David Irvine

In the beginning was Bjorn Borg and the Borg-watchers. Then, at 26, he retired. At the French Championships in 1982 only three Swedish journalists bothered to attend and monitor the progress of 17-year-old Mats Wilander, the best of the juniors who trailed in Borg's wake. As we awaited his arrival at the press conference in Paris after his five-set [fourth round] victory over Ivan Lendl, the favourite, one of them whispered from the fourth row: "Some of us, not many, are beginning to realise that there can be a life after Borg."

At 9.18 pm on Sunday, in an electric atmosphere at Flushing Meadow, Wilander beat Lendl over five sets again. This time, victory gave him the U.S. title - something that was always beyond the man who preceded and inspired him. Sweden, with a population less than that of New York, thus became the first nation to hold all four of the major men's championships at one time since Australia's Rod Laver completed his second Grand Slam in 1969. Life after Borg - and it is still only seven years since he left the scene - is better than any Swede had dared to dream of. With the Australian, French and U.S. crowns in Wilander's hands, Wimbledon in Stefan Edberg's, and home advantage in their Davis Cup final against West Germany in December, they could wind up winning everything of value in 1988.

For Wilander, crashing the Flushing barrier was more a triumph of body and mind than possession of higher skills than the defending champion. Lendl is the fitness fanatic of the men's tour and by general agreement - which his reign over more than three years as no.1 confirms - the toughest mentally. Wilander "enjoys life". Having won two of the first three legs of the Grand Slam (how critical his loss to Miloslav Mecir in the Wimbledon quarter-finals now seems), he was aware, though, that victory in the U.S. Open would finally carry him to the top. It took him four hours and 54 minutes to do it. Lendl, eager to become the first overseas player to hold the title for four years, clung on tena-ciously but eventually succumbed 4-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, 4-6...Right to the end, Lendl had chances. He clipped a glorious backhand pass on the Swede's first match point and had two break points himself before the curtain fell.

"I realised tonight why it was so hard for Borg to win", said Wilander. "It is so tough, mentally and physically. But because it's a tournament that I'd never won, or a Swede had never won, and because I'm going to be no.1, it's the biggest match I ever played. It meant so much." Wilander, who led 4-1 in the second set and served at 4-3 in the fourth, said that, had he missed so many opportunities in a less important tournament, he might have given up. But in the Grand Slam events, he is king when it comes to five setters. In 13, only John McEnroe, at the U.S.Open, three years ago, has outlasted him. Despite many long, dour* baseline rallies, the match was made memorable by Wilander's daring net play, the sheer precision of Lendl's passes* and lobs*, the sudden shifts of fortunes, but, above all, the total commitment and concentration of both men.

In retrospect Wilander, too, saw his Wimbledon defeat by Mecir, his nemesis, in a new and less acceptable light. In fact, he had come within three victories of the game's greatest prize, closer than any player in the open era.* "But three grand slam tournaments in the same year, that beats most of my dreams."

(The Guardian, 13th September, 1988)

*Who says? It is a totally unjustifiable insult to use the word "dour" about either player. They were looking serious merely because of the "total commitment and concentration" they had (Irvine's own words.) To name just three great champions, the faces of Arthur Ashe, Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall seldom changed much on court, and I don't remember anyone ever calling them "dour". - "Spider"

*Wilander's passing shots had far more precision than Lendl's!Especially the one that clinched the seventh game of the final set, so that Mats broke Lendl's service and gained a 4-3 lead. Lendl hit many of his passing shots out, mainly because Mats was charging to the net a lot more than usual. - "Spider"

*Yes, Lendl did many good lobs, but they weren't all winners. What about that Lendl lob near the beginning of the second set that Mats dashed right back from the net to the baseline to retrieve, and, still with his back to the net, returned the ball with a winning shot into the opposite corner of the court - and the shot was a top spin one-handed backhand, (not one of his normal shots)? Also the Lendl lob in the fourth set that Mats put away with a winning smash as he was running backwards after racing to the net and successfully picking up a Lendl drop shot? These two winners were much more striking than the good Lendl lobs that had made them necessary. - "Spider"

*Yes, except, of course, for Rod Laver, who (as Irvine indeed points out above) actually won the Grand Slam in 1969. That was the second year of the open tennis era. - "Spider"