Something about clay-court greats. “The first time I touched fire, I burnt myself,” says Guillermo Vilas, the Argentine tennis player. “I thought I’ll get warm and that’s the way I discovered the world.” Decades later, Rafael Nadal would suggest a word in the context of the French Open finals - ‘suffering’. That’s the state a player like Nadal likes to wallow in to scale the highest peaks in tennis and he has the numbers to prove it. Vilas, too, loved clay and was one of the earliest players to repeat Manuel Santana’s immortal phrase - “Grass is for cows.”
The new documentary on Vilas - Settling the Score - streaming on Netflix excavates the greatness he achieved in men’s tennis in the mid-1970s and an Argentine journalist Eduardo Puppo’s quest to prove that that run gave Vilas the world number 1 ranking for a few weeks, something that was never accounted for and therefore, one of the records that Vilas never officially achieved. The ATP computer ranking began in 1973 and wasn’t as perfect and thorough as it is today, and Puppo’s contention is that for a few weeks in 1975, Vilas had surpassed Jimmy Connors to be the number 1 ATP player in the world.
Vilas is an odd one out in the way young tennis players evolve. He loved the game, but he didn’t have parents breathing down his neck, berating him to do better. They were wealthy and privileged, and hoped that he’d give up and get married. Vilas was alone in his pursuit of tennis excellence, touring mostly alone and winning tournaments everywhere, the Orange Bowl announcing his arrival. Director Matias Gueilburt recreates a tennis player’s peripatetic lifestyle in vivid modern-day details. Room service food consumed and discarded on tray, unmade beds with tennis racquets lying on a sofa, and clothes on the floor. A locker room with shoes worn out and socks with dirt. But these scenes are also devoid of life, as deserted as hotel hallways at 3 am.
It is a particular aspect of a lonely sport, only made lonelier for someone like Vilas, who had audiotapes recorded and diaries written during his years in top-tier tennis. One can imagine Vilas in these situations, the only man in the locker room or the only one in the hotel, keeping to himself and writing down or speaking out his innermost thoughts to no one. He finds other avocations – poetry, 70s music in America — and meets J Krishnamurthy in Gstaad. He was unlike his greater contemporary and good friend Bjorn Borg, who had the crowds swooning and swarming. Even during the 1975 Roland Garros final, the announcer mistakenly calls on Borg and Adriano Panatta, and then makes the correction.
Borg, in the documentary, agrees that the points system back then was “weird” and nobody really understood it.
Puppo’s efforts are not without precedent. Evonne Goolagong Cawley was recognised as number 1 WTA player for two weeks of 1976, 31 years late, in 2007, when it was found that incomplete data was used to calculate the rankings. Puppo’s obsession with this spilled over to his personal life, reams of papers with draws and matches coming between him and his family in his own home.
His wife helped him find someone who can make his number-crunching work faster, landing on the appropriate person in the most obvious fashion today — internet forums where people with made-up names spend hours together pouring over their favourite game, its history and data. Romanian mathematician Marian Ciulpan joined Project V, as Puppo called it. The work is not just about crunching tournament points and getting details of draws and who beat whom, but also inferring where to look.
New York Times tennis journalist Christopher Clarey puts it best in his exclamatory response when Puppo wanted details of Vilas’ 1975 season, when everyone knows that his career-best year was 1977.
Settling the Score captures a time lost to tennis fans of today, specially men’s tennis. An era of transition from amateur to Open still in flux, surface specialists who were just discovering top spin, haphazard draws and tournaments, fans entering courts, and Ion Tiriac as coach puffing cigarette after cigarette during play. A few years ago, during the 40th anniversary of the computer rankings, men who have reached the summit congregated in New York.
Andy Roddick quipped that he is honoured to be the worst player in the room. That’s how special the tag can be. “I made all the right decisions,” says Vilas talking about his run to the Masters in 1974. That’s tennis, making the right decisions with shot, technique, and footwork. Vilas made the right ones. The ATP and its computers did not.
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Documentary: Settling the Score Streaming on: Netflix