I played for first time the Australian Open in 1977. It is true that took me quite time to participate on it, because my background on grass was very good since I won the Masters in 1974, but for reasons of calendar I could not play until three years later. I was not wrong, since I lost at the final – my second in Grand Slam – with the American Roscoe Tanner.
Still, I was not satisfied because, among other strategic errors, I did not prepare myself enough; before playing, I practiced only about 30 or 40 minutes, and during the match, I felt lost. Tiriac saw it clear: ” you were starting to play well at the end of the match”, he said quite rightly, when the 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 was a thing of the past… I took it as a good lesson and, from there, I worked several hours at important previous.
We realized something vital: I needed too much time to warm up to be competitive and give my maximum performance. I should start the matches with some physical wear and play them almost sweating. I looked at other players to see if I was wrong, but not: Borg confessed me that before winning one of his Wimbledon, he trained four hours… We must warm up until you feel that the body is responding a 100%. It is not worth saying: “I do the warm up half an hour and I am ready to play”.
That day against Tanner was infernal. People didn’t move from their seats because they couldn’t bear the temperature. When we ran we could feel the squeal on the ground, which looked like a desert, with the scorched grass. I could not be stopped and Tanner killed me with his serve, impossible to return it. The bounce of the ball was so fast that came over me and hit my body.
In 1978 I arrived with time enough and I asked for the worst court that the organizers had. They gave me one on the far side of the club, in a not finish building sector and almost without space at the bottom of the court. I needed to practice and do the experiments there, where the grass were very deteriorated, and the ball could not bounce well and forced me to be alert. I knew that I would damage the court during the training, so they will not say anything to me. I remember that the court had a hole so big that I had to cover it with towels to see it and do not break me a leg… I always wanted to train in not fixed surfaces; they recreate an extreme situation that allows you to adapt fast to one in good condition, where everything is easier and the ball does not bounce wrong. I practiced against sun, with tennis shoes in bad condition… saving the large distances, I was following the example of Picasso, who used the worst brushes and the worst fabrics…
I took a couple of practices with [the Australian] Tony Roche, which lasted about ten minutes each; I did exercises to improve the volley which worked very well. I also practiced with several local players: Brad Drewett, John Alexander and Peter McNamara and several outstanding juniors of the moment, which Ray Ruffels trained. One of them was Pat Cash, a promising boy that ten years later won Wimbledon. Train me on grass wasn’t easy. In Australia it was less complex than Wimbledon, but the basic always was that the courts were not all equal and we should get used to the different bounces. A week before the start the tournament Tiriac came and we plan the work to get used to the grass.
Local players were already used because they were born in those courts and even they wore special shoes, which were not easy to find. It took me much time to find them because they hardly ever had in stock and you had to order them. At the end, after visiting various stores in Melbourne with the “Profe Belfonte”, I found a Puma that could be adapted. As I slipped with the normal ones, I bought a few pairs for the game and other to use in the street, which they had the same cosmetics. What did I do? I cut the sole in small pieces to get a better grip. Over the years, Puma fabricated me specific shoes and I didn’t have any more problems.
In some matches, the organizers saw that when I finished playing, the court was a bit damaged… Then they said to me: “Mr Vilas, we see that you work very hard on the court, but we do not understand why is that bad”. Without a word, I showed them the sole: it was the tennis one so they remained quiet. The secret was to swap them every time I went in or came out to play, just in case they asked me. It was not so bad, perhaps I damaged the grass a little bit, it is true, but that did not represent anything illegal.
Another obstacle was always the intense heat, it is obvious. Some days was becoming intolerable: people fainting in the stands and we had to wait for them to carry them out on a stretcher to retake the match; I saw fall many birds passing flying and pouf! They hit the ground, and the match remained stopped until they carry them out. And, of course, flies… There were moments that I slapped them because they beat me on the cheeks during the game, and that destabilized me. Overall, a mixture of sensations. Even my ears were buzzing because sometimes there was low pressure.
At the final I defeated John Marks in four sets and I did not celebrate it: “I promised God that if I won, I did not celebrate it. And I did not. I greeted my opponent and I thanked God praying the Our Father until my chair “. I saw Tiriac in the dressing room and he was furious, because I did not express my joy and I did not greet him; He thought that I did not give importance to such achievement. I did not even open my mouth.
Before the next tournament, he told me that he won´t train me anymore, he was not interested to be with someone ungrateful… And he was right and I did not have another alternative that explain him about the promise – a secret that I kept in my heart -, he understood it and I was able to reassure him. Of course I wanted to celebrate it because it is beautiful get the triumph! The contact with the people, get what one really wants after a lot of effort… It cost me a lot contain the joy. I have already won a Grand Slam, and then another – the most difficult step for a Grand Slam champion is win the second one – and then I wanted to get one in a rare surface for me, like grass. Then will come another challenge for me: repeat the victory in one of them. This anguish helped me to prepare what would come next.
The following year I went back to train me on a court away from the club, the worst of all, and [the Australian] Ken Rosewall helped me a lot, among others. Belfonte focused on a schematic physical work, which we did in front of the Hilton Hotel, in a huge field. I run around the perimeter, recovering with jogging, lateral steps, stretchings… A great physical demand which would give me results because I did not get tired during the matches. I was lucky to win again, this time I beat John Sadri in 3 straight sets.
I understand the surprise of the people after winning two open Australia, on grass, and no other Roland Garros, for example. I worked hard in my adaptation to grass: I got used to the Australian courts and I practiced the serve and volley. The first volley was not good, but with the second I could define because I was already on the top of the net. When I have to play again on slow tracks, I just needed a “click” and I resumed the shots from the base line immediately; it was not hard for me, I had the technical game in my head.
In Australia, I could train with time enough, something that has not happened at Wimbledon, where there were few available courts and was always raining. I think I was unlucky because the condition was not good for me in order to achieve more Grand Slam titles. In France they thought just install lights only on one side of the court, to complete long matches; I was about to get the title at Forest Hills ‘ 75 and I got injured… Bad luck appeared at various times in my career and that harmed me