John Roberts

Everybody who is anybody in Australia, from the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, to Daphne from the television soap "Neighbours", was there, willing Pat Cash to ignite the bicentennial weekend with a triumph at the National Tennis Centre, and Mats Wilander had to go and spoil their day.

Gate-crasher is hardly the phrase for this cool Swede who dismantles opponents from the baseline. He is persistent, but courteous. First he thanked a small, but vociferous group of fellow-countrymen who had painted their faces yellow and blue and roared their approval of each penetrating shot he made in winning an epic men's singles final at the Australian Open. The party-pooper then tried to console his hosts by reminding them that they had witnessed an extraordinary contest: "Obviously most of you wanted to see Cash as the winner here, but it was such a great match I don't think it ruins anything." Smiling good-naturedly, he added "And if it does, I don't care!"

Here was a man who had earned the right to a parade of his own, having last year been denied the French and United States Open titles by Ivan Lendl, with a quarter-final beating by Cash at Wimbledon sandwiched in between. As he said: "I have worked harder than before and lost two Grand Slam finals. It would have been hard to work so hard if I'd lost this one."

Even the most partisan spectators would agree that Melbourne's magnificent new stadium had been opened in style. Cash, the home-town boy who became Wimbledon champion, and Wilander, winner of the Australian title twice before, had the contrast of styles - puncher and counter-puncher - and the tenacity to produce one of the more exciting Grand Slam finals. The Prime Minister was first to his feet to applaud when the five-set duel came to a dramatic close with the Swede winning 6-3, 6-7, 3-6, 6-1, 8-6 after 4 hr. 29 min., plus a further 50 min. of rain delays. Even Cash, not everyone's can of Foster's, felt "honoured in a way - win or lose - you're part of something." A year ago another Swede, Stefan Edberg, was also too good for him on the day in a five-set final.

The decision to re-open the Centre Court roof, which had been closed earlier when rain threatened the women's doubles final, added to the uncertainty of an absorbing, fluctuating battle. Anxious not to repeat the previous day's experience, when Steffi Graf and Chris Evert played three games outdoors and the rest of the match indoors, the referee allowed the showers to play their part in the drama. When rain halted play the first time, for 33 min., Cash trailed by a set and 1-4. He had been unsettled by Wilander's resolute returns of serve and astute raids to the net. "In the first two sets I played some of the best tennis of my life", said Wilander. "I don't know how he came back, but that's why he's such an unbelievable player."

Two points from losing his serve again, which would have put him 1-5 down, Cash began to control his volleying. He then dazzled Wilander with a couple of drives down the line, and the Swede suddenly found himself playing a tiebreaker, which he lost, 3-7. A dispute over a phantom line-call on game point disturbed Wilander when he was broken in the second game of the third set. So, when rain delayed play a second time, for 18 min., he was 1-3 down and grateful for the respite.* Although Wilander lost the set, he sensed that Cash was beginning to feel the effects of the tremendous effort it had taken to overcome Lendl in a five-set semi-final.* After missing with a volley, he  [Cash] received a warning for smashing a spare ball so hard to the court that it bounced into the crowd.

In the fourth set, which took a mere 29 min., Cash won only eight points in the first five games, while Wilander dropped only three points on his serve. If Cash was pleased to see the back of the set, matters did not improve for him when he served at the start of the fifth. Struggling to regain his concentration, he was prey to Wilander's passing shots, and the Swede succeeded in getting in the first blow. Cash responded by launching a characteristic counter-attack, breaking back in the fourth game by unleashing one of the most spectacular shots of the tournament, an angled forehand volley. From this point both players survived crises, and in the 10th game Cash was only two points from winning the title. The finale was breathtaking, with Wilander taking the initiative after a frantic exchange of lobs and smashes to break in the 13th game before serving out to love.

(The Independent, 25th January 1988)

*As Cash was for the first break when he was a set and 1-4 down - "Spider".

*Wilander also had to play a five-set match in the semis, to beat the defending champion Stefan Edberg - "Spider".