AUSTRALIAN OPEN 1988
The final was going to be won by strength of mind as well as body, both of which could impose themselves over the basic tennis skills of either player. Writing in the Melbourne Age, veteran sports columnist Peter McFarline got the point that so many others miss.
"Forget statistics...In modern tennis there is scarcely a shot between the top ten players; their skill levels are so close the gap is minimal. It cannot be translated into games or sets or even points", McFarline wrote. "Surely more than other sports, the major championships of men's tennis are now decided on mind strength, mental fitness, the ability to absorb pressure and keep the brain operating at high speed in concert with hands and feet."
That was what this final between Cash and Wilander would be about and so it proved. Had it not rained, everything might have been different because Wilander was on a roll when the first shower caused a 33-minute delay, and if Cash had not been given the chance to regroup in the locker room he could have been swept aside by the devastating accuracy of the Swede's service returns, which kept pinging at his ankles like the arrows of a Trojan archer searching for Achilles' heel. But when play resumed, with the decision having been taken not to close the roof, Cash tackled the small mountain of 6-3, 4-1 that faced him and scaled it with renewed vigour and determination. Wilander, who had been darting into the net himself to good effect at various moments in the early stages, put in a good deep volley at 4-2, 15-40, but found his service seized by a glorious forehand pass into the corner that he could not have bettered himself. Now we had a match. Cash, conjuring up two superb winning lobs off Wilander's service points, took the tie-break by 7-3 and, after serves had been swapped, broke again for 4-2 in the third set, which he quickly translated into a two set to one lead. There had been another brief stoppage due to rain during that set, but now the match would run its course and build to the kind of climax that is sometimes inspired by great occasions in great arenas. How quickly Flinders Park had come of age!
Although Wilander opened the fourth set with his second double-fault of the match, it was Cash who suddenly faltered just when he most needed to press home his advantage. Fatigue seemed to seep into his footwork for a while and a bundle of volleys ended up in the net. To the screaming delight of the handful of painted Swedes whose support Mats recognized generously afterwards, Sweden's favourite son swept through the set 6-1 and then broke in the first game of the fifth. But there was still gas in Cash's tank. Gas for the mind as well as the body but it was sheer physical conditioning that allowed him to recover from a weak first volley on breakpoint in the fourth game, and, hurling himself to his right, punch away a superb forehand volley to level at two all. Strong first serves got him out of a 15-40 predicament in the next game and the match settled into a final test of wills, an emotion-charged fight to the death. At six-all in any other sport it would have been called a draw, honours even, thank you and good night. But in tennis, that supposedly gentle pastime in which no-one is allowed to shout or scream or say "boo" to a goose, let alone to a linesman, someone always gets carried out feet first. Blood is spilled in tennis. You don't see it because the haemorrhage is internal but believe me, it is still spilled.
And so it was now. You knew it from the howl of agony that Cash found unable to suppress when Wilander finally drove the dagger home and broke his serve in the 13th game. Quite rightly Rod Laver said that Wilander won because he didn't panic, but kept on concentrating on playing his game, forcing Cash to bend for as many low balls as possible off the return of serve. That was true, but in the end Mats knew that the deadlock would be broken by a single moment of inspiration or pure luck. Happily it was inspiration. The point that set up break point at 6-6 was the best of the championship - the best, you could say, ever played at Flinders Park. Twice Cash seemed to have Mats and the entire court at his mercy as he lined up that lethal forehand volley, but twice Wilander read it and flung himself wide to his own forehand side, in front of the linesman's nose, to retrieve seemingly impossible balls, and Cash, hurried by such an unexpected riposte, suddenly found himself on the defensive, forced back by a lob and then having to lunge himself to get a racket on a Wilander smash. After almost four and a half hours of actual playing time at the end of a fortnight of heat, wind and torrid competition, a point as heart-pounding as that would have left anyone else gasping for control as Cash's return floated back above their head. But Wilander never loses control and the second smash settled it. He should have lost the point three times but that moment of inspiration had arrived and when he served for the match there was no doubt as to who was the champion.
Almost all the match statistics reinforced the feeling that Wilander won because he had rolled with the heaviest of Cash's punches and maintained the more consistent level of tennis throughout. For a start, Mats won six more games. His first serve tally was 76 percent compared with Pat's 60 percent and he made 21 unforced errors to Cash's 48 and served two double faults to his opponent's nine. But it was not just a question of making fewer errors.
Wilander mixed his game like the thoughtful player he is, drawing something from the all-out serve-and-volley tactics he had used to win the title twice on Kooyong's grass, and, despite losing his way a bit in the third set, he was stronger in the end and gave further evidence, in claiming his fifth Grand Slam singles title, that he is a thoroughly worthy leader of the post-Borg dynasty.
(Extract from "Open Tennis: the First Twenty Years" - updated paperback edition - London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1988)