MATS WILANDER IS READY TO DUEL FOR NO.1
In the past, it was always difficult to imagine Mats Wilander "living on the edge", unless the edge in question was the shoreline of a pristine Scandinavian fjord. From the time Wilander became the youngest male champion in French Open history, at age 17, in 1982, his game was much like his person: elegant but passive, effective but uninspiring. Looking back, Wilander freely admits, "I was never a gambler, not in tennis, not in golf, not in cards, not in anything. Not even in life. Some guys, when the chance comes up, they think, "O.K., I'm going to throw my card in, take a chance and see what happens". I just never liked that feeling. I don't like to give up control or put myself in the hands of fate."
Over the course of three years ending in 1985, Wilander harvested three more Grand Slam titles (two Australian Opens and another French at Stade Roland Garros). But his conservatism ultimately led him into a cul-de-sac, personally and professionally. From the summer of 1985 on, he was a player adrift - uncommitted to challenging for the no. 1 ranking, but happy to bank the king's ranson bestowed upon a top five player. He was not a materialist, a cynic or a flawed competitor - just a thoughtful 21-year-old kid going through the motions required to keep his place in the game. Just a kid who didn't want to throw in that card, who didn't want to draw attention to himself or assert himself against the John McEnroes or Ivan Lendls of tennis. "In that period when my game was a little stale, from the summer of '85 on, I was learning a lot about life", he says. "It was important, but my game suffered. Like a lot of guys today, I was just playing, not thinking of doing anything special, not realizing that I had to take control of the situation. I let tennis take me wherever."
At one point, McEnroe publicly took Wilander to task for his indifference to attaining the no.1 ranking, characterizing the Swede's complacency as a "cop-out". In hindsight, Wilander, now 23, says: "John was right in a way, but I don't think he understood what I was going through at the time. It was hard to focus on no.1 when I had guys like John and [Jimmy] Connors ahead of me. They were like heroes to me. I remember watching Connors win Wimbledon when I was 9 years old. It was hard for me to say to myself "O.K., I'm better than that guy". I was in the position of a kid who did so well in high school that he was told he could go straight on to graduate school, skipping college. I never felt I could do that. I always felt I had to go through all the steps, and I wanted to go through all the steps. So I resisted. It's possible to be no.1 at a very young age, but most guys aren't ready for it then. There are some situations in matches that you have to be very grown-up to handle. I think that's what Boris Becker found out and dealt with last year. I never wanted to have that kind of crisis."
Wilander took a seven-week sabbatical from the game at the end of 1986, partly to analyze his future. He did not decide to pursue the no.1 ranking, but to establish goals toward which he could work. He was in love with a New York model, Sonya Mulholland of South Africa, and suddenly she provided him with emotional inspiration. They married in January 1987, and Wilander returned to the tour that spring as a different player.
Over the ensuing year, Wilander solidly grasped the world's no.2 ranking. He played Lendl in the finals of the French Open, the U.S. Open and the Nabisco Masters, and while Lendl won all three meetings, Wilander established himself as the top challenger in the men's game. That position was affirmed beyond doubt in the first Grand Slam event of the current year, the Australian Open, in January. Wilander beat his Wimbledon nemesis Pat Cash in the final, after Cash had upset Lendl. A victory in a Grand Slam final after three consecutive runner-up showings gratified Wilander. "I'd always felt that if I got to the final of a Grand Slam event, I could raise my game and find a way to win", he says. "Suddenly after the '87 final at Flushing Meadow, I felt the opposite way. The idea of getting to Grand Slam finals but not winning another one again was a possibility. It made me feel terrible. That's why I was so happy to win in Australia."
Over the past 15 months, Wilander has shown remarkable flexibility as a player, highlighted by a new willingness to play adventuresome, gambling tennis. No top player in recent memory has changed his game as much as Wilander. He has dramatically improved his serve, which was once the weakest link in his game. He has added an effective one-handed slice backhand to complement his basic two-handed stroke. He has developed an opportunistic tendency to attack, even behind second serves - thereby keeping his opponents guessing on big points. But most of all, Wilander has accomplished something that, because of his extraordinary degree of self-possession, many people assumed he'd done ages ago: he's become an adult. Wilander always was mature. He probably was born that way. But now he is also grown up. And the difference shows.
Wilander is animated in conversation, and on court he brandishes the same ubiquitous clenched fist that more demonstrative players show after hitting winners. In a triumphant moment, he will bellow like Tarzan. These are changes in a young man who concedes that through most of his years on the tour he lived in a "shell", avoiding confrontations and opportunities to assert himself. Consider the situation that occurred at the Lipton International Players' Championships in March: During a changeover in his match against Wilander, a journeyman pro made a snide remark about Wilander's patient baseline style. In the past, Wilander admits, he would have felt apologetic and perhaps even agreed with his opponent's critical cheap shot. But the effect this time was to make Wilander angry. "There's no way I'm going to lose this match to you now", he thought, and - imagine these words in the mind and mouth of gentle Mats Wilander: "I'm going to kick your ass."
Wilander admits that at one time, a graph of his emotional state would have produced a straight line. But in the past year or so, peaks and valleys have appeared. "I'm more of an up-and-down person now", he says. "I feel more mature and free. I guess it's a stage. When I wake in the morning now, I'm not sure I'm going to want to go out and win a match, unless it's a Grand Slam event. It's new to me, living for the moment - showing anger, desire, whatever. I don't lose control, but I don't worry about losing control either. I'm not interested in just security anymore."
Perhaps Wilander's temperamental spontaneity is related to his willingness and ability to change his game - a need he came to grips with just prior to beating Lendl in the '85 French Open final. In the past year, he has continued the tinkering by enlisting his friend, former Yalie Matt Doyle, to travel with him as a permanent hitting partner and conditioning and training coach. Few people appreciate the difficulty entailed in changing a game, especially one that has been so serviceable at the highest level. "Mats has exceptional talent", says his countryman and friend Anders Jarryd. "Most players can learn to watch other players and figure out how to take advantage of their weaknesses, but not everybody can change his game to suit the job. The biggest problem is taking that change from practice, where you can do anything, into a match situation - because a match, especially in a big tournament, that's another world."
Wilander agrees with the analysis. But changes such as his slice backhand approach were incorporated into his arsenal long before he dared trot them out in tournament play. He points out that he always knew how to volley, as his Australian titles in 1983 and 1984 attest, but on slower surfaces he always fell back upon the reliability of his baseline game. He says "The great thing about being a baseliner is that it gives you a foundation. I can experiment with anything because I always have the solid baseline game to go back to." He also resents the charge that a baseliner plays "boring" or defensive tennis, with its implication of cowardice. He feels that for the top practitioners, playing from the baseline is an act of extraordinary self-confidence. In Wilander's eyes, Connors is the prime example of the confident, aggressive player incarnate. And Connors is, if anything, a baseliner. "Connors only comes in when he's good and ready to come in", Wilander says. "He never does it because he feels he has to. That's what I've always aimed at, that kind of control. It's no good to throw in an approach and run to the net at the first chance - that's got nothing to do with confidence. It's more not knowing what to do, like you're saying: "O.K., here I am running to the net - now you do what you have to do or miss the shot." When I play from the baseline, I'm not waiting for the other guy to make an error. I'm trusting that when the time comes for me, I can win the point."
Such theories and speculations reveal Wilander as a master of the conceptual game. He is watchful and open-minded when it comes to strategy, knowing that his intelligence is a tool that can help him to compensate for a relative lack of firepower. "A Lendl or a Becker, they have a lot of power so they probably feel that the winning game is inside of them", he says. "They don't have to worry about the other guy. They believe that if they play their own games well, they'll win. It's different for me. I think a lot about the other guy, what he's doing and how he's feeling. I look at his eyes to see if he's confident or a little down. I adjust my game to what I see."
Wilander reaches the zenith of his style on the most important occasions, which is a tribute to his strength of nerve and a confirmation of his credentials as a great player. He acknowledges that he is a lesser player in run-of-the-mill Grand Prix events. In fact, the utter lack of correlation between Wilander's performance in "tune up" events and the subsequent Grand Slam meetings is downright unique. In 1986, he won the ATP Championships and lost in the round of 16 at the U.S. Open, while last year he lost in the third round of the ATP event and played the Open final. A year ago Wilander lost to Eric Jelen in the first round at Queen's Club but went to the quarters at Wimbledon, losing to the eventual champion, Cash. Early this year, Wilander improved his tournament record over Connors to 7-0, while he is 0-6 against Connors in exhibitions. The pattern holds true down the line: Wilander is a big-match player.
"The Grand Slam tournaments really are different for me," he says. "That's where you see who really believes he can win the big ones. Nobody pops up out of nowhere to win a Grand Slam. I can lose to a guy three times in a row on the tour and if we play in the first round of a Grand Slam, it's a different story. I guess I feel I've got a psychological edge in Grand Slam events. And I like the tension - big matches under pressure in front of thousands of people, that's what it's all about. Part of my edge is the ability to play loose. I know that Lendl's forehand is better than mine. He wins a lot of matches because guys just can't handle that forehand. But, in the atmosphere of a big match, guys can't handle my forehand. I don't hit it differently, it's just that in a big match they play a little tighter and I play a little looser. It's enough to give me an advantage."
Wilander's track record against his primary domestic rival, Stefan Edberg, is a vivid case in point. In garden-variety tour events, Wilander feels he really has to play his best tennis to fend off Edberg's powerful serve-and-volley attack. But come a big occasion, and Wilander thinks he has an edge. Thus, he manhandled Edberg in their 1987 semi-final at Flushing Meadow, outlasted him on the Supreme Court of the Nabisco Masters in the semis after losing to him in the round robin, and subdued him in the Australian Open semis. Critics who are partial to Edberg's big game lamented that it was bad luck, their favorite just had a bad day on the wrong day. Wilander doesn't buy that rationalization any more than McEnroe bought Wilander's claim that he didn't much care if he was ever ranked no.1. He says: "I know Stefan didn't play so well in those matches, but there should be nothing like playing bad in a Grand Slam. If you play bad in big matches, it's more of a problem than an accident."
In big events, Wilander also tends to gamble more these days. In the past, he would never come in against a certain player's backhand unless he was 100 percent sure that he could win the point. Now he will come in for the sheer surprise value. As Jarryd says, "Mats has found a good way to keep the other guy off balance, unsure of what is coming next." Wilander also understands the rhythms of a match. He puts a high priority on winning the first point of a game, particularly when he is serving. He knows that he may lose serve several times in a match on faster surfaces, so he must seize every opportunity to break, searching for moments when his opponent relaxes his concentration. Furthermore, Wilander tailors his philosophy to each player. If he is down 30-40 on service against Lendl, he may chance a surprise foray to the net behind serve, knowing that there is a certain "choke" factor. But against Becker in the same situation, he knows that the German youth is going to pull the string and go for a winner. In other words, to a greater degree the point is in Becker's hands. These qualities have helped make Wilander a much more entertaining player. At 18, he didn't care if he was perceived as boring or defensive - he just wanted to win matches. But he now plays to the crowd more often. He would just as soon win by 6-2, 6-2 showing some flashy shotmaking as clean up love and love.
In the last few years, Wilander has sought the same kind of balance in his life. He has left behind the sleepy life of his hometown Vaxjo, Sweden, and settled in the same suburban New York community as Lendl - Greenwich, Connecticut. The arrangement is convenient, although he is not wild about the Topsider way of life. He is enamored of Manhattan, where most of the Wilanders' friends live. Wilander harbors a rebellious, idealistic streak. He diligently plays guitar ("Rhythm", he explains. "McEnroe plays lead.") and prefers folk music. His favorite musician is Bob Dylan - let no man accuse Wilander of being just another trendoid. He also has a strong social conscience, formed partly in the embrace of the Swedish welfare state. He is more inclined to believe that governments are responsible for ending world hunger than he is to blame governments for causing it. To that end, he works with the Irish international relief organization, GOAL.
So, some three years after the issue was first raised, the question comes up again: does Mats Wilander, strategist extraordinaire, master of the big match and budding gambler, want to be the no.1 player in the world?
"We Swedes know he wants it", Jarryd says.
"Sure I want it, but only when I feel I deserve it", Wilander says. "It's a hard thing to explain, but the fact is, I don't really want it until I know I've reached the limit of my talent, worked on all aspects of my game and felt I've exhausted every area of potential. If Lendl quit right now, or if he broke a leg, suddenly I'm no.1. But it wouldn't mean that much to me because for the moment there's no voice inside me that says "Yes, you're really the no.1 guy now."
And for Wilander, that inner voice has always been the most important one of all.
(TENNIS, June 1988)