The Rolex Paris Masters roster of champions lists many of the greatest players in tennis, including Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Pete Sampras and Arthur Ashe.
Then there’s Mark Vines of the United States. The ATP website lists his career won-loss record as 8-24. Five of those victories came one remarkable week in Paris in 1981.
Vines played at Southern Methodist University and graduated in 1979. Competing in the satellite events that exist just below the ATP, Vines’ first main draw wins came at the 1981 United States Open, when he reached the third round before losing in four sets to Ivan Lendl.
“It took about a year or two to get the hang of being a pro, to figure out what to carry, how to get your practice courts, who you’re going to practice with,” Vines said in September. Finances were also an issue, with Vines relying on private sponsors to support his travel expenses (his ’81 Open run earned him a mere $ 2,640).that
In Paris that fall, several things fell his way. He entered in the qualifying and got into the main draw when a player withdrew.
The tournament’s playing surface delivered a bounce that was slow and low, which was ideal for the 5-foot-7 Vines’ compact left-handed game of flat drives, a stilettolike slice backhand and crisp volleys. Even the ball helped Vines, a hard Dunlop that moved through the court like a BB. “You could hit the ball, and it would really skid,” he said.
His equipment helped, too. Seeking to economize, Vines always strung his rackets with synthetic gut, a cheaper and less lively string than the natural gut then used by most touring pros. But once in the main draw in Paris, Vines was given natural strings. Surface, balls and strings added up to a perfect trifecta.
Even his first-round matchup worked in his favor. Vines’ opponent, Harold Solomon, had won the Paris title in 1979 and a year later reached a career-high ranking of No. 5. Vines said that hardly intimidated him. In 1975, while still in high school, Vines said he played Solomon in a practice match while on a recruiting trip to Solomon’s alma mater, Rice University. Vines said he took a 5-0 lead, at which point Solomon walked off the court.
Solomon said this month that he did not remember the match, but that he remembered seeing Vines play.
“I thought he was going to be a good player,” Solomon said. “He had a lot of good skills.”
Shortly before their Paris match, Vines recalled, Solomon told him two things. Solomon congratulated him for making it into the main draw and mentioned that he remembered what happened at Rice. Vines said, “Me too.”
Vines took a 6-1, 3-1 lead. He said that Solomon was so frustrated that he abandoned his customary baseline-based style and Solomon started “coming to net more.” Too little, too late. Vines won the second set 6-3.
Next were two three-setters Vines now says he barely remembers. The first was a 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 win against Paolo Bertolucuci of Italy. He then beat Richard Lewis of England 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. Having reached the semifinals, Vines’ surprising run pleased the fans. “The crowd was loving me,” he said.
But then came time to play a local hero, Yannick Noah of France. Vines said neither Noah’s charisma nor his tennis fazed him.
“The court and the balls suited me perfectly,” Vines said. “I was just playing the ball, seeing it great. There was nothing he could hurt me on.”
Vines won the first set 6-4, and the two entered a tiebreaker in the second. The crowd then was cheering for Noah.
“The fans were all Yannick fans,” Vines said. “Hey, so was I.”
Several points into the tiebreaker, Vines recalled, Noah hit a massive lob. As Vines prepared to smash it, a spectator yelled, in English, “Miss it!” His concentration broken, the ball hit his frame and landed several feet outside the lines. The crowd went nuts. And so did Noah, who Vines said ran to the umpire chair, grabbed the microphone and told the crowd to be respectful. “From that point on,” Vines said, “I don’t miss a ball.”
Vines’ final-round opponent was another Frenchman, Pascal Portes, who a year earlier had beaten Jimmy Connors. “I hardly knew anything about him,” Vines said, “and quite frankly, I didn’t bother to ask.”
As Vines studied Portes in the warm-up, he also learned that the final was the best of five sets. “I didn’t plan for it,” Vines said. “All I was told was that it was tradition, that the final was always best of five. How was I supposed to know that? It was like, ‘Let’s play a surprise on the American.’ So I took all my energy, and I forgot the crowd was even there. I was all over him.”
Hitting the ball harder than he had all week, Vines won 6-2, 6-4, 6-3.
Ranked a career-high 110 at the end of 1981, Vines began 1982 with high hopes and then proceeded to lose 16 straight matches. By late spring, he struggled to find people to even practice with him. Defending his title in Paris, Vines lost in the first round. Not until November did he win a match, the first, and only, since Paris. By January 1983, Vines was ranked 342.
Even worse, his shoulder began to hurt to the point where by the end of 1983 surgery was recommended, a procedure that could have ended his career. Instead, Vines became a coach. He began by working with the young Americans Rodney Harmon, Eliot Teltscher, Mel Purcell and Robert Van’t Hof.
After a year with those players, Vines started a career as a tennis director, working at clubs in Texas, Colorado, Virginia and Florida, where he currently lives in Naples. Vines plays on the senior circuit and has won national and international titles.
“I would have to say that I wish I could have had more weeks like that, and I wish I knew the reasons for that,” he said about Paris and the U.S. Open. “I feel so blessed that I had the few great weeks that I did.”