Guillermo Vilas, a photo that shake his friends and admirers and an open controversy
Reality is tough, reality bites. Especially when it remains hidden and then suddenly becomes evident.
This is the case of Guillermo Vilas, Argentine tennis legend and one of the most successful tennis players of all time, winner of four Grand Slam titles and 62 tournaments in total. Little and nothing was said about him in recent years, with the Argentine press respecting a tacit agreement not to comment on the neurodegenerative disease that afflicted him.
Sheltered in Monte Carlo with his wife and four children, the 70-year-old Vilas was an absent presence. Or a present absence. Until Wednesday 16 May 2023, when it was confirmed that Vilas is, but apparently is not. That he is, but seems not to be.
The photo that his wife, Phiangphathu Khumueang, uploaded to her Instagram account shows a noticeably aged and absent-looking Vilas. Many of his fans, many Argentines, were thrilled to see him again after a long time without a current photo of their idol being posted. But for others it generated a combination of shudder and sadness.
It is one thing to know that Vilas was not well, and another to see him in a photo.
“The first impression is one of surprise and generates a deep sadness. That a partner you knew all your life, with so many concerns, curiosities and such an active mind, suddenly has this Alzheimer’s disease that makes you basically unrecognisable,” Modesto “Tito” Vázquez, Vilas’ partner in the junior tennis era and in the Davis Cup teams, told CLAY.
“When you see that photo and you think about what it’s like to grow old without illness, like Bjorn Borg, logically it shakes you up. It makes me very sad to see him with that expressionless face of illness.
Vázquez, 74, a great tennis analyst with a distinguished career as a coach, believes that Vilas’ wife published the photo for valid reasons known only to herself.
“She is the person who looks after him, Guillermo’s muse, with whom he has made a family. She is like María Kodama with Borges. I know that when Guillermo began to notice his illness he said he wanted to leave Argentina. And I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, she’ll do it for some reason of love or to keep him alive in her own way despite all the pain it may cause”.
“The logical thing would be to see a picture of a person assuming his age like Keith Richards and with dignity. Seeing a sick person causes much more pain”, he concluded.
Guillermo Salatino, a historic Argentine tennis journalist who followed Vilas’ entire career and even played against him when the future champion was still a child, told CLAY that he would not have published a photo like the one that was circulated: “As a friend and because I love Guillermo, I wouldn’t publish it in any way. It seems to me that it is a photo that provokes sorrow, pain, pity”.
“As a friend and because I love Guillermo, I wouldn’t publish it in any way. It seems to me that it is a photo that provokes sorrow, pain, pity,” Guillermo Salatino, a historic Argentine tennis journalist who followed Vilas’ entire career and even played against him when the future champion was still a child, told CLAY.
“It seems to me that a photo should not be published in this way, with Guillermo not giving his consent, because he does not have the capacity to decide. I don’t know what they’re after, whether it’s love or affection, what’s the point, to show that he’s destroyed,” added Salatino, who at 77 is retired from the profession, although he follows the day-to-day life of the circuit.
“But that’s my point of view, she is free to do what she wants. I understand her right and I don’t know her motives, so I can’t criticise her,” he concluded.
What Salatino says is, words more, words less, what many in the Argentine tennis environment pointed out since the photo was released, which hours later was followed by another of Guillermo, the youngest son of the Roland Garros, US Open and Australia champion.
The couple, who married in 2016, have four children: Andanin, 18, who is a good tennis player, Landinlao, 12, and Intila, 11. The youngest is Guillermo junior, who has also been seen in photos with a racket in his hands. Phiang Vilas, in addition to looking after her husband, had to take care of her estate and support the Vilas Tennis Academy, with branches in Mallorca and the Dominican Republic.
Many, in turn, understand that it is not possible to make a categorical judgement about what is right and what is wrong. A comment on the social networking site Twitter reflected this by drawing a comparison with Germany’s Michael Schumacher, a seven-time Formula 1 world champion who has been in a delicate state of health for years, although no photo of him has ever been seen since a ski accident: “They criticise Schumacher’s wife for hiding him. They criticise Vilas’s wife for exposing him. What’s wrong with people?”.
Ricardo Rivera, a lifelong friend and one-time coach of Vilas, told CLAY he is shocked by the image.
“I want to remember Guillermo in another way, the way I saw him and shared with him. While I don’t deny the illness he has, I prefer to remember him as a great one”.
Vilas’ wife accompanied the photo with a declaration of love: “Because you are my everything”.
And Vilas, who made Argentine tennis a passion of the masses, is everything to his fans as well. Fans who have just lost their innocence when it comes to remembering the champion.