MATS WILANDER: A CLASSIC CHAMPION FROM AN UNCLASSICAL MOLD
After Mats Wilander won his first match of the 1983 U.S. Open, he rendered a curious prophecy. He laconically confessed that he gave himself little chance to win the tournament, horrifying a press corps that is unaccustomed to such frankness. Contemplating the incident, the 20-year-old Swede now remarks: "I said that the same way a newsman, or a coach, might say it. After all, only one guy can win. I analyzed my chances and I didn't feel like a good choice for the title. I was just trying to be honest."
Once before, Wilander had garnered headlines as a result of his honesty. In the semifinals of the 1982 French Open, while he was still an unknown youth, Wilander held a match point against heavily favoured José-Luis Clerc. When a Clerc groundstroke was called out, ostensibly ending the match, the Argentine protested. Wilander interceded on his opponent's behalf and the point was replayed. Wilander went on to win the match and to rock the entire tennis community as he became, at age 17, the youngest male winner in the history of a Grand Slam tournament. The gesture towards Clerc has haunted Wilander ever since, but the excesses of youth are in ebb.
"When you do things a little different, it gets too much attention", he says. "Then you have to do too many extra interviews. From now on when I'm asked how I'll do in a tournament, I'm just going to say I have a good chance. And I'm not going to change any more calls. I'm 20 now. I'm a professional."
However, this is no elegy on the passing of virtue or the loss of innocence in Wilander. The "professional" who will be trying to solve the puzzle of tennis on medium-fast cement at the U.S. Open this month has matured and grown wiser to the world, but his character has not been deformed by success. With diligence, dignity and style, Wilander has entrenched himself in the world's top four. In fact, the cool youth almost snatched the world's no. 1 ranking right from the hands of John McEnroe late last year.
In a surprise that rivaled Wilander's victory at the 1982 French Open, he closed the 1983 campaign by winning the Australian Open. He accomplished it, moreover, by toppling McEnroe in the semifinals and Ivan Lendl in the final. At the end of the calendar year, thus, Wilander found himself holding three victories over McEnroe on three different surfaces in three distinguished events: the French Open (clay), the ATP Championships in Cincinnati (cement) and the Australian Open (grass). There were some who argued that entitled him to the world's top ranking.
To many spectators, particularly Americans, Wilander is an unheralded force in the game, and a virtually unknown face outside pro shops or tennis clubs. "I've never played really well in the big American tournaments, so I understand why I'm not so recognized", he says. "That doesn't bother me so much because I try not to be too complicated. And in a way it's good, because I like to be as free as possible."
As a tennis player, Mats Wilander is a classic model. He is our sport's version of the mint julep, the wooden boat or the button-fly blue jean. Wilander is not an athletic specimen sculpted on the same heroic scale as Yannick Noah, nor a riveting theatrical presence such as McEnroe. He lacks the fire of Jimmy Connors and the ice of Lendl. Wilander is lithe, quick and fluid, a triumph of proportions. His olive complexion and pale blue eyes belie Wilander's Swedish nationality. In tennis whites, his bearing is placid and aristocratic. He is the son of Einar and Karin Wilander, both of whom are factory workers.
The contradiction implied by Wilander's appearance and background are not accidental. They are intrinsic to his personality as a tennis player, a classic tennis player created by a system and conditions that are anything but classic. "Tennis used to be for another class of people, but now it's become very popular", Wilander observes. "It's now the third most popular sport in Sweden."
The tale of Wilander's success is also the history of a national effort to transcend on a great scale the usual social and economic boundaries associated with the sport. Bjorn Borg broke the ground from which Wilander and a host of other Swedish pros sprang. Tennis development programs burgeoned throughout the country in the wake of Borg's success. Such free national programs, and the team concept that evolved from them, represent a radical departure from tennis traditions. The Swedes have developed a "socialized" tennis that challenges the assumption that, at its highest level, tennis is a Darwinian jungle patrolled by solitary creatures.
Wilander himself says: "I don't think I would have the results of the last two or three years if I didn't have the team situation. And I think it made success easier to handle."
Wilander's career germinated in his hometown of Torpsbruk, where Einar Wilander worked in a factory adjacent to a neglected macadam tennis court. Working in their spare time, Einar and some of his friends made the court playable.
Wilander's talent began to flourish when the family moved to nearby Vaxjo, where the tennis facilities were more elaborate. Although Wilander's first love was ice hockey, the tide soon turned in favor of tennis, pleasing Einar Wilander. "My father loves the game", his son reports, "Even today, he goes down to the town tennis courts every night after work to watch the game even if the players aren't good."
At the age of 15 Wilander quit school to pursue a tennis career. It would be inspirational to report that he did it for reasons of economic hardship, but such was not the case. The Wilanders lived a comfortable life in socialist Sweden. As Wilander's agent, Jean-Noel Bioul of the International Management Group notes: "The basic standards in Sweden are pretty high. Social differences show up mostly in matters of taste - not in the house you live in, but the curtains you choose."
Young Wilander developed quickly under the auspices of the Swedish junior program. He won the French junior title in 1981 at age 16. A few weeks after that event, Swedish coach Jon-Anders Sjogren convinced a Swedish building firm, SIAB, to finance a team of outstanding prospects: Wilander, Joakim Nystrom, Hans Simonsson and Anders Jarryd. "We started the team just before Wimbledon", Sjogren recalls, "mostly because none of them could volley and that looked like a big problem. My job as coach was simple - teach each one to hit a volley."
There was another, less technical reason for forming Team SIAB. Inundating foreign shores with a flood of junior talent from an isolated Scandinavian nation was a costly proposition, and the prospect of providing the youngsters with adequate coaching and chaperones was equally grim. There were other specific barriers and conditions that made the team concept viable. As Sjogren explains: "The team idea owes a lot to the fact that we are a small country with our own language and a long winter that has always given the Swedes a tendency to stay together. We like the team idea. It suits our national character."
Wilander flourished in the team atmosphere. "Mats is a very loyal person, maybe the best person among the players I know", says Swedish journalist Bjorn Hellberg. "Even after he won the French Open, he would still go home and play matches for his club in the Swedish league. That's the kind of guy he is. He likes that spirit of friendship. He always goes out to watch the matches of his team mates, even in doubles. Mats is an extremely kind person."
Although the original Team SIAB has broken up, Wilander still travels and practices with its constituents. He's also now a member of the Club Med-Rossignol touring pro team. "I know it's unusual for a player in the top four to be so close to other players", he says. "But then I'm the youngest one so high in the rankings. It's always been important for me to walk into a dressing-room and have somebody to talk to."
The Swedes form a distinct group within the fragmented society of pro tennis. They are as conspicuous and insular as Japanese tourists. Because they don't do a great deal of mixing, the Swedes often remain provincial. After practice, they play soccer using a tennis ball and the service boxes. They go to movies or out to dinner together.
The week before Wimbledon this year, the Swedes observed their national tradition of holding a party on the eve of the summer solstice. Then, they travelled to central London to dine together...Wilander explains: "We have been traveling and doing things together since the age of 13 or 14 and it has just stayed that way. It's comfortable."
Lately, Wilander has been paying a higher price for the benefits of camaraderie. In the first half of this year, he lost important matches to Swedish players, most of them friends. Wilander was beaten by Stefan Edberg in the final at Milan and twice by Henrik Sundstrom, in the final at Monte Carlo and in the semis at Hamburg. "It's easier for the other Swedes to beat Mats", Sjogren admits, "They know him so well that there isn't that tension you feel with a stranger, that fear."
Wilander is aware of the condition, but maintains that he has never entertained notions of divorce in the interests of better results against his fellow Swedes. He is not even convinced that, in the big picture, withdrawing from his friends would improve his results.
"It does matter to me that I have lost to the other Swedes", he admits. "But you just don't care as much about winning or losing if you are playing with a close friend. The one thing I know for certain is that when I'm not in a good mood, I can't play good tennis. I need to feel harmony. To just go and hit tennis balls, staying apart from everybody, that would be boring for me. I think I would lose my interest in the game."
The allegiances developed through his participation in a nationally administered tennis program, and the security bred by team identification during his formative years as a pro, had a profound impact on Wilander.They imbued him with a highly cultivated social sense and a much greater capacity for group identification than most of his rivals show. "Maybe the team idea has taken away a little from the killer instinct", says Hellberg. "That is one of the ways Mats is different from Borg, who was always alone."
With the dissolution of the original Team SIAB and the emergence of Wilander as a player of the first rank, the bonds of team fidelity are being tested. During the French Open, Wilander broke with tradition and stayed at a different hotel from his friends. Sjogren has been trying to expand Wilander's range of practice partners to keep complacency and lack of variety from eroding his form. As Bioul puts it: "It would be great for Mats to practice with a (Guillermo) Vilas here or a (Vitas) Gerulaitis there."
The recent losses to Swedish players and the growing financial security of Wilander (a Monaco resident now for tax reasons) have raised questions lately about his motivation. Critics suggest that his situation is too secure from every angle. Wilander does not bridle at the charges. "To tell the truth, I think now I could be happy with an ordinary job. I know I did something in tennis and I'm proud of it. With two Grand Slam titles I could be content if I left the game."
"I have the drive to be on top, too, but to me it doesn't feel right to be so serious about it. Let's face it: there are 50 players who believe they can be no.1 and ten who maybe could do it."
"I never expected to be in the top 10. When I made the top 80, enabling me to get straight into Grand Prix tournaments, I thought it was incredible. Then I couldn't believe it when I made the top 50. I once felt that if I won the French Open I would achieve everything I wanted in tennis. But after I won it didn't seem to matter that much. The feeling goes away soon after you've won. In fact, the joy of winning dies down to about 10 percent by the time you finish your shower. The best moment - the real moment - is the time between the last point and the handshake."
Like many restrained and well-mannered Europeans, Wilander seems intimidated by the scale of the U.S. He seems puzzled by the friendly, loud, unsophisticated citizenry, surprised at the general lack of culture and uninterested by what he describes as "cities that all look the same and all the new houses, like little boxes." Wilander adds: "The attitude in the States seems to be "take whatever you can." I don't get the feeling that people care as much about each other. On the other hand, people aren't as jealous as in Europe. They don't resent your success as much."
Along with many other European pros, Wilander regards the U.S. Open with skepticism and thinly-veiled disdain. "The difference between Flushing Meadow and Wimbledon is night and day", he says. "Wimbledon is perfect to play tennis in, while Flushing Meadow is just the opposite, like playing in an airport. Flushing Meadow lacks tradition."
Like Borg, Wilander has found that adapting to tennis on cement poses distinct problems. It is different from, but no less challenging than, adjusting to clay or grass courts. "Mats should play well on any fast surface because he has a good service return", Sjogren says. "If you have good ground strokes, good physical conditioning, you should play well on any surface. Usually the rest is a matter of your returns."
Sjogren points out that Wilander is not a "volley-killer", maintaining that his protégé won the Australian title by keeping his own volleys in court and successfully converting more passing shots than his opponents. "On cement", Sjogren maintains, "You have to step into the court more and kill any ball in the midcourt area. The power and mentality you need for that is not natural to Matsie."
Wilander at his best is a master of containment, a man whose precision and consistency keeps his opponents from generating any kind of attacks. To some observers he is "boring", but that charge stems from a shallow view of his style. "I've thought about the philosophy of baseline tennis a few times", Wilander says. "And the way I see it, if you're a serve-and-volley guy, you give the other players a good chance to win every point. Taking risks and being picked apart isn't the most positive kind of aggression. Connors is the most aggressive player I've ever seen and he doesn't play serve-and-volley tennis."
To Wilander, tennis on cement requires difficult, spontaneous decisions. The relentless attack by the server is not as profitable as it is on grass. "It's difficult to tell on cement what ball to come in on", Wilander says. "Also the courts are consistent and high-bouncing; my serve isn't good enough so that I can always come in on it. On grass, a consistent first serve is good enough. On cement, you have to hit the big one."
Wilander was able to serve rocks as he took the ATP Champion-ships on cement just before the U.S. Open last year, but he maintains the result was deceptive. "I won the tournament because it was the best week I had serving in my life. But that didn't make me a complete cement player, and it was wrong to relate the Cincinnati result to the Open because the courts at Flushing Meadow are much, much faster."
The vital role played by Wilander's serve provides a general key to his game. Against players such as Noah, Lendl and even McEnroe, Wilander is reminiscent of a light heavyweight who fights up in the heavyweight division. Although he plays with less abandon than Connors, Wilander is no less reliant on mobility and reflexive counter-punching. He hits off his toes, thinks in motion and puts a fence round most opponents' ambitions.
Lately, Wilander's energetic game has taken a toll on his lean body. Through the first half of 1984, he suffered ankle and wrist injuries that taught him not to take sound health for granted. Consequently, freedom from injury has become a top priority for Wilander. He was eagerly awaiting Flushing Meadow as an event in which he would be completely fit. The 1984 U.S. Open loomed as Wilander's best chance to reassert his sovereignity, particularly if he can survive a confrontation with McEnroe.
In selecting a world's no.1 after the 1984 Masters, one panel chose McEnroe by a split vote. "I'm not playing tennis to be selected no.1," Wilander insists. "I'm playing to show myself what I can do. On the other hand, they chose McEnroe and it's nice to know that I beat him three times last year on three different surfaces."
Contemplating the Champion's Ball that he missed this spring when the world's no. 1 man and woman pros were honoured, Wilander adds that "I'm glad I didn't have to dance, that's all."
(TENNIS, September 1984)