Don't cry for him, Argentina. Don't cry for the kid. Save a tear for Guillermo. The poet, Guillermo Vilas, once a poem of grace himself, is an old tennis man now, 28 years old. Only four years ago, he owned the world. He won 13 tournaments that magical season. He won the French and U.Us. opens. Don't cry for Jose-Luis Clerc, who is young and becoming what he will be. It is Vilas who will never again be what he was.
Look at the fifth game of the second set last night. Clerc would win the Washington Star's $200,000 tournament, 7-5, 6-2. Vilas once whiffed a shot. wLater he chopped one into the dirt off the frame. In that fifth game it was plain that Clerc was a rising star, crossing the night sky brilliantly as Vilas fell.
On his serve, Clerc passed Vilas with a forehand down the line. Only three games earlier, Vilas' coach/confidante Ian Tiriac spun his finger at Vilas and nodded toward the net. "Come in," the motions said. Well, as he came in, Clerc's thundering forehand passed down the line. It was 15-love.
It was 30-love on Clerc's half-volley lob over a Vilas paralyzed by the perfection of the touch shot, and a backhand volley behind a big serve made it 40-love. All Clerc needed to demonstrate mastery of the man who was No. 1 in the world when the kid was a year away from being so high as No. 258 -- all he needed was a serve struck se well Vilas could not raise his forehand in time to even wave goodbye.
Clerc ended that game with such an ace, going up four games to one, and from there the end was clear, with the estimated 5,800 paying customers roused to cheer only with the hope that Vilas would make it a memorable match with a rally of the sort he once could muster.
No such luck. This last night of the Star tournament was a bummer. Clerc's domination of Vilas, along with Vilas' terrible weakness on his serve, made the evening an exercise in yawning. Certainly the contingent of Argentinians high in the grandstands loved this match of the two best players in their country, and even a half-hour after the match chanted, "Argentina . . . Argentina."
Well, some people thought the chair umpire was the best entertainment of the night. Tennis is a veddy, veddy proper game. We know that because John McEnroe tells us so. We should all behave ourselves at tennis matches. At the request of Vilas and Clerc, the chair umpire last night asked several things of the paying customers.
Be quiet, he said.
Don't take flash pictures during play, he said.
Good heavens, don't fan yourself while the ball is in play.
And take the nearest seat.
It was, we discovered, permissible to breathe, as long as you did it discreetly.
With last night's sellout, the first of the week, the Star tournament attracted 72,100 people. That is encouraging for the Washington Area Tennis Patrons Foundation, which puts on the affair.
Remember, nine of the 16 seeded players were eliminated by the second round. Clerc and Vilas made it to the final without playing a seeded opponent. Boredom breeds that way. Yet the tournament has built a strong enough foundation in 13 years to draw its usual 70,000 customers.
The tournament deserves to live, not only for the good it does in inner-city tennis, but simply as a world-class sports event worth your dollar. The Star did well for this city with its tournament, and someone ought to pick up the $200,000 tab for next year.
The Star's director of marketing, John Hyde, presented the trophies last night. He said to Vilas, "I know how it feels to be the runner-up."
You didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
The sight of Vilas struggling was perplexing, too, for in those glorious years of 1975, '76 and '77 Vilas ascended with a grace and power seldom given to one man at one time. His topspin backhand could rip the racket from a weak player's grip. Frome the baseline, he yet sent shots deep from both sides, pinning his opponent helpless.
But always, always, he had a flaw. His serve betrayed him. As with Jimmy Connors, who had every other weapon but the serve, Vilas tinkered and experimented, trying to invent a way to get the first serve in hard. For a while, he did. For a while, he was the best.
He is no slouch now. Vilas is ranked No. 6 in the world. He is second in money winnings. But he wins only on clay now, never on the fast courts. He is a one-dimensional player because the serve, never good, is terrible now. At times last night, his first serve seemed struck with a napkin, it flew so softly.
Clerc's serve popped. Vilas' puffed.
"He never hit hard," Clerc said.
"My serve never was the best part of my game," Vilas said. "So if you expect anything to go bad, it's my serve."
Without a strong serve, Vilas was the helpless one last night, overmatched by a kid no longer No. 258 in the world but now No. 5.
"And Vilas play all the time in the back," Clerc said, meaning Vilas stayed at his familiar spot behind the baseline. "So I feel more relaxed."
Vilas had no serve. He played from the baseline, exactly the way Clerc hoped ("I feel really, really strong tonight").
Vilas beat Clerc the first six times they met.
But now, in a year, Clerc has won two of their last three matches.
The torch is passing.
"He has a great future," Vilas said of Clerc. "He is strong, he knows how to attack. He has everything to be a world champion."
Someone once said those things of Guillermo Vilas.