Mats Wilander, Roland Garros 1982

1982 French Open: Mats Wilander defeats Guillermo Vilas

By Barry Newcombe, Tennis World, July 1982

The first Sunday in June had become a routine operation for Lennart Bergelin, coach to Bjorn Borg. No-one would rise too early, they would practise for about an hour, and then Bjorn would go off and win the French title at Stade Roland Garros. That happened six times.
Everyone knew it could not happen this year. When the French championships began, Borg was handling the controls of a boat he had rented to sail among the Greek islands rather than a tennis racket, and somehow the 128 contenders left in the hunt for the French title knew that things would not be the same.

There was never really that much speculation about the winner. Ninety percent of the press room would probably have opted for Ivan Lendl to move from the runner-up role he occupied in 1981 into the role of champion. The feeling in the locker room may have been more or less the same.
There were considered to be two other strong contenders – Guillermo Vilas, on the basis that he was a past champion and was playing supremely well, and the top-seeded Jimmy Connors who could perhaps count this year as his last reasonable opportunity of a first win in the French.
But nobody mentioned Mats Wilander of Sweden. He had, after all, been a semi-finalist in Rome on the eve of the French championships and although those of us who had been there knew that his eye was sharp and his game in good order it was stretching credibility to expect him to make the last four in Paris. After all, he was not even seeded.

Yet at the end of two of the hottest weeks I can ever recall at Roland Garros, there was Wilander, 77 days short of his 18th birthday, climbing the stairs at the stadium to receive the trophy from Jean Borotra, now 82 years old, who had done it all 50 years previously.
At his home in Sweden, Bergelin had watched Wilander win the final over Vilas 1-6, 7-6, 6-0, 6-4 on television and could not believe it. “It is fantastic”, he would say. “Bjorn does not play and now we have another Swedish player as champion. It is so good for the game in our country. I would say to Mats “Remember the first title is the best.” Bjorn always said that.”

When any analysis of Wilander’s career is made, it is clear that one of the critical days came in the fourth round of the French championship when he faced Lendl. By the time this match had reached two sets all, Wilander knew he had already set up one new mark in his career. He had never played a five-set match in his life and his reaction to that task was to open up a 5-2 lead against leaden-legged Lendl whose forehand let him down in these crucial stages. “I did my best”, said Lendl. “I was practising hard, trying hard, and I was outplayed.”

After Lendl, Wilander played Vitas Gerulaitis, the most consistent of the American players on European clay, but not good enough to hold off the teenager with a target. Gerulaitis went in four sets and Wilander moved on to a semi-final against José-Luis Clerc, the fourth seed, who had struggled in Florence and Rome and appeared to be playing with more assurance.

But Wilander was beginning to create a sense of insecurity among the seeds. He broke Clerc’s serve in the very first game as he hoisted his victory flag and he was never in serious danger of losing this four-set semi-final until the second match point at 6-5 in the first set (he had missed an easier one, in terms of pressure, at 5-1). On the second, a forehand from Clerc was called out and the umpire called the match and left his chair. But Wilander went to the umpire and told him: “The ball was good, that’s not the way I want to win.” Both players agreed that the ball was correct so the umpire, Jacques Dorfmann, who is also the championship referee, caught the mood of the moment and ordered the point replayed. This time Clerc found the net with a backhand and it was firmly settled.

Vilas, meantime, was cruising. Round by round he was being fined $250 for an illegal headband but he was punishing all comers in a supreme display of his strength and ability. He reached the final without losing a set and having conceded 39 games. Surely this iron man who trained so hard would end the one-man assault on the top ten which Wilander had produced.

Another burning hot day was the setting for the final. After an hour, Vilas had won the first set 6-1 and I believe it was the time rather than the score which was significant at that stage. The rallies were long and arduous with 60-stroke exchanges commonplace.
By the time the two players had reached the tie break at the end of the second set, a further 90 minutes had elapsed and Wilander, having saved a set point with a top spin lob, took the tie-break by eight points to six. It was, of course, the first set Vilas had lost in the championships and he never won another.
Wilander, whose full fitness had been hampered by a heavy cold, did not lose a game in the third set which saw him accelerating mentally away from the left-handed Argentine. In the fourth, with cramp nagging at his racket hand, he broke through for 5-4 and served out in champion style for victory in four hours and 43 minutes. Ice-cool, like Borg, he had become the youngest winner in any of the Grand Slam titles.

Leave a comment