By David Irvine, The Guardian, Monday June 6 1988
It is perhaps an apt comment on their contrasting sense of priorities, as well as their ability (or otherwise) to play their best tennis when it matters most, that Mats Wilander, who has never been ranked number 1 in the world, now holds as many Grand Slam titles as Ivan Lendl, the world champion since 1985.
Yesterday the 23-year-old Swede claimed his sixth major singles championship, and his third on the red clay of the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, when he cut the charging Henri Leconte‘s challenge to ribbons by 7-5 6-2 6-1 in the most one-sided final since his distinguished compatriot Bjorn Borg, annihilated Vitas Gerulaitis in 1980.
Wilander, a quiet and self-effacing man who has never been fully appreciated by British audiences – his best performance was to reach the quarter-finals last year – is nevertheless the only player yet to win major championships on red clay, grass and synthetic surfaces.
But heading the computer, a favourite topic of Lendl’s, has never bothered Wilander. When he said as much, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors were appalled, but his views have not changed.
“It’s always been more important to me to win the big events; that’s what really counts. To get to no.1 you have to win almost every tournament you play, and that’s not my style any more. But now I’ve won two Grand Slams in a year for the fist time, so the next step has to be the US Open and Wimbledon.”
Indeed Wilander is now halfway to completing the first Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969. “But that’s still a dream” he admitted, “although I have to recognise that the chance is there.”
Many wondered if his superb five-set victory over Pat Cash in the final of the Australian Open at the new Flinders Park stadium in January indicated that he had changed his game too much to maintain his supremacy on clay.
But Wilander, whose closest call came when he met Slobodan Zivojinovic, gave an emphatic answer to such speculation by resisting Leconte’s first-set challenge before overwhelming him.
“I was a bit worried when he served for the first set at 5-4” said Wilander, “but not, I feel, as mch as he was. When I won the first set that was it. After that he was far too tense.”
This showed in a French flood of backhand errors, while his own passing shots, hit with deadly accuracy from either side, were never better.
A low-level pass by the Patrouille de France, the Gallic equivalent of the Red Arrows, celebrated 100 years since the birth of Roland Garros and brought a sense of anticipation to the occasion which Leconte whipped to a climax as he broke Wilander to love at 4-4.
But the journey from climax to anticlimax was swift. Wilander broke back, took the set and proceeded to make Leconte look as out of place in a final as Steffi Graf had done to Natalia Zvereva 24 hours earlier.
Wilander said that although he was aware that Leconte was not regarded with the same hero-worship as Yannick Noah, he was surprised that the crowd “were not really there when he needed them most.”
Jean Borotra, who will be 90 in August, and his 87-year-old fellow musketeer René Lacoste, the losing finalist when the stadium was first used 60 years ago, presented Wilander with the trophy and the winner’s cheque for £150,000.
“The clay in Paris back then played incredibly slow, which meant hitting more balls per point than I had for a long time. I’d won my first two matches by staying faithful to my game, hitting it early, flat, close to the net, on the lines, basically attacking the ball instead of hanging back. And now I was playing Michael Chang, who was a mere 20 years younger than me.
The mercury had risen to over 100 degrees as I walked out onto the red clay of Roland Garros to face Chang, an opponent who was prepared to be there all day if necessary, to run down every ball. It’s kill or be killed. That turned out to be a bit too close for comfort.
We traded the first two sets, he took the third and then in the fourth I hit the wall for the first time in my life. I had no idea where I was or what I was doing. I was done – fatigue, dehydration, everything. At one of the changeovers, as I looked around the stands, I turned to Lelly, who was sitting courtside. ‘Why are all these people here?’ I asked. Just a little out of my mind.
Doing things half-assed doesn’t fit my personality, and I hit that wall running so hard I managed to force my head through to the other side just long enough to hear a voice tell me, ‘Not yet Jimmy, not yet’. A couple in the crowd made a move to leave. ‘Don’t go’ I called to them. ‘This isn’t over yet’.
I broke Chang to go 5-4 up and held on to even the match at two sets each. ‘Allez Jeemeee! Allez, Jeemeee!’
After three hours 31 minutes, I faced my second fifth set in as many days. Wounded and exhausted, I dragged myself out of my seat. I knew I’d gone as far as I could. My back was seizing up, my vision blurred, head spinning? Kill or be killed? What asshole said that?
All through the months of hurt and sweat that had brought me to that moment in Paris, I’d only thought about one thing, the tournament that defined me, the US Open. New York in September.
To keep going against Chang would be insane, jeopardizing everything I’d been working toward. If I screwed up, if I injued myself, that would be it for the summer and probably forever. Yet I didn’t have a choice. The crowd wanted more. I thought ‘Come on Michael, let’s see what you’ve got’.
Chang serves the first point of the fifth set. I attack it with my backhand, sending the ball screaming down the line, clipping the baseline, leaving him with no response. Now I am done. Slowly I walk forward to the umpire Bruno Rebeuh‘s chair.
The score stands at 4-6 7-5 6-2 4-6 0-15. If you’ve got to quit, then do it when you’re ahead
Bill Norris, the ATP trainer and one of my friends on the circuit, helped me off the court. Bill had been around forever. I knew him well, and I knew he’d look after me. As we walked off, the Parisians came to their feet, cheering and clapping. That place rocked. They knew what they’d just witnessed, and I like to think they were saying merci.
That was pure class. Jimbo then reached the third round at Wimbledon (lost to Derrick Rostagno) and the semifinals at Flushing Meadows (lost to Jim Courier). He retired in 1996 at 44.
From Pete Sampras’ autobiography A champion’s mind:
When the draw came out for Roland Garros, I just looked at it and went “Wow”. It was as though as it could get. On form, I would play two recent French Open champions, starting in the second round with two-time winner Sergi Bruguera. It was time to step up; I knew that’s what Tim (Gullikson) would have wanted me to do. Paul (Annacone) wanted me to attack relentlessly, and the conditions for that strategy were good. It was hot and dry and the court would be playing fast. I might be able to attack and pressure Bruguera, although he was a great defender and could run down anything.
The Parisians are astute fans and tennis aesthetes; they like players who are stylish, daring, or flamboyant. They understood what a coup it would have been for me, a serve-and-volley player who played a relatively clean, elegant game, to win the ultimate clay-court title – and the only Grand Slam that had eluded me up to that point.
But most important, they were well aware that I had just lost Tim, and their sympathy for me was obvious. Their press, led by sports daily L’Equipe, was all over the story. Tim had just died, yet because of all the publicity and the endless questions, he was more alive in my mind than at any time since before he became ill.
Inspired by the oupouring of concern, respect, and support, I beat Bruguera 6-3 in the fifth. I know Tim would have been proud of the way I attacked and kept the pressure on. I kept my head up for the entire match and I really felt Tim – and the French crowd – pushing me through the rough parts of that battle. In the next round, I beat my friend and Davis Cup doubles partner Todd Martin, and I lucked out a bit to get Aussie Scott Draper in the fourth round – Aussie attackers just didn’t pose the kinds of problems on clay as the European grinders did.
But in the quarters, I was up against Jim Courier, who played extremely well on clay, especially Parisian clay. He was a two-time champ at Roland Garros, and a dominant guy there for half a decade.
I lost the first two sets, which was suicidal given the quality of my opponent. But I felt oddly confident and calm, as if Tim were looking over my shoulder, telling me that it was okay, everything was going to work out. And in reality, I was striking the ball well and putting myself in position to win points. I was getting my backhand to his backhand, which was always the key to playing Jim, who loved to dictate with his forehand. I felt I was outplaying him, but for one thing: I was missing a few volleys here and there, and generally failing to close.
Things changed in the third and fourth sets. I started to finish effectively, and everything else fell into place. Soon I was dominating, although I was also beginning to feel the physical toll. But emotion and inspiration pulled me through. After I won the match, I said something in the press interview about feeling that Tim was watching and helping me. I stated that as fact, and it just added to the developing story. Beating Jim gave me a semifinal berth opposite Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and I liked my chances in that one. I liked them a lot. […]
When Friday rolled around, I was scheduled to play the early semifinal match. Playing the first semi in Paris is a drag. It’s a late crowd in Paris, especially in the choice seats gobbled up by corporations. Frenchmen are not likely to pass up a long, lavish lunch in the corporate hospitality area jsut to catch the first hour or two of what is usually at least a six-hour center-court program. So in Paris, you can find yourself playing a Grand Slam semifinal that has all the atmosphere of a second-round day match in Indianapolis or Lyon. It’s a bummer to play for a place in a Grand Slam final under those conditions. […]
The lack of atmosphere threw me, and so did the conditions. It was hot, the sun was blazing in a cloudless sky, and there wasn’t the slightest breeze. Of course, a fast, sun-baked court would help my game, but the heat could also drain me in a long clay-court grind.
As it turned down, I didn’t have to worry about stamina. I served well at the start, picked my spots to attack, and made good use of my forehand to force the action. Kafelnikov hung in there without worrying me. We went to the first-set tiebreaker and it was close, but I lost it – theoretically, no big deal. And then everything just imploded. I didn’t get a game in the next set, and won just two in the third. It was by far my most puzzling and distressing Grand Slam loss, and it occured against a guy with a tendency to get tight in big matches – especially against me. […]
I was stunned. Down deep, I’d felt that it was my time at the French Open, and that was all bound up with having lost Tim. I thought it was meant to be, especially after my wins over two worthy former champions. During that entire tournament, I felt like Tim was still alive. Tim and I were going to win the French – it was going to be another team effort, like getting over the hump and winning Wimbledon. I’d even had these conversations with him in my head during my matches at Roland Garros, and they helped pull me through.
During the Kafelnikov match, however, there was nothing but a resounding, deep silence. I didn’t think about this during the match, but I guess the silence probably settled in because my attempt to hold on to Tim, my fantasy that I could keep him alive, expired. Despite having been to Tim’s funeral, I hadn’t really faced up to or accepted the fact that he was gone. Two matches too soon, I had a devastating reality check.
When I hit the wall against Kafelnikov, and felt my dream – our dream – blow up in my face, it really did sink in. Tim was gone. Our dream was gone. It was gone for good.
By David Irvine, World of Tennis 1986
Mats Wilander won the men’s title for the second time in four years. Wilander, at 17 the youngest player to become a French singles champion in 1982, confessed a conscious willingness to present himself to the public as “more interesting” than he had been hitherto. In that aim he undoubtedly succeeded. The Swede, who had not won a tournament of any sort since lifting the Australian crown in Melbourne six months previously, delighted a sell-out crowd in prising the championship from Ivan Lendl’s grasp by a margin: 3-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 – which accurately reflected the pattern of play. Wilander’s failures in Hamburg and Rome, where he was mesmerised by Miloslav Mecir, had suggested that his career might be in decline. McEnroe, Lendl and Yannick Noah, who had shown touches of his 1983 form in winning the Italian championship, all appeared better bets than Wilander for the men’s title. Only the Swedish press corps had absolute faith in their man, because “this is the one he really wants”. All the same, Wilander must have been mighty relieved to find himself in the opposite half of the draw to Mecir, his bete noire, and among non-Swedish journalists there was still no discernible shift in the odds on Wilander until he routed Germany’s golden boy, Boris Becker, in the second round with a display which cast an entirely different light on the 20-year-old’s attitude.
If Wilander’s positive play delighted, his frank dealings with the press proved more intriguing still. “There have been times recently when I’ve been very bored with tennis”, he admitted. “But I’ve been looking forward to the French for some months. I agree I play well in big events – I don’t know why. Maybe deep inside I’m not concentrating 100 percent at some other tournaments.” He acknowleged that the French public had disliked the way he had played in winning the title in 1982. “And so did I”, he added. “Unfortunately that was the only way I knew how to play then. Now I’m trying to change. I want to be more interesting.”
During the World Team Cup in Dusseldorf the week before the French, McEnroe had questioned Wilander’s motivation and speculated whether the Swede really wanted to be the best. “I’m trying as hard as I can to be no.1”, was Wilander’s assurance, “but if it means practising eight hours a day I’m not prepared to do that. It’s not worth it.” Wilander had a more direct answer to McEnroe in the semi-finals , where he beat him 6-1, 7-5, 7-5, matching the American for touch at the net and then destroying him with the accuracy of his passing shots.
Lendl‘s progress to his sixth defeat in seven Grand Slam finals was even more convincing than Wilander’s for at no time did he drop a set. When the crunch came, though, the Czech’s serve let him down, and once again his inflexibility left him without an alternative strategy to fall back on. His appearance – gaunt, hollow-eyed and nervous – revealed the enormous strain he felt. Wilander, though, played with almost carefree abandon, his subtle command of the conditions (seen best in the confident way he spiralled so many lobs into the wind) underlining his absolute belief in himself.
From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990
Panatta had much in common with Ilie Nastase in that both were under-achievers who never fully exploited their talent but gave immense pleasure and attracted huge followings. The obvious differences between them lay in playing method and conduct. Nastase was the more flamboyant competitor but his behavior was often offensive. Panatta had more power and his deportment was elegantly disciplined as his tennis. He was a heart-throb who milked the role in an engaging way, rather as John Newcombe did. His teenaged fans could admire the man and his tennis without the reservations necessary in Nastase’s case. Panatta was a model of the tall, dark and handsome hero or, to flaunt another cliché, the strong, silent man. At the same time he could be demonstrative in the Italian way and the ladies did not mind at all when he put on his sulky look or tossed back his forelock.
At six feet and almost 13 stone Panatta was a fine athlete, though the professional sportsman was always slightly at odds with his well developed taste for food and wine and the dolce vita. He was a renowned, attractive sportsman who fitted perfectly into fashionable Roman society. When he appeared at the Foro Italico the public’s excitement was so passionately partisan – to the point of conducting matches rather than merely watching them – that players from overseas felt no more popular than early Christians did at the Colosseum. In Panatta’s era the crowd’s hostility towards his opponents was sometimes frightening. Nor was justice consistently evenhanded. But all that was not Panatta’s fault. His presence simply kindled emotional fires that occasionally out of control.
On the other hand one would not wish Italians to be anything but warmly appreciative of tennis players whose brush-strokes respect the nation’s proud artistic traditions. Panatta was not the first.
Two particularly interesting characters 30 years ago were Beppe Merlo and Nicola Pietrangeli. Merlo was a dapper little chap who defied most of the conventions except in his ability to put the ball where his opponents didn’t want it and, often, didn’t expect it. He used a short grip and had no more than a hint of a backswing. No more than a hint of a service, either. He just prodded the ball into play. Merlo’s racket was so loosely strung that his strokes were noiseless save for a muffled plunk. But he was an artful nudger commanding a deceptive variety of spin. Merlo’s tennis was so eccentric, so baffling, that opponents ran the risk of getting their legs knotted.
By contrast Pietrangeli was a classically conventional clay-courter. Born in Tunis of Franco-Russian parents, he could have been a top-class footballer. Instead, Pietrangeli played and won more Davis Cup matches than any other player, took Italy to two challenge rounds with the help of a giant called Orlando Sirola, and twice won the French championship. He played with enviable economy of effort and had such a deft touch that occasionally, like Manuel Santana, he could make a drop-shot spin back over the net. In 1962 Pietrangeli and Nikki Pilic established a Wimbledon record with a 46-game set. Pietrangeli was also an active socialite who often stayed up half the night, arguing that there was nothing much to do in the mornings except sleep.
Panatta first caught ou attention when he beat Clark Graebner in the 1968 Queensland championships in Brisbane. It soon became evident that for all his size and strength and his agility at the net, Panatta was most at ease when using the drop-and-lob routine to design leisurely, almost languid patterns across sunlit clay courts. […]
His annus mirabilis was 1976, when he won the Italian and French championships in three weeks and – with the help of Corrado Barazzutti in singles and Paolo Bertolucci in doubles – brought Italy the Davis Cup for the only time in the competition’s history. It helped that four out of six ties were played at home. Panatta’s individual triumphs in Rome and Paris were remarkable for the fact that in each tournament he came within a point of losing in the first round.
In Rome, Kim Warwick had no fewer than 11 match points. In Paris, Pavel Hutka, an ambidextruous Czechoslovak newcomer to Roland Garros, had only one match point – but the memory of that point is vivid. Silence fell like a pall over the sunny stadium as Panatta prepared to serve. Fault. Both men fidgeted. There was no other movement, no sound. The birds had stopped singing. Hutka clipped the net cord in returning the second ball. Panatta, dashing in, had to break his stride but hit deep and stood towering at the net, waiting to see what Hutka and the gods had in store for him. Hutka’s lob looked a winner but Panatta’s vertical take-off achieved a feeble return off the frame. Hutka’s passing shot looked a formality but Panatta guessed right, flung himself headlong like a torpedo and hit a winning volley – again, off the frame. Whereupon Panatta crashed on to the court, the ground seemed to shiver and the stadium thundered with applause. That was the most amazing point I ever saw.
After that it was all profit. Even Bjorn Borg, champion in the two preceding years, could not cope with the imaginatively adventurous Panatta, who no longer recognized any distinction between the improbable and the inevitable.
Panatta’s arresting presence and artistically macho tennis also gave us memorable hours of pleasure when he was playing on grass, a surface hostile to the graces. And at Wimbledon in 1976, when he was playing Charlie Pasarell, the was an incident that told us much about the man. As Panatta was about to serve, a sparrow twittered away on the grass a few yards behind him. Distracted, Panatta gently olled a ball towards it, but the sparrow could not or would note move. So Panatta strolled back, picked up the fluffy chirper in a strong yet tender hand, and carefully took it across a spectator. Panatta had a way with birds. He had a way with tennis, too. The game was a means of expression, a form of communion with the ghosts of Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci.
From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990
One of the craziest anomalies of the 1960s, a decade in which the great champions were bared from the great tournaments, concerned two Spaniards born within nine months of one another duing the Civil War. There was nothing to choose between their levels of performance. But Andres Gimeno turned professional in 1960 and played his best tennis in the proud, exclusive environment of Jack Kramer‘s tour. Towards the end of the 1960s, only Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall were better players.
But superficial historians may recall Gimeno only as the chap who, at the age of 34, won the 1972 French championship from an unusually modest bunch of challengers. By contrast Santana stayed in the ‘shamateur’ ranks, picked up an impressive array of Grand Slam titles, had a wonderful Davis Cup record, became a national hero, and captivated everybody in sight. So Santana received far more publicity and achieved a bigger reputation, except among the cognoscenti. Santana played no better than Gimeno did but had the more spectacular game, the more crowd-pleasing court presence, and probably a greater depth of competitive self-belief.
First a word about Gimeno, who was Santana’s Davis Cup teammate from 1958 to 1960 and 1972-1973, winning 17 out of 22 singles and breaking even in ten doubles. Gimeno was 6ft 1 1/2in tall but looked even bigger because he was straight-backed, held his head high, and had a tiptoed style that suggested he was wary of damaging the court. His bearing was patrician, his manner courteous, his game elegant. Gimeno stroked the ball with the teasing flourish one associates with the bull-fighting breed. The forehand was his stronger flank and although it was sometimes said his backhand couldn’t break an egg, he placed the shot shrewdly.
Gimeno had a sure touch and made effective use of the lob. There was a purpose behind every shot he played and his game was as tidy in detail as it was sound in conception. But he had nothing that could really hurt his opponents and on big occasions he tended to be too highly strung, too diffident, to do himself complete justice. Gentleman that he was, Gimeno may have had too much respect for the likes of Laver and Rosewall.
Would Santana have done any better in that company? One doubts it. He turned down a professional offer because he considered he could more tournaments and more prestige, make more money, and have a more congenial lifestyle by remaining in the ‘shamateur’ ranks. There came a time when Santana and Roy Emerson, as the biggest fish in a thinly stocked pool, could command $1,000 to $1,500 a week. They had no illusion. They knew that they would be smaller fish in the professional pool. An embarrassing decision was forced upon them and they chose the course that suited their circumstances and their natures. It worked out pretty well for them and it worked out pretty well for Spain, too. By winning two Grand Slam titles on clay and two on grass, and twice guiding his country to the Davis Cup challenge round, Santana did even more for Spanish tennis (and the nation’s sporting reputation in general) than Severiano Ballesteros was to achieve via golf.[…]
Santana was the Ilie Nastase of the 1960s: less of an athlete, true but more disciplined in his conduct and his match-play, and in the same class when it came to artistic wizardry. An example of the shots they had in common what that rare flower, the chipped forehand, which both played with such facility that they might have been picking daisies. The joyous feature of their tennis was a common ability to mask their intentions. Their dextrous powers of deception were such that they consistently pulled off the tennis equivalent of the three-card trick.
Santana used every hue in the box during the 1961 French championships, in which he beat the top three seeds – Roy Emerson, Rod Laver and Nicola Pietrangeli – to win his (and Spain’s) first major championship. Santana beat Laver 3-6 6-2 4-6 6-4 6-0. Laver led 4-1 in the fourth set but, emmeshed in a beautiful network of shot-making, could not win another game. In the final, Santana beat a kindred spirit, Pietrangeli, by 4-6 6-1 3-6 6-0 6-2. It was a sunny afternoon and the arena was as much an artists’ studio as a tennis stadium. Each man in turn stepped up to the canvas while the other was, so to speak, taking time off to mix his colours. The vast assembly could hardly believe their luck. Ultimately Pietrangeli, champion in the two previous years, had to admit that he was the second best. […]
They met again in the 1964 final but by that time Santana’s star had waxed and Pietrangeli’s was beginning to wane. On clay, Santana had proved all he needed to prove. So he concentrated his attention on the grass-court bastions: and had luck on his side in that, at Forest Hills and Wimbledon in turn, the most fancied contenders never turned his path. At Forest Hills he played only two seeds, Arthur Ashe (5th) and Cliff Drysdale (8th), and at Wimbledon he played only one, Dennis Ralston (6th). Never mind. Santana beat everybody he had to beat. He had conquered the ‘shamateur’ world on the two extremes of clay and grass.
There was an engaging but frustrating appendix to the years of glory. In the 1969 French championships Santana and Gimeno, both 31, clashed after a nine-year beak. It was Madrid vs Barcelona plus, for watching players, a leftover battle between the now united ‘shamateur’ and professional armies. For two sets, Gimeno was too nervous to play his best tennis, whereas Santana’s shot making had a subtle splendor about it. Then Gimeno settled down and in the stress of combat santana pulled a groin muscle and eventually had to retire. Gimeno won 4-6 2-6 6-4 6-4 1-0.
Santana and Gimeno had explored different avenues in their pursuit of fame and fortune. Their joint achievement was to lift Spanish tennis to a level it had never reached before: a level that was consolidated by Manuel Orantes and to some extent Jose Higueras. Orantes was runner-up for the 1974 French title and in 1975 he won the first of the three US Open contested on a gritty, loose-top surface.
That was a memorable triumph for two reasons. In a semi-final Vilas led Orantes by 6-4 6-1 2-6 5-0 and had five match points. Orantes won, but he was up half the night because he could not tourn off the bathroom tap and had to find a plumber. Then he went back on court and, in the final, gave Jimmy Connors a lesson in the craft of clay-court tennis.