Juan Carlos Belfonte, the long-time former physical trainer of Guillermo Vilas, passed away on Tuesday aged 81 due to leukaemia and COVID-19 in Buenos Aires.
Belfonte, who studied as a physical education professor at the La Plata Institute for Physical Education, assisted Argentina in 58 Davis Cup ties between 1970 and 1990 and worked with Vilas, Bjorn Borg, Jose-Luis Clerc and Victor Pecci.
Guillermo Rivas told ATPTour.com, “In the 1970s, Belfonte saw that giving tennis players more resistance and explosive training gave them more options to play different games. He applied biomechanics before it was even talked about. While his star players were Vilas, Clerc, Pecci, Ricardo Cano, and at certain times Borg, he also produced a huge number of players of all levels. From him, all the Argentine physical trainers took their systems as the basis of their work.
“With Belfonte preparing tennis players, such as Vilas, Clerc and Pecci, often in groups of 12-15 players at the same time, you could see that their physical resistance was superior. They arrived at the ball with better balance and were able to hit with greater angles. Before Belfonte, tennis was about talent, not so much physical work. All of us who worked under the orders of Belfonte for years felt like his adopted children, and he made us feel like a group of brothers to this day without any differences in ranking.”
He started working part-time with Vilas in 1973, initially on his speed, endurance and playing in hot conditions at the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club, close to his home, or longer physical work in the Bosques of Palermo, near the planetarium.
Belfonte’s advanced techniques helped to prepare left-handed Vilas for victory at the 1974 Masters [now named the Nitto ATP Finals] on grass in Melbourne, which triggered a tennis boom in Argentina, and Grand Slam victories in the future. “He helped Vilas make the difference in the tournament, thanks to his superior speed and physical resistance,” said Rivas. “It was a job Belfonte had planned, for more than 12 months, and it was a surprise when Vilas started winning.”
Vilas went onto win the Roland Garros and US Open titles in 1977, a year he won 16 titles and compiled a 46-match winning streak. The former World No. 2 also the 1978-1979 Australian Open crowns and recorded 950 match wins in his career.
“When I physically trained with him, the worst thing I could say to him is ‘I’m tired’,” said Vilas, years later. “He would then ask me for ’10 more’. And when he finished, he would say, ‘Now make me 20’. We learned to suffer … and that’s part of tennis.”
’Prof Belfonte’ was also formerly head of the junior programme for the Argentina Tennis Association and sporting director of several clubs, including Tennis Club Argentino and the Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club. He also trained the professional golfer Vicente Fernandez and jockey Eduardo Jara.
“His great work was attracting young players, who did not have money or clubs to play tennis, and incorporate them into training groups,” said Rivas. “His social work in Argentina is also enormous.”
In February 2016, Vilas paid tribute his first coach, Felipe Locicero, and Belfonte at a ceremony for the renaming of ‘Court Central Guillermo Vilas’ in Buenos Aires.
Belfonte passed away at Rivadavia Hospital, in Buenos Aires, due to advanced leukaemia and COVID-19.
Juan Carlos Belfonte, tennis physio and trainer, born 1 April 1939, died 25 August 2020.
Photo courtesy: Eduardo Puppo, @puppotenis