Malcolm Folley

Mats Wilander came out of the nondescript apartment building sandwiched between a colour processing laboratory and a dirty-red brick wall decorated by a rusting fire escape and illegible graffiti. The street was clogged solid by delivery vans and the jam would last all day. Drivers impatiently honked horns at one another, while people hurried to work oblivious to the noise, fumes and cursing. Surprisingly, for a man raised in the orderly environment of Sweden, and with a beautiful home in Monte Carlo, Wilander found the scene as tranquil as any desert island.

The man who has twice won the French Open and twice the Australian Championship began the United States Open as the world number two and ended it by talking about seeking refuge from the tennis circuit and claiming temporary asylum in the maelstrom of Manhattan. Like John McEnroe before him, Wilander feels the game that has made him a millionaire has also deprived him of his liberty. "I feel that the only time I am free is when I am on court", he said, offering an alarmingly frank insight into the world of tennis. Unlike McEnroe, Wilander has never courted controversy. The 22-year-old's name never strays from the sports pages and his private life has remained just that - private.

Wilander's turmoil has different roots but his desire for a leave of absence is just as legitimate as McEnroe's claim last January. Only four weeks into his comeback after his seven-month sabbatical, McEnroe was stunned by a first-round defeat at what became the Czech-dominated U.S.Open. The damage inflicted by Paul Annacone was reinforced when McEnroe was counted out of the doubles on a technical KO by referee, Gayle Bradshaw. To illustrate that his sabbatical had not caused him to lose grasp of the more crude phrases at his disposal, McEnroe showered Bradshaw with most of them in a fiery outburst delivered within earshot of the public lounge.

Wilander is unperturbed that McEnroe's extended break from the game could have hopelessly backfired. The Swede argues: "What McEnroe has shown is that we can request a break and the Men's Pro Council has to let us take one. He hasn't shown us that it's possible to make a successful comeback. I don't want seven months off, but it would be good to have two months away."

"It's not the tennis that I'm finding hard, but the life around tennis. It's tough to compete in every match with people expecting you to win. When you lose, you have to go to a press conference to explain why you lost. It's difficult after a while."

It's known as the Borg syndrome and the only reliable cure is to inject victims with a massive dose of serum extracted from a rare, ultra-competitive species called Martina Navratilova. The serum, of course, is not on open sale over the counter. Bjorn Borg, five times Wimbledon champion, and six times champion of the red clay at Stade Roland Garros in Paris, preferred to retire rather than try to repel the growing menace represented by McEnroe's arrival as the most naturally gifted player of his generation. Bjorn Borg was just 27.

McEnroe met actress Tatum O'Neal and discovered life went on outside the perimeters of a tennis court. In January, following a defeat by the relatively unknown Brad Gilbert, McEnroe retreated to his £2 million Malibu Beach House with the now pregnant Miss O'Neal. He remained there for seven months before hitting a racket in anger again.

McEnroe is another victim of the Borg syndrome, but he has argued all along that he is not a terminal case. All he needed, he said, was rest and recuperation and the chance to reassess his life. In late May, he became a father. In late July, he took Tatum for his bride and celebrated their honeymoon by making his comeback at Stratton Mountain, Vermont.

The tournament organisers were so excited that McEnroe should come to the Mountain that they sent a brand new Volvo limousine to make the 10-hour round trip to fetch the prodigal son and his entourage from Long Island, New York. The car was equipped with colour television, a video recorder and a compact disc player, all remote controlled, but the boot compartment was insufficient to cater for Miss O'Neal's luggage.

Three weeks later the comeback of McEnroe, now ranked 21 in the world, was rudely interrupted by that first round defeat in the U.S.Open at the hands of Annacone. Wilander is uncertain whether McEnroe's ego will sustain too much of a battering. "Maybe he came back, but he didn't actually want to come back", suggested the Swede. "I don't think he has the motivation to be no.1 any more. He still has the talent, as he showed by almost beating Boris Becker at Stratton Mountain. He'll play while he's still seeded, but if his ranking should fall to 40 or 50, I think he'll quit."

Wilander's own lack of desire to challenge Lendl for the number one ranking is behind his plans to take a rest after six years on the tour. "I don't feel it was the only thing I was playing for, and there comes a time when you ask yourself: "Why am I doing this if I don't want to be number one? " The Swede has a strain of Borg syndrome.

"It's still quite fun being on the tour with my friends, but it feels more like a job these days", said Wilander. It is a job that separates him from his girlfriend, Sonja Mulholland, a South African born model who lives in New York. Wilander wants to spend more time in the apartment she rents for $2,400 a month in the street with its non-stop flow of delivery vans on the edge of Greenwich Village. "For me, the most important thing now is to be happy outside the court. When I was 18 or 19 all that mattered was my tennis, everything else came second. Now, tennis comes second after my private life. It's only a sport, and only lasts for a little while. I can see that all Becker wants is to be number one. And Lendl the same. I don't think that I have ever had that look in my eyes; to be number one at the expense of all else."

At Flushing Meadow, Wilander was a fourth round victim of surprise U.S. Open finalist, Miloslav Mecir. At Wimbledon, he also lost in the fourth round, beaten by Pat Cash. In Paris, he was a third round casualty against the Soviet Union's Andrei Chesnokov.

Wilander has won tournaments in Brussels and Cincinnati, but he would classify this year unsuccessful by his standards. "I was trying to tell myself that it didn't matter how I did in the smaller tournaments provided I did well at the Grand Slam events. But if you feel you're not playing well, it's difficult to be mentally strong. It's easy for Lendl because he has had such a great year. Becker is mentally strong, though I don't think he is playing particularly well. He's serving well, playing some good shots, but he makes so many mistakes. Yet the arrogance of youth means he still thinks he can win."

Becker was however outsmarted, out-manouvred and put out of the U.S. Open by Mecir who beat him 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 to ensure that four Czech-born players monopolised the singles finals.

Lendl's path to the final saw him break the resistance of Swede Stefan Edberg by winning their semi-final first tie-break 8-6. He then quickly wrapped up the next two sets to reach his fifth consecutive final at Flushing Meadow, and warned: "I feel I would rather die on the court than lose." Commitment indeed.

Lendl likes to be at the U.S. Open. The tournament enabled him to commute from his Greenwich, Connecticut fortress, where his girlfriend Samantha Frankel is a frequent visitor, and he can manufacture golf matches round his tennis match and practice schedules. After beating Henri Leconte to reach the semi-finals, he rushed away to play nine holes before nightfall. His Australian coach Tony Roche questioned Lendl's wisdom, but the Czech responded dryly: "I have already won the U.S. Open, but I still have not broken par."

Lendl seems immune to the Borg syndrome, and he is hardly likely to succumb following his 6-4, 6-2, 6-0 demolition of Mecir in Sunday's final.

Martina Navratilova, who defected from Czechoslovakia to the West 11 years ago, will reach 30 next month, but her search to reserve a special niche in history goes relentlessly on. In a breathtaking semi-final, against the 17-year-old West German Steffi Graf, Miss Navratilova was forced to save three match points before she triumphed on her own third match point of the decisive final set tie-break that she captured 10-8, to win    6-1, 6-7, 7-6.

Helena Sukova, 21, from Prague, had played her nap hand to defeat Mrs. Lloyd in the semi-final. In the final all the high cards in the deck belonged, not surprisingly, to Miss Navratilova. Martina took only 60 minutes to...overwhelm Miss Sukova 6-3, 6-2 to win her 14th Grand Slam singles title.

Mike Estep, who has coached Martina for the past three years, stressed: "Martina remains totally motivated. Borg wasn't and McEnroe has had his problems, and the clock's running out for Jimmy Connors. Martina was number one when she came to me in 1983 and said she wanted to become the best player she could be. She went to work and all of a sudden she had upped the ante. The stakes were changed, so was the game.    

For the first time since 1974 neither McEnroe nor Jimmy Connors made it to the U.S. Open final. Connors spent his 34th birthday last week contemplating his third round defeat by Todd Witsken, a 22-year-old American graduate playing for the first time in a championship that Jimbo has owned five times. Connors's instant reaction was to tell his agent that he too wanted five months away from the sport, but in the morning he had changed his mind. Wilander, who writes prose and poetry for a hobby, argued : "Jimmy doesn't have anything to say against the best players any more. For the first time, I think he realises he can't win the big tournaments any longer. That's a difficult stage, but once you realise that you can keep going and play for fun, as Ilie Nastase did."

Wilander hopes that any substantial break he takes, and he would like to be playing again at the Stockholm Open at the beginning of November, will recharge his ambition. "I don't want to do anything for a while except stay in New York", said the Swede. "But then I'd like to try 100 per cent to see how good I can really do, without feeling that I'm going to be disappointed if i don't get to number one. I'm happy with what I've done so far, and that's important to me."

He disappeared into a 24-hour delicatessen on Fifth Avenue, just another face in the crowd. Exactly the way he likes it, and precisely the way it can never be for John McEnroe.

(Sportsweek (?), September(?) 1986)