, Daniel Elahi Galan.

Wow! The Greek star probably was about as much of a favorite as Medvedev.

And poor Dominic Thiem was cast on an outside court. And he lost. Just a couple of years ago, Thiem was winning the U.S. Open.

My top five picks in order would be: Nadal, Jannik Sinner, Nick Kyrgios, Medvedev and Andy Murray. Yes, Andy looks pretty fit.

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James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award  for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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Will Rafael Nadal Keep The Grand Slam Winning Feeling Going In New York?

Rafael Nadal has injury doubts heading into his search for a 23rd grand slam title in New York.

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Rafael Nadal (@usopen - Twitter)

Rafael Nadal will look to repeat successes from Melbourne and Paris by answering his doubters with triumph in New York.

 

The Spaniard enters the last grand slam with injury doubts having only just come back from an abdominal injury suffered in his Wimbledon quarter-final against Taylor Fritz.

It was injury that saw his calendar grand slam dream come to an end and ever since then has been recovering in the hopes of finishing the grand slam year strong in New York.

However in his first match back Nadal was defeated in three sets to Borna Coric in New York which has put doubts on whether the Spaniard can be a threat in the US.

Nadal will likely not have to worry about Novak Djokovic but a victory in New York could see him be world number one with current number one Daniil Medvedev defending the title.

The likes of Medvedev, Carlos Alcaraz and Stefanos Tsitsipas will be standing in Nadal’s way and if the Spaniard isn’t match-fit then he could face an early exit.

However as tennis pundit Barbara Schett pointed out, ruling out Nadal at this stage would be foolish and the Spaniard always raises his level at the grand slams, “The match is always different from practice,” Schett told Eurosport.

“And whoever had an abdominal injury and a tear on the abdominal muscles knows how it feels. You have to be extremely cautious. You’re worried that you’re going to reinjure it again.

“And I think that’s what we’ve seen on Wednesday. When he played against Coric, he was a little bit uncertain how the body was going to hold up. And for sure he’s going to feel better and better.

“If there’s no damage to the abdominal muscle, then he still has a week and a half to improve his health, to improve the trust also that he can extend and he can’t bend on the serve because that’s the trickiest shot, the serve and the smash.

“When that is the case, Rafa Nadal certainly can be dangerous again at the US Open. I mean, he’s so fired up at every single Grand Slam. We’ve seen this year playing the best tennis of his life. You can never, ever write him off.”

Nadal is currently undefeated at grand slams and if fit, the Spaniard will certainly fancy himself to win another seven matches at the US Open this year.

Whatever it should be interesting to see if Nadal improves before the US Open with the tournament starting on the 29th of August.

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Does WTA Need A Top Rivalry To Drive The Sport?

Iga Swiatek is the WTA’s dominant world number one but does she need a rival in order to drive the sport to new heights.

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Iga Swiatek (@TennisHandshake - Twitter)

The WTA has a dominant world number one and a variety of talented players on the tour but the one thing it’s lacking at the moment is a top rivalry.

 

First of all it was supposed to be Bianca Andreescu and Naomi Osaka, then Ash Barty and Osaka and also Barty and Iga Swiatek.

However none of these match-ups created a top rivalry over a long period to generate an overwhelming amount of interest.

After Barty’s shock retirement, many people were left disappointed at the fact that her and current dominant world number one Iga Swiatek could not compete for the sport’s biggest titles in a fierce rivalry.

Now Swiatek sits at the top of the WTA rankings with almost a 4,000 point lead at the top. The rest of the field are very talented and that in itself is an intriguing aspect of the WTA’s appeal.

But the one thing the women’s game lacks is a top rivalry to generate a hype that the ATP clearly has right now.

As Mark Petchey said it’s an issue that needs solving soon as every sport has one, “Rivalries drive the sport. What they do is make sure that it manifests itself in a big polarisation of a large fan base, against another one,” Petchey was quoted as saying by Tennis365.

“You look across the board, over F1, look at the tribal nature of AFL, of Premier League football here. It’s a huge part of what you need to have a successful sport. That is the one thing that is missing from the women’s tour at the moment, is a superb rivalry, with a little bit of edge.

“That’s why I say I’m sad that Ash pulled up stumps, because I think that rivalry could’ve developed with Iga in that way. Would it have been quite as intense as the Rafa-Novak and Roger-Novak rivalries? Probably not. But it would have been there. Going into every major saying that you’re not looking forward to a specific clash potentially when the draw comes out, does hurt the tour a little bit. 

“You can’t keep saying ‘oh, anyone can win it’. Because you’re just not tagging anybody… you’re not setting the scene for something amazing that’s going to happen, a nice little volcanic eruption right at the back-end of a major. They need some people to be a bit more consistent and getting through, because that’s what will be a massive driver for the WTA.”

It’s hard to argue with those points of view from Petchey as rivalries are what are talked about for decades after players have retired.

It will be interesting to see whether Swiatek will continue to dominate the rest of the field or whether someone can build a rivalry with the Pole heading into the remainder of the season.

The next big WTA event of the year will take place at the Rogers Cup in Toronto on the week of the eighth of August.

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