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24 Nov 2006 - Olympic Stadium, Moscow, Russia - Chris Bowers
Argentina's second generation cements legacy of Vilas and Clerc
Argentina’s presence in the 2006 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final against Russia represents the high point – so far – of the second world-class generation of Argentinean tennis. With the greatest respect to Gabriela Sabatini, who put the country on the women’s tennis map single-handedly during her best years of 1988-93, it’s not since Guillermo Vilas first popularised tennis in Argentina in the 1970s that the South American nation has featured so prominently in the jewels of tennis’s crown, the Grand Slams and the Davis Cup.
Vilas played a similar role in Argentina to that which Manolo Santana played in Spain – taking tennis out of the affluent classes and making it a sport that interests large swathes of the population. But to fully understand Vilas’s contribution requires an understanding of the turbulent background that is Argentina’s 20th century history.
From the time of the global economic crash of 1929 to the early years of this decade, Argentina’s fragile economy made it constantly vulnerable to military intervention. The era from 1946 to 1952 in which General Juan Perón ruled with his charismatic and politically astute wife Eva (the era celebrated in the rock opera “Evita” with its iconic theme song “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”) brought an enfranchisement of the working classes and widespread nationalisation and trade unionisation, but it also had its fair share of corruption. When Perón was deposed in 1955, it continued a climate of political unrest which saw a series of short-lived democratic renaissances alternating with various military juntas. Things hit their nadir between 1976 and 1983, when Argentina’s so-called “dirty war” led to an estimated 11,000 people disappearing (and the term “desaparecidos” entering United Nations vocabulary).
It meant that by the late 1970s, Argentinean citizens were desperate for heroes outside the political sphere. The success of the national soccer team, which hosted the 1978 World Cup and won it for the first time, made stars out of the captain Daniel Pasarela, the leading goalscorer Mario Kempes, and the chain-smoking coach César Luis Menotti. Some even say the World Cup title created such national enthusiasm that it helped keep the reigning military junta in power for another few years.
Until the 1970s, tennis had been limited largely to affluent circles, but then Guillermo Vilas emerged. He was runner-up at Roland Garros in 1975, and then won the French Open and US Open in 1977. More significantly for his profile back home, he steered Argentina to a Davis Cup victory over the USA in Buenos Aires that year, to give a major shot in the arm to Argentinean tennis. Vilas was partnered in that tie by Ricardo Cano, but really needed a stronger partner if Argentina was to make any headway in the Davis Cup.
He found that partner in José Luis Clerc. The two never got on particularly well, either with each other or with their national association, but all three parties recognised they had more to gain by working together than by fighting each other. And in March 1980 they struck gold, both men beating John McEnroe as the USA were again eclipsed at the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club. But in September, the Czechoslovak team led by the 20-year-old Ivan Lendl was too strong. Argentina did win the second team competition in men’s tennis that year, the clay-based World Team Cup, but the Davis Cup remained the big prize.
In 1981, the Davis Cup changed format, introducing the 16-nation World Group. It meant a maximum of four ties per year, instead of the previous six (or possibly seven), and a strictly alternating home-and-away rule. Vilas was the hero in the away first round against West Germany, beating Uli Pinner in a live fifth rubber; both men won singles against a Romania missing the suspended Ilie Nastase; and neither dropped a set in a 5-0 win over Great Britain in the semifinals. Argentina was into its first Davis Cup final – but it meant a trip to a fast indoor court in Cincinnati.
In his book “The Davis Cup” published by the ITF in 1998, Richard Evans recounts that the Riverfront Coliseum, which seated 17,000, would have been largely empty for the 1981 final had not a local businessman, concerned for his city’s reputation, bought 10,000 seats and given them to his friends and associates. The problem was partly that McEnroe and Peter Fleming had posted a controversial performance against Australia in the semifinals which the US captain Arthur Ashe apologised for afterwards. The Coliseum was not full, but had enough atmosphere to do justice to a fascinating final.
McEnroe beat Vilas in straight sets, but Clerc then beat Roscoe Tanner in the second singles to leave the overnight score 1-1. When Vilas served for the doubles at 7-6 in the fifth, Argentina were on the point of taking a stranglehold on the final, but Vilas was broken, and when Clerc was broken six games later, McEnroe and Fleming had won 11-9. Clerc still took McEnroe to five sets the following day, but the fiercely patriotic McEnroe was not going to let a third winner’s medal elude him, and took the decider 6-3.
With Vilas reaching the last of his Grand Slam finals the following year, the golden era of Argentinean tennis was drawing to a close. The likes of Martin Jaite, Guillermo Perez Roldan, Alberto Mancini and Javier Frana flew the flag valiantly in the 1980s and 1990s, but it was only when the current crop of Argentinean players began to emerge in the late 90s that Argentina regained the tag of serious Davis Cup contenders. The high point of individual achievement came at 2004 Roland Garros, when two Argentineans, Gaston Gaudio and Guillermo Coria, contested the final, which Gaudio won from match point down.
The high point of team achievement is the upcoming Davis Cup by BNP Paribas final.
None of today’s Argentinean tennis team is in any doubt that tennis is still some way behind football in national esteem. Tennis competes for second place with sports like volleyball, polo (Argentina won the first Olympic gold medal in polo in 1924), motor racing (the five-times world champion in the 1950s, Juan Manuel Fangio, was from Argentina), and even pato, a distinctly Argentinean sport which resembles a form of basketball on horseback. But the country’s top football idol, Diego Maradóna, has been an ardent fan of Argentina’s tennis team, and is promising to be in Moscow for the final. That shows a degree of recognition for tennis that can only cement the work done 25 years ago by Vilas and Clerc.