Guillermo Vilas' victory today in the French Open tennis championships brought the 24-year-old Argentinian as much relief as jubilation, because a reputation for choking on grand occasions has been preying on his mind.
"I was very tight, very nervous," Vilas said after his 6-0, 6-3, 6-0 victory over Brian Gottfried. "I have been in the finals of big tournaments four times and I wanted to win one."
Although he won the Grand Prix Masters in 1974 and enough pro tour events to make him the Grand Prix champion in 1974 and 1975, Vilas was pained by the criticism that he collapsed under big match pressure.
He lost to Bjorn Borg in the 1975 French final, to Adriano Panatta in the 1976 Italian final, and to Roscoe Tanner in the 1977 Australian Open final, all in straight sets. He also lost to Borg in the 1976 World Championship Tennis title match, in four sets.
The extent to which such failures burdened his psyche was apparent last December when Panatta, then the reigning French champ, said of his friend Vilas "Guillermo is psyched out. At dinner I say to him: 'Would you pass the chicken?' and he says: 'Yes, but whey can't I win a big match?' I say: 'Guillermo, please give me the butter, and he says: 'Here. Why can't I win a big tournament?'"
"It was bothering me because I think the people were speaking without knowing," Vilas said today. "I was trying to convince myself that in the finals I played I lost to guys who were playing very well . . .
"But people kept saying like they wrote in one magazine, that I was paralyzed in the finals. All the people came around and said that. Even my mother said, 'You are paralyzed in the final.'
"If all the people around you are saying: 'You are crazy, you are crazy, you are crazy,' after 10 years you are crazy for sure. Even if you tell yourself you are not," Vilas continued rather poignantly, intensity etched on his features.
"If everybody tells you you cannot win the big matches, eventually that becomes true. It drives you crazy. You cannot think. You cannot concentrate. Everybody is coming up with a medicine, telling you what you have to do.
"In Argentina I had a lot of pressure, a lot of trouble from the press. They called me, 'The Eternal Second.' It bothered me. I wanted very much to win."