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Vilas looking to regain tennis spotlight with big year

Guillermo Vilas has been having the type of year most players can only dream about.

He has already won seven tournaments, been runner-up in three others, and inserted a large feather in his cap by defeating Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors twice each. About all that's missing is a major championship, and there's still time to take care of that when the US Open begins later this month.

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His name, however, probably won't be mentioned as prominently as that of three-time champion John McEnroe, Wimbledon winner Jimmy Connors, or even Ivan Lendl. This is because, quite frankly, Guillermo may have been a little off his game the last several years. Also, he has always been considered much more dangerous on clay than on faster surfaces. But he's been playing so well lately that he may be ready to pull a few surprises -- even on the asphalt-like surface on which the US Open is now contested.

''Once you start working, there comes the time when sooner or later everything comes together,'' Vilas said after his recent victory in the US Pro Championships in Boston. ''This year I have been working very hard and have been winning.''

He appears well on his way toward re-establishing himself as one of the game's premier players, as he was in 1977, when he won both the French and US Opens, the latter victory coming in the last year the tournament was played on clay at Forest Hills.

Vilas also won the 1978 Australian Open, a victory he considers particularly significant since it came on grass and thus demonstrated that he doesn't always have to have a clay surface to do well. Since that time, however, he has not dominated the spotlight due to the many successes of Bjorn Borg, and the rise of McEnroe. He ended 1981 holding the No. 6 ranking in the world and even lost his No. 1 ranking in Argentina to fellow countryman Jose-Luis Clerc.

The public first began to take notice of Vilas in 1974, when he won 15 consecutive matches after Wimbledon. His game continued to soar, too, as he won 54 of 60 matches from July through October.

It wasn't only Vilas's tennis that fascinated people, though, but also his thoughtful character off the court. He is an intelligent and sensitive man who has many other interests.

''People forget that tennis is not the most important thing in the world,'' he says. ''To me, people themselves are the most important.''

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Vilas speaks softly, yet expressively, about subjects as diverse as religion, music, literature, and tennis. He is knowledgeable about many subjects and obviously eager to learn about many more. His inquisitive nature has led many to say that Guillermo is the most serious, sensitive, and deep-thinking player on the tour. He likes to write (he has a published volume of poetry in Argentina). He has also written song lyrics, and he keeps a journal in which he includes his impressions and thoughts. In the fast-paced life of a tennis pro, he makes time to enjoy, and contemplate, every aspect of his life.

But tennis still remains No. 1 with him. His many hours of work this year appear to have paid off. His game consists of a continual barrage of topspin strokes. He possesses probably the best topspin backhand in the game today, especially when combined effectively with a good slice backhand, and he has the stamina to stay out there as long as he has to in order to wear his opponent down.

Strength is another of Guillermo's assets, and indeed, with his broad shoulders and powerful legs he looks more like a fullback than a tennis pro. He has a good serve, and he hits his groundstrokes hard and deep. He is very agile too, however, covering the court well as he glides smoothly from side to side. And this combination of grace and strength has always made him a gallery favorite.

In talking with Vilas, one can sense the rigors of the tennis world. When asked about his play after his victory at the US Pro Championships last month, he said:

''I am playing well, but the travel and conditions are hard. The only thing that makes it worthwhile day after day, week after week, month after month, is your love for the game. You practice and play all the time. You have to be a fanatic.

''I still love the game though. I think that if tennis becomes a job, then it shows.''

For Vilas, that day has yet to come, for tennis is still as much fun for him to play as it is for his fans to watch.

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