June 12, 2024

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Report: Tennis icon Vilas battling cognitive decline

Former tennis great Guillermo Vilas of Argentina watches Andy Murray of Great Britain play against Paul Capdeville of Chile during the second round of the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York, Friday, Sept. 4, 2009. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

Guillermo Vilas was one of the first rock stars of tennis’s open era: a flashy, crowd-pleasing lefty from Argentina who could fairly be called the Rafael Nadal of his era.

With the wild mane of hair, the bulging biceps and the trademark bandanna, Vilas was a tennis rock star.

But a report from the Argentine newspaper Olé says Vilas, only 67, is in a “major stage of a pathology coinciding with cognitive degeneration”.

As yet, there is no official statement from Vilas or anyone related to him or representing him.

The original Olé story cited a large number of anecdotal and cumulative examples of his struggles.

Thursday, longtime Argentine tennis journalist Guillermo Salatino, who has known Vilas since he was 10 years old, confirmed it.

If Vilas was a star worldwide, he is a major icon at home in Argentina.

The now-ubiquitous “tweener” is often called the “Gran Willy” after Vilas, whose nickname, Willy, is a diminutive of Guillermo.

The report expresses only sadness at the reported state of affairs. It has since been taken up by most of the media in the country, and beyond.

Anecdotal evidence from many sources

Vilas with his “successor” of sorts, a young Rafa Nadal, at Roland Garros in 2006.

One quote, from former Argentina Davis Cup captain (and former Vilas doubles partner) Tito Vasquez more than two years ago, goes like this: “No one says it but I think he has Alzheimer’s. And, according to what I understand from people who have spoken to me, they have seen it quite badly,” Vazquet said in an interview.

The piece cites other examples, such as an interview Vilas gave in 2015 in which he couldn’t give the exact ages of his three daughters, and forgot the name of one of them.

And then, in 2016, this: “Vilas was honored at the (Buenos Aires) Lawn Tennis Club, whose centre court is named after him. Someone well-known from Mar del Plata remembers … “Guillermo began to talk about having arrived by train in Buenos Aires, then he said that it had been by car. … He was walking from one side to the other and they had to guide him, he was like lost … “

There are several more stories like this one.

Journalist/friend Salatino confirms

Thursday, Salatino expressed his unhappiness that the news was made public by Olé.

But now that it’s out there, he stated that he’d known about it for years, and added some details.

Vilas playing the legends event at the 2007 US Open. (Stephanie Myles/Open Court)

“For three or four years we have known that Guillermo isn’t right . … If I ever write a book about what I know about Vilas, (Gabriela) Sabatini, (Jose Luis) Clerc or (David) Nalbandian I make a bestseller, I can assure you,” he said on his radio show. But I prefer to be a friend rather than a good journalist. When you find out about things personally, you don’t count them, ” Salatino added.

“There are several journalists who know this, because we have had a personal relationship with him. I realized it at the (2016 US) Open … After talking to him, I realized that he was somewhere else…. As time went by, we found out about people who are with him, especially (fellow journalist) Eduardo Puppo, who is writing a book about him (and) who has almost daily contact. We knew that Guillermo has had cognitive problems three or four years ago. He has moments when he’s perfect and others when he is somewhat lost. “

“As time passed, his health worsened. We do not know exactly what it is. It would be unwise to speak of Alzheimer’s or senile dementi. We do know that he has cognitive problems, even though that is a broad definition”

A tribute from Maradona

Another Argentine legend, soccer icon Diego Maradona, had a poignant message for Vilas on his Instagram.

“Dear Willy, we owe you so many joys and emotions. I hope that you ALWAYS receive the respect and dignity that we all deserve, in good times, and especially in bad times. Hopefully at this time, we can be worthy of you. A huge hug, legend.”

Shooting the (media) messenger

The “shooting the messenger” principle came to life, so much so that the newspaper that broke the news wrote a piece defending its decision to publish the news, and reiterating it was done with the utmost respect.

(If you understand Spanish, here’s Argentine tennis federation president Agustin Calleri on this – starting at the point in the interview where he’s asked about it).

Father of four in Monte Carlo

Vilas lives in Monaco, where there doesn’t seem to have been much access to him in recent years although his wife does post regularly on Instagram and he (or someone else) administers his own account.

After living the life of an international playboy most of his life, Vilas settled down and married in 2005. He was 47 when he met Phiangphathu Khumueang, a 17-year-old from Thailand, and they married five years later.

After three daughters – Andanin (seen below), Lalindao and Intila, they became parents to son Guillermo Vilas, Jr., who is now just three years old.

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