MATS - THE "MODEL" SWEDE [Extracts]
Like his more famous predecessor [Bjorn Borg], Mats has a massive topspin forehand, a two-handed backhand with a one hand slice option, hardly volleys and has a serve that is only adequate in comparison with players of his world standing. He is the rare exception who is fast around the court and has developed the stamina to last forever. He rarely shows emotion either way and appears a "true gent" on court. Now world no. 1, there are few tournaments where he doesn't reach the last four. He is a most consistent performer on all surfaces except Wimbledon grass.
His serve is perhaps the weakest stroke in his game in terms of power in comparison to other players in the world top 10 but in terms of consistency he is probably the best. His percentage of first serves in court rarely drops below 80% and in the first set of the 1988 French Open he had a remarkable 97% first serve ratio. The Swedish philosophy on the serve is based on the fact that over many years of statisics 90% of players winning world class matches put more first serves in court than the losers. The Swedes tend to view the serve as one stroke - like a forehand - that if you miss the first you don't have a second chance. As for the action - the stance is feet at shoulder width apart but the peculiarity is that the front foot points at the centre net band rather than the right hand net post, although it moves to a more conventional position during the service action. The take-back is conventional but the serving arm breaks early, giving the impression of a low elbow throw that has an equal resemblance to a cricket bowling action. The serve is mainly hit with topspin. Wilander rarely achieves his maximum height in the serve and when serving the second serve it is rather a weak effort for a player of his standard. The first foot into court after the serve is the left. Aces are a rarity- good length is a certainty.
If Mats's forehand isn't the best in the world it is without doubt the most consistent. It is hit with masses of spin, a high net clearance and a bounce that visibly accelerates the ball at an opponent who can only defend. Sometimes the ball will appear to fall short - on the service line - but short in normal terms is deep when hit with such ferocity and topspin. The preparation for the shot used to be high but recently has dropped to waist level with the racket face facing the ground. The racket head speed is immense, hitting up and through the ball with great velocity. Players who copy Wilander tend not to notice how the racket head stays in contact with the ball and copy the follow-through which is more easily visible as the racket head has slowed down. What they see then is the racket coming across the body - copy it - and then wonder why it doesn't work. For those people that play off the back foot like Mats appears to, or who launch themselves at the ball, you are missing the successful area of the Wilander forehand - the 18 inches before and after contact with the ball. The depth of the Wilander shot often causes the opponent to play short. Wilander murders the short ball.
Mats's backhand is so consistent that he makes an unforced error on the drives as often as one cuts grass in the middle of winter. He can hit his backhand with both topspin and slice. The latter is used when playing one-handed as an approach shot or more often a recovery-type shot when forced wide by his opponent. However he is now favouring the one-handed slice more than the topspin as was evident in the final of the American Open. The two-to-one-handed backhand is a replica of Borg's in the fact that the left hand is released immediately after contact and the shot is generally hit with topspin. However, there are three major differences:
1. The swing and follow-through are shorter.
2. He has an excellent two-handed "block" shot.
3. He uses the one-handed slice far more often. This used to be particularly evident on clay but is now on all surfaces.
With the shorter swing on the backhand he is a lot more difficult to read and opponents are often flummoxed by the topspin lob when expecting an attempted pass. The purists would always accuse Wilander of poor balance as he appears to play off the back foot as in the forehand drive. They should examine the balance at contact point - it is near perfect.
A lot of players would accuse Wilander of being a hacker. Such players are blindly critical and if they studied Mats they would see that no matter how far he runs back, or runs wide, he is always ready to go forward as he returns to only feet behind the centre of the baseline eager to attack the short ball or sneak into the net. Similarly he receives serve someway back initially jogging up and down like a boxer and then moving forward to snap up the loose serve. Mats attacks from the back. His anticipation and consequent court coverage are excellent. He is hardly ever in a position not to be able to return the ball. Players appear to make more mistakes against Wilander than they would do normally. They make mistakes because he doesn't.
If you play the type of game that Mats does, the importance of fitness is paramount. Rallies of 80 shots or more, matches that last over five hours, are commonplace. How can you survive unless your fitness is supreme? The two essentials of this type of fitness are speed and stamina as opposed to the strength and agility mainly needed by players such as Cash. Sure, Wilander does need the strength and agility as well, but for him to be able to run quickly forever, speed and endurance are his paramount fitness requirements. There are few people in the world who could match Wilander in these departments. He is a superb athlete who I suspect could be an Olympic standard middle distance runner.
In nearly every match Wilander has tremendous self-discipline, although very occasionally he can give a lacklustre performance. The type of game played by Mats demands the highest level of self-discipline and concentration. To play seemingly endless rallies point after point epitomises a man with enormous determination - someone who won't "roll over" when the going gets tough. It's tough on his opponents as they know they have to win the rally, Wilander will not lose it. This attitude is a great mental strength. His eyes never desert the court; he will pick his strings rather than allow himself to become distracted. He has the knack of remaining cool throughout the match. His tenacious attitude, cool appearance, dedication, concentration and above all his on-court discipline are an excellent example for other players to follow.
Wilander now attacks the net on the right ball and frequently serve-volleys on the right surface. But although he wins major championships on all surfaces there is no doubt that clay is his best surface. Mats thrives on clay. He has played five finals in the Roland Garros Stadium, winning three, an achievement few have bettered. Few would begrudge Mats's ascent to world no.1. He has worked hard and long enough for it and is a model tennis professional.
(Tennis World, [Sept./Oct.?] 1988)