At Roland Garros yesterday, we saw arguably
the next world number one in men’s tennis breaking Guillermo Vilas’s record of 53
straight victories on clay. There was a minor celebration, a special trophy
awarded to the young Spaniard, with photographers lined up to capture the
moment. It was Vilas who, somewhat begrudgingly, handed over the trophy.

If we’re going to be blunt about it, Vilas’s
reaction was pretty undignified. He told reporters that nobody gave him a
trophy when he set the record, and claimed, with no hint of shame, that Nadal’s
record was earned on the cheap.

“First of all,
Nadal’s record is spanning over two years, and that is not the same,” he said.
Vilas’s record was set between May and September 1977, a remarkable performance
in any era. Perhaps Vilas is saying we shouldn’t be comparing his record with
Nadal’s because they represent quite distinct sporting feats. But sorry
Guillermo, that’s not how sporting records work.

Rightly or wrongly,
contemporary players and teams are compared to those of the past, despite
playing under vastly different conditions. Not only are today’s players fitter,
they’re using better equipment, and in sports like cricket, actually playing on
smaller grounds. So it may seem unfair, but that’s life.

Indeed, comparing teams
and players of different eras is one of the great questions of sport, an
exercise which gives rise to questions like, would Nadal today beat Vilas at
his peak in 1977? You’d have no trouble selling tickets to the match if you
could organise it, but given the current problems associated with time travel,
it’s a match that’s likely to stay in the realm of conversation for a while
yet.

Vilas wasn’t finished
there. “Then I have the feeling that he had easy tournaments on his schedule
for that purpose,” he said, suggesting Nadal’s record is contrived.

His criticisms might be accurate, and in
the fictitious battle for the title of clay-court king Vilas might have won.
But right now, it’s the Nadal and Federer show, so he might as well sit back
and enjoy what tennis has become, thanks to former greats like himself.

Peter Fray

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