Roland Garros 1978: Borg defeats Vilas
From Inside Tennis, a season on the pro tour by Peter Bodo:
On the day of the finals, transparent clouds travel through a sky of china blue. The air is crisp and cool, as if the seasons have changed and left a single autumnal day in honor of the past champions.
At the entrance to the Tribune présidentielle, the box reserved for honored guests and dignitaries, Juliet Mills sits at a table examining a complex seating chart, wondering where to put Belmondo, and Princess Caroline and Philippe Junot. Mills, a former film star, is now in charge of the celebrated at Roland Garros. Each day she attends to their needs and works out a seating arrangement as assiduously as a debutante giving her first dinner party.
On the floor of the stadium, a Signal Corps bad in khaki uniform plays brassy music as the galleries slowly fill. Runners of crimson velvet crisscross the court beneath the feet of ball boys who stand at parade rest holding a panoply of flags. A single strip of carpet provides a path from the court to the end of the stadium, up the stairs of the presidential box, and into a portal lined with royal guards in uniforms of black and red with burnished helmets.
The stadium is full now; the band is silent. Some 18,000 spectators await the start of the ceremony.
Suddenly the guardsmen raise their trumpets and sound a brisk fanfare. All eyes are fixed on the portal as the announcer intones the name of Henri Cochet, the seventy-six-year-old Frenchman who was the first champion of Roland Garros, and triggers an avalanche of applause.
Next comes René Lacoste, le crocodile, who turned his inelegant nickname into a trademark known throughout the world. Then Jean Borotra, the bouncing Basque, who smiles and waves casually, hardly pausing as he takes the stairs with the sprightly step that earned him his nickname. As he joins his fellow musketeers before the French standard, the parade of champions continues chronologically, from Peggy Vivian to a beaming Don Budge. There is Hoad, the blond bull wearing a mile-wide smile, looking as robust and invincible as ever; Darlene Hard Wagoner in a blue polyester pantsuit with a loud geometrically patterned top; Manuel Santana, the virtuoso, dapper and compact in a blazer of navy velvet.
The speaker reaches 1973 and the name Bjorn Borg. There is a moment of anticipation and then Borg appears, his hair clean and long and golden in the sun, his body lean and angular in the track suit that fits him like a second skin.
And then 1977 is called. Vilas steps out to a warm welcome. Vilas takes the stairs with his head bowed and proceeds to where Borg and Panatta stand chatting. He realizes his error and looks for the Argentinian flag. When he arrives before it, he exchanges a few words with his neighbour, Santana.
Borg held a long first game to start the match, then broke Vilas when the defending champion made three puzzling errors and double-faulted the love-40 point. Vilas broke back, but Borg won the next four games running to take the first set, 6-1, in a mere thirty-seven minutes.
Vilas is strong and Vilas is steady. Borg is his equal in that, but Borg is also frightening quick, and his consistency is neither defensive nor aimed at prolonging a point; it is merely an aggressive tactic to prepare him for the killing stroke. Errors from Vilas’ backhand begin to come with disturbing frequency. Each time he misses, he throws the racquet from his left hand to his right just as he concludes his follow-through, then snaps his left palm upward in a gesture of despair. It is meant only for the eyes of Tiriac, who sits courtside, just behind Vilas’ chair, sending a multitude of subtle hand signals to his protégé.
Absorbed in the match, Tiriac resembles some prehistoric turtle, with his broad, curved back and the sad, impassive eyes set deep in his head. The eternal cigarette cupped in his right hand is raised every other moment to the mustache that frames his mouth like an inverted horseshoe. When Vilas looks over, Tiriac will nod or just blink, but the blink seems loaded with profound implications.
Tiriac is no help today, for Borg is really on form, and Vilas has not mastered the attacking game well enough to force his opponent out of his rythm. After Borg wins the second set, also by 6-1, Tiriac advises Vilas to attack in the third. In desperation, Vilas begins to hit his flat first serve. He takes the initiative. He attacks, but he is tentative and flounders like a man caught in a bad dream. The dividends are higher now, and after surrendering an early break that gives Borg breathing room, Vilas manages to hold on and take three games. But he cannot stop Borg when the Swede serves for the match at 5-3. When Vilas hits a volley out to give Borg the match, the winner drops his racquet and slowly, almost as if he is yawning, raises his arms high above his head. He turns toward the players’ box, and for the first time in the match, he looks at his coach, Bergelin, and his fiancée, Marianna.
When Vilas sat down to the reporters, the light in his eyes expessed relief. “He gave me no chances to win. He made no mistakes. I think he played much better than me today,” he admitted.
Vilas was aked if so routine a loss to Borg was discouraging, and whether he felt that more work would ultimately give him a better chance against his Swedish rival. “I think I have to improve my play on all surfaces, learn to do more things,” he replied. “He is quicker, but I am stronger. Today, we were not out there so long that I could take advantage of my strength.” He continued, in a voice that was softer and less mechanical, “There are many disadvantages with my kind of thinking, but I have also one big advantage – I am not happy.”
“Why not?” a woman reporter asked kindly.
“It is impossible. When you are happy … you are dead.”
When Borg appeared, his hair hanging in thick, wet strands about his ears and shoulders, he was smiling.
“Well, how will you celebrate your third French title?”
“There will be a big kiss tonight,” Borg quipped.
He was surprised the match went so easily and felt that he won all the important points – the deuce and 30-40 points that support a win. After the first two games, he knew that Vilas did not have the confidence to beat him: “I see it in his shots, you know, and also in his face. He looks to me a little bit afraid. He become very nervous when he makes a mistake, like he cannot believe it, you know? Like somebody is doing something very bad to him.”
Someone suggested that Vilas might have a complex about him, but Borg would not confirm the theory. However, he allowed that his easy wins over Vilas in their last few matches had put him at a distinct advantage.
A late arrival asked Borg if he was doing anything special that evening.
“Yes in one hour I go on plane for Belgrade to play Davis Cup,” said the champion.
“You will have a champagne party, maybe?”
“Yeah.” Borg laughed. “Maybe on the plane.”
On the way out, I asked Borg what he would like to do on the private jet waiting at nearby Charles de Gaulle airport to take him to Belgrade.
“Sleep,” he replied.