Victor Pecci: "And the whole stadium started chanting my name"
They sang his name in the stands, relegating the great Björn Borg to a mere bystander in the 1979 French Open final, even if the Swede went on to win it. With his tall, dark good looks, diamond earring and resolutely attacking style – this at a time when heavy topspin began to hold sway – Victor Pecci caused a bigger stir than anyone that year, defeating Guillermo Vilas and Jimmy Connors on his way to the final. The Paraguayan loved Roland-Garros and the fans loved him back, elevating him to the status of one of their favourite foreign players. Voted his country’s greatest sportsman of all time in 2011, Pecci joined us to look back on his most memorable Parisian campaign.
Pecci on Roland-Garros
"My first visit to Roland-Garros was something of a shock for me. It was in 1973, I was 17 years old and I came to play the junior tournament. It was the first time I’d ever been to Europe. I was all on my own, without my parents or anyone. That French Open was my very first Grand Slam event. It was like I was discovering a whole new world. Back then there was no internet or WhatsApp, which have brought down all these barriers. And they didn’t show tennis on Paraguayan TV either. It was a real eye-opener for me when I got to Roland-Garros. Aside from photos, I had no idea what the tennis world was like. It was all a shock for me, though I enjoyed it all because I won the tournament. It was a whole new world opening up for me and I loved it."
"It was the final I played here in 1979 that really brought the French Open to the attention of people in Paraguay. It’s a not a tennis country. We tend to be more into team sports, like football, basketball and volleyball. When I was growing up I played football and tennis and I went swimming too. Fortunately for me, my father gave me his support when I decided I wanted to play tennis. It wasn’t the easiest choice. If you’re going to play tennis, you need the right facilities and plenty of money, and you have to do a lot of travelling if you want to make progress. They’re all still obstacles today, though there was a bit of a boom when I was playing: there was my French Open final and the quarter-finals of the Davis Cup. That was when tennis started to become popular in Paraguay. People knew nothing about the scoring system in tennis until I played the final at Roland-Garros… 15-0, 30-0, 30-all, 30-40… It just didn’t sound right. It took a Paraguayan playing in a Grand Slam final for the first time to get people interested in tennis. Even so, it’s still hard to bring tennis players on in Paraguay. The obstacles I faced in my time are still there, even if they’re not quite so big now. But at least people have been following the French Open since I reached the final, which is now a major event on the sporting calendar."
"Even though I played a serve-and-volley game, I always liked clay a lot. I grew up on the surface and I enjoyed the five-set format too. For me, that’s the way tennis should be played. Five-setters are the matches that you remember. I had plenty of stamina too, and those games never fazed me. In fact, going to five sets gave me more time to play. The longer a match went on, the stronger I felt."
In 1979: maybe the first tweener in all Roland-Garros (and Grand Slam) history
"Roland-Garros defined my career"
"The French Open defined my career. I won the junior title, reached the final of the senior competition, and got to the semi-finals two years later, in 1981. And it didn’t really feel like a surprise either because I knew how to get there."
"I’ve been to Roland-Garros as a player and I’ve been as a coach, with my compatriots Rossana de los Rios, who won the junior tournament in 1992, and then Ramon Delgado, who beat Pete Sampras on the way to reaching the last 16 in 1998. And I’ve been as a veteran player too, to play the Legends Trophy. I won it in 2004 but I don’t play any more. I’ve got arthrosis in my back, a herniated disc – all the unpleasant things a top-level sportsman gets when they grow old."
"The stadium and the city are very close to my heart. To my mind, Paris is the most beautiful city in the world. Every time I go there I’m blown away by its beauty. Versailles is like something out of a fairy tale. The only thing that leaves something to be desired is the weather (laughs)."
Pecci on his 1979 final
"It was the high point of my career, the thing that people remember. I didn’t play that well in the first two rounds (against François Jauffret and Pavel Slozil) and had quite a few problems, but I managed to win both matches in four sets. Then, in the third round against Corrado Barazzutti, my game just came together. I was serving better, moving better and placing my shots better, all of which meant I could hit with more power. I felt I was getting stronger and stronger all the way through to the final. I was stronger against Harold Solomon in the last 16 then I was against Barazzutti, stronger against Guillermo Vilas in the quarters than I was against Solomon, and stronger against Jimmy Connors in the semis than I was against Vilas. I beat Solomon and Vilas easily, in three sets, and I beat Connors in four, though I was always in the lead."
"The victories over Vilas and Connors were the biggest of my career. The first was big because it was a South American duel. There’s a lot of rivalry between the people of Argentina and Paraguay. It’s always special. And the second was because it was Connors, a world No1, and because it opened the doors to the French Open final for me."
"The support I got from the fans really helped me in every one of those matches. I felt like I was being carried along by them. I was lucky because they had this affection for me and they made me realise what was actually happening to me, that I was switching from the outside courts to the Court Central, which were two very different places. My first match on the Central was the quarter-final against Vilas. The support I got from the fans in that match was so important for me. It’s a huge court and they helped me to feel right at home on it and confident enough to play my best tennis."
Pecci - Connors, 1979 semi-final: highlights
"I played well in the final too, but Borg was on a different level. He was tougher to play than the rest. He didn’t make a single mistake and he pounced on any mistakes you made. I was full of belief before the final because I was playing well. And with the wins I’d got under my belt I was full of confidence too. Once the match got under way, though, I was always playing catch up. I didn’t play badly and I didn’t feel I was being overrun, but I was always behind on the scoreboard. The third and fourth sets were tight, but I’d long since lost the first two. So…"
"And the whole stadium started chanting my name"
"I might have lost the final but the fans gave me one of the most moving moments of my career when it was over. There I was, coming back from collecting my runners-up trophy and feeling pretty disappointed when a small group of fans came on to the court to lift me up like I’d won. And the whole stadium started chanting my name: “Pe-cci, Pe-cci.” I couldn’t get over it. It was an amazing show of affection. It was as if they saw me as the winner. I’ll never forget it."
The people's choice: Victor Pecci!
Pecci on the tennis greats of his time
"Björn Borg was physically bigger than the rest of us. He was stronger and faster than the others. He didn’t make any mistakes and never seemed to be below his best, either physically or mentally. He never gave the impression he was having an off day."
"The difference between him and Vilas, Connors and the rest was that he played a little deeper. He always hit close to the line, without it going out. He kept you behind the baseline and stopped you from getting into a position where you could attack. And because he was the strongest, you had no option in long rallies but to take risks and go to the net, and then you’d find yourself being passed or lobbed. He was always unfailingly accurate in situations like that."
“Then along came John McEnroe, who had this incredible natural talent, which gave him the edge over Borg on fast surfaces. But McEnroe was amazing. Then came Ivan Lendl, who was the strongest player there’d ever been. He was young but he took Borg to five sets in the 1981 French Open final. If Borg had kept on playing (he retired in 1982, aged 26), they would have had a few more fantastic duels, and Lendl would have had more chance than anyone of coming up with a solution against Borg on clay, especially with the advent of composite racquets, which replaced wooden racquets at the start of the 80s. That only helped Lendl’s power game. I think Borg would have found it tough to gain the edge. But in my era at least, yes, Borg was the tennis ultimate tennis player.”
“Borg became a friend of mine. It was impossible not to get along with him. As a player he’d beat us virtually the whole time, but as a man he was so kind and humble. In 2009 he came to Paraguay to play an exhibition match with me, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of our French Open final.”