Although he is known in his environment as a partner of the “calm and silence” -walk slowly, calmly, the same apparent indifference with which he seemed to play in his heyday- Ricardo Cano continues to vibrate with tennis. Today a teacher, director and even attending to some family businesses, it is still one of the reference centers of those moments of the 70s and 80s in which Guillermo Vilas took Argentine tennis to a new dimension and in which Cano, from his role, built his own identity: the young promise, the “man 2 or 3” of a team capable of winning the Davis Cup, the ephemeral captain.
“I was convinced that We had to win the Davis Cup at that time because we had two of the best players in the world… and it did not happen, for very little”, remember. With Vilas and Clerc -who succeeded Cano by his own weight in the starting lineup- Argentina reached the semifinal of 1980 and succumbed, perhaps unexpectedly, at home to Ivan Lendl’s former Czechoslovakia, in the midst of discussions (distribution of profits, the famous request, the fight with the managers). A year later, already in the first final and in a much more difficult stop in Cincinnati against an almost invincible McEnroe, Argentina was millimeters away from being ahead with the doubles game.
Cano lived it from the inside: “Although it seems strange, I think we were much closer to winning it in ’81, because that doubles match was lost right there. In 1980, on the other hand, and although for many it was a surprise, we ran into a Lendl in full ascent and there was nothing to do”.
-But didn’t the previous issues, all the fights, the internal climate influence?
-As a player, I don’t see it that way. I think that when a tennis player enters the court, that is left aside. I never attributed the defeat to those discussions that surrounded the team and that cost me the anger of Vilas himself, until we were able to rebuild the relationship.
Vilas and Cano in the semifinal against Australia in 1977. (Photo: Eduardo Puppo / @puppotenis)
It was hard for Cano since months later, playing in Mar del Plata in a doubles match, the “fan” -or part of it- he attacked him throughout the match, with very hurtful chants… Born exactly 72 years ago in Buenos Aires, with a childhood in Caballito and tennis under the encouragement of his father Juan Miguel on the YPF courts, Cano was one of the best juniors of his generation and shared with Vilas the first international competitions, including a doubles title at the ’69 Orange Bowl.
“Tennis grabbed me from the start, I played for pleasure, I wanted to progress but I didn’t perceive it as a way of life, professionalism didn’t even exist. I think that the first prize that they authorized us was in a tournament in Belgrano, when they gave a television to the one who won. But when the youth stage passed, those of us who were at the top of the rankings were helped to travel to tournaments in Europe, which also had nothing to do with what is happening now. Maybe there were prizes of $200 or $300. We looked for each other, the invitations that included accommodation or food were good for us, ”he says.
Vilas and Cano shared those first voyages along European routes. Vilas’ game exploded from 1974 although, according to Richard“since the previous year, when he had a great Roland Garros, he felt that he was going to do very well with tennis and that his future passed through there”.
Cano gradually earned a place among the Davis Cup holders, when the battles against classic rivals such as Fillol-Cornejo’s Chile or Koch-Mandarino’s Brazil were epic. However, the Davis was also the framework for which the Argentine public gave him the greatest recognition of him. It happened in April 1977, when Cano defeated one of the greatest Americans, Dick Stockton, in the central court of Buenos Aires. It was the point that Argentina needed to beat the USA for the first time –Vilas, already a top player, always guaranteed two points- and thus Argentina reached the semifinal, although Australia stopped it months later on the same stage.
“Because of what that game meant and because of the repercussion among the people, in that sense it was the most important of my career. But I remember other even better games during my campaign”says.
Cano was a brick dust specialist. Photo: Lucia Merle
Cano worked for more than a decade on the international circuit and the list of his losers included names like those of the Mexican Raul Ramirez (whom he beat in the first round of the Italian Open), Eddie Dibbs, the Polish Wojtek Fibak or the Spanish José Higueras to cite some of the most exalted. He also defeated Vitas Gerulaitis in a memorable first round of the Argentine Open in 1975 (7-5 in the third set), where he climbed to the semifinals and there he was defeated by Vilas. Due to his style, technical and full of subtleties, Cano rarely played outside the clay courts. His presence ensured the subtle touches, the best technique, a point of beauty that fans admired, as opposed to the power and speed that were taking over the sport.
“I always felt happy playing tennis, beyond the results. What if something had changed? I think that if I had dedicated myself more to training or had a coach, I would have reached higher. But hey, it’s what touched me and you can’t go back now “he comments.
Between 75 and 81 he completed his best tours, reached two finals, losing the first in Hilversum 76 with the Hungarian Balasz Taroczy narrowly in the fifth set and the other, three years later, with a German with little experience, Werner Zirngibl, in Brussels. He had the pleasure of facing the greatest of his time and, among them, he remembers that “against Connors I felt comfortable, because his flat shots allowed me to play. I had it both times 5-4 in the first set and the serve, then he turned it around.” It happened in North Conway (76) and in Hamburg, six years later, where, once the game was on track, Jimbo did not grant him any option (6-0 in the second set). Instead, the one I had a really bad time against was Stan Smith. It was a night on the center court of Forest Hills, for the third round of the ’76 Open. I almost didn’t touch her, she took me out 6-0 and 6-1, a piece of shit”.
Ricardo Cano was captain of the Davis Cup team in 1983 when Vilas and Clerc were estranged. Photo: Lucia Merle
When his career was nearing the end and after the disappointments at Davis, he assumed the captaincy in 1983, trying to rebuild the deteriorated internal climate. He was not enough, Argentina was eliminated against the new Swedish band, anticipated the dismissal of Vilas from the team -Clerc’s came shortly after-, and the goodbye of Cano himself to his stage as a player. A generation concluded its journey.
“With Clerc I always had a very good relationship in the team, with Guillermo it was much more difficult. Once tennis became what it is, excessively individualistic, hyper-professional and competitive, relationships are more complicated. Later, once Guillermo also retired, everything returned to being more normal. We were tour, profession and team partners, although never friends”, he affirms.
As a coach, Cano was only there for a short time. “I accompanied him to Javier Frana a couple of years, in the early 90s. But I struggled with that role, I always felt the urge to play again, which is what I always liked.
The Argentine results of that time, such as those produced by the “Legion” and the conquest of the Davis Cup so recently, made Argentina a reference in tennis. With all the difficulties – economic, organizational – getting excited about a return to that level today seems like a distant goal. Cano confides: “I think that if the conditions are met, at some point we will have top players again. They are stages, cycles. Even when they have budgets a hundred times larger than ours, other countries also have a hard time ‘taking out’ players. I believe that due to the tradition of Argentine tennis and because the foundations of training are still maintained, in schools, at some point another great figure will emerge. I do not know when”.
Given his style of play – romantic, artistic – it could be assumed that Cano is not convinced by what is seen today at the international level. “It’s pure stick, pure power, let’s see who hits him the hardest… But, precisely for that reason, I like it when a different player appears. I always admired Nastase’s tennis and, of the current greats, Federer. And although now everything seems ‘stick and stick’, to think little and see who hits it harder, there is always something interesting to see. It was Fognini, it could be this Spanish boy, Alcaraz. I liked seeing Casper Rudd, the winner in Buenos Aires, and, among us, I think Báez has a very good future”, he says.