Article by Richard Yallop, Guardian, December 1988

Mats Wilander’s parents live in a standard suburban home in the southern Swedish town of Vaxjo, and they saw no need to move to the top of the road when their son recently displaced Ivan Lendl as world no. 1. Nor did they want the star treatment, with Mats buying them a mansion with his winnings. No, life goes on, with 57-year-old Einar Wilander doing his daily shift as foreman at a local air-conditioner factory, and his wife Karin devoting much time to the grandchildren. These are humble, unaffected people, living in a quiet, well-ordered estate cut into the fir and pine forests. Half a world away in the urban jungle of Manhattan is John McEnroe Senior’s New York law firm.

Mr. Wilander is short and reticent, and he seems to leave most of the talking to his wife and two oldest sons, Ingmar and Anders, who are respectively five and nine years older than Mats, who is 24. He smiles in a rather embarrassed fashion when asked whether he and his wife had instilled into Mats the values that have made him admired around the world, and have helped put tennis back on an even keel after John McEnroe came aboard and hoisted the Jolly Roger in the late 1970’s. “No”, said Mr. Wilander, “the credit should go to his two brothers”. Clearly the Wilander brothers were a good team. Whenever Ingmar and Anders went to the ice rink, or the tennis courts, they would take along their young brother. When Anders went to Bastad to play in the Swedish under-16 championships (he was ranked no.3 after Bjorn Borg), the pint-sized six-year-old Mats was pictured by Swedish television knocking tennis balls against the wall.

Now the Swedish Davis Cup team – Wilander, Stefan Edberg, Joakim Nystrom, Anders Jarryd, Kent Carlsson and, to a lesser extent (because he was schooled for so long in America), Mikael Pernfors – resemble nothing so much as an extended family of brothers. Before the Davis Cup final the team even got together for fun – and for charity, if there was any surplus at the box office – to play indoor hockey at five venues around Sweden.

Edberg, at 22, may be the “baby” of the family, but he was brought up the same way, in Vastervik, a country town south of Stockholm, with the same simple, old-fashioned community values. Is his father not Police Inspector Bengt Edberg, a pillar of the Vastervik community? Did he not tell Stefan from a young age the importance of good behaviour? When Stefan’s ability showed, and he progressed from the Vastervik team to the district team, did the parents and coaches not stress all the time the need to behave well? Be calm and patient; that is the Swedish tennis model. The eldest of the Wilander brothers, Anders, recalls “Our parents didn’t tell us what to do. They are tolerant, sympathetic people, not strict at all. But our father said, “If you’re honest, you’ll win in the long run”…

Wilander and Edberg may convey the impression that the Swedes are a race of angels, but they are not. The Swedish Tennis Federation says bad behaviour is not uncommon in the satellite tournaments. And of the present Davis Cup players, Anders Jarryd, a mild off-court character, has long struggled against displays of anger on court. Percy Rosberg, [Borg’s former coach] recalled how he had first seen Jarryd’s temper at an under-14 training camp. “He was the only one to show such temperament. We told him to be careful. It’s best if you try to control it as a junior. Borg, Edberg, Wilander, they all concentrate on the next ball instead of getting angry”…

In Sweden they still remember with horror the night McEnroe did one of his grand turns at the Stockholm Open in November, swishing over the water container beside the court. The American had been playing Jarryd, and perhaps his exasperation that night was all the greater for his inability to understand the Swedish psyche.

Nor could McEnroe understand Wilander’s continued insistence that reaching no.1 was not his main aim. The American way was to be the best, the Swedish way was to do your best. For Wilander it was more important to enjoy tennis than to be its top exponent. In January last year he married a South African model, Sonia Mulholland, and began the game afresh. His brother Anders says the first time he ever heard Mats express the desire to be no.1 was earlier this year, before he won the French. “He said it would be nice when he was old to look back and say he was number one”, said Anders. “If only for one week.”

By Peter Bodo, TENNIS, September 1984

After Mats Wilander won his first match of the 1983 U.S. Open, he rendered a curious prophecy. He laconically confessed that he gave himself little chance to win the tournament, horrifying a press corps that is unaccustomed to such frankness. Contemplating the incident, the 20-year-old Swede now remarks: “I said that the same way a newsman, or a coach, might say it. After all, only one guy can win. I analyzed my chances and I didn’t feel like a good choice for the title. I was just trying to be honest.”

Once before, Wilander had garnered headlines as a result of his honesty. In the semifinals of the 1982 French Open, while he was still an unknown youth, Wilander held a match point against heavily favoured José-Luis Clerc. When a Clerc groundstroke was called out, ostensibly ending the match, the Argentine protested. Wilander interceded on his opponent’s behalf and the point was replayed. Wilander went on to win the match and to rock the entire tennis community as he became, at age 17, the youngest male winner in the history of a Grand Slam tournament. The gesture towards Clerc has haunted Wilander ever since, but the excesses of youth are in ebb.

“When you do things a little different, it gets too much attention”, he says. “Then you have to do too many extra interviews. From now on when I’m asked how I’ll do in a tournament, I’m just going to say I have a good chance. And I’m not going to change any more calls. I’m 20 now. I’m a professional.”

However, this is no elegy on the passing of virtue or the loss of innocence in Wilander. The “professional” who will be trying to solve the puzzle of tennis on medium-fast cement at the U.S. Open this month has matured and grown wiser to the world, but his character has not been deformed by success. With diligence, dignity and style, Wilander has entrenched himself in the world’s top four. In fact, the cool youth almost snatched the world’s no. 1 ranking right from the hands of John McEnroe late last year.

In a surprise that rivaled Wilander’s victory at the 1982 French Open, he closed the 1983 campaign by winning the Australian Open. He accomplished it, moreover, by toppling McEnroe in the semifinals and Ivan Lendl in the final. At the end of the calendar year, thus, Wilander found himself holding three victories over McEnroe on three different surfaces in three distinguished events: the French Open (clay), the ATP Championships in Cincinnati (cement) and the Australian Open (grass). There were some who argued that entitled him to the world’s top ranking.

To many spectators, particularly Americans, Wilander is an unheralded force in the game, and a virtually unknown face outside pro shops or tennis clubs. “I’ve never played really well in the big American tournaments, so I understand why I’m not so recognized”, he says. “That doesn’t bother me so much because I try not to be too complicated. And in a way it’s good, because I like to be as free as possible.”

As a tennis player, Mats Wilander is a classic model. He is our sport’s version of the mint julep, the wooden boat or the button-fly blue jean. Wilander is not an athletic specimen sculpted on the same heroic scale as Yannick Noah, nor a riveting theatrical presence such as McEnroe. He lacks the fire of Jimmy Connors and the ice of Lendl. Wilander is lithe, quick and fluid, a triumph of proportions. His olive complexion and pale blue eyes belie Wilander’s Swedish nationality. In tennis whites, his bearing is placid and aristocratic. He is the son of Einar and Karin Wilander, both of whom are factory workers.

The contradiction implied by Wilander’s appearance and background are not accidental. They are intrinsic to his personality as a tennis player, a classic tennis player created by a system and conditions that are anything but classic. “Tennis used to be for another class of people, but now it’s become very popular”, Wilander observes. “It’s now the third most popular sport in Sweden.”

The tale of Wilander’s success is also the history of a national effort to transcend on a great scale the usual social and economic boundaries associated with the sport. Bjorn Borg broke the ground from which Wilander and a host of other Swedish pros sprang. Tennis development programs burgeoned throughout the country in the wake of Borg’s success. Such free national programs, and the team concept that evolved from them, represent a radical departure from tennis traditions. The Swedes have developed a “socialized” tennis that challenges the assumption that, at its highest level, tennis is a Darwinian jungle patrolled by solitary creatures.

Wilander himself says: “I don’t think I would have the results of the last two or three years if I didn’t have the team situation. And I think it made success easier to handle.”

Wilander’s career germinated in his hometown of Torpsbruk, where Einar Wilander worked in a factory adjacent to a neglected macadam tennis court. Working in their spare time, Einar and some of his friends made the court playable.

Wilander’s talent began to flourish when the family moved to nearby Vaxjo, where the tennis facilities were more elaborate. Although Wilander’s first love was ice hockey, the tide soon turned in favor of tennis, pleasing Einar Wilander. “My father loves the game”, his son reports, “Even today, he goes down to the town tennis courts every night after work to watch the game even if the players aren’t good.”

At the age of 15 Wilander quit school to pursue a tennis career. It would be inspirational to report that he did it for reasons of economic hardship, but such was not the case. The Wilanders lived a comfortable life in socialist Sweden. As Wilander’s agent, Jean-Noel Bioul of the International Management Group notes: “The basic standards in Sweden are pretty high. Social differences show up mostly in matters of taste – not in the house you live in, but the curtains you choose.”

Young Wilander developed quickly under the auspices of the Swedish junior program. He won the French junior title in 1981 at age 16. A few weeks after that event, Swedish coach Jan-Anders Sjogren convinced a Swedish building firm, SIAB, to finance a team of outstanding prospects: Wilander, Joakim Nystrom, Hans Simonsson and Anders Jarryd. “We started the team just before Wimbledon”, Sjogren recalls, “mostly because none of them could volley and that looked like a big problem. My job as coach was simple – teach each one to hit a volley.”

There was another, less technical reason for forming Team SIAB. Inundating foreign shores with a flood of junior talent from an isolated Scandinavian nation was a costly proposition, and the prospect of providing the youngsters with adequate coaching and chaperones was equally grim. There were other specific barriers and conditions that made the team concept viable. As Sjogren explains: “The team idea owes a lot to the fact that we are a small country with our own language and a long winter that has always given the Swedes a tendency to stay together. We like the team idea. It suits our national character.”

Wilander flourished in the team atmosphere. “Mats is a very loyal person, maybe the best person among the players I know”, says Swedish journalist Bjorn Hellberg. “Even after he won the French Open, he would still go home and play matches for his club in the Swedish league. That’s the kind of guy he is. He likes that spirit of friendship. He always goes out to watch the matches of his team mates, even in doubles. Mats is an extremely kind person.”

Although the original Team SIAB has broken up, Wilander still travels and practices with its constituents. He’s also now a member of the Club Med-Rossignol touring pro team. “I know it’s unusual for a player in the top four to be so close to other players”, he says. “But then I’m the youngest one so high in the rankings. It’s always been important for me to walk into a dressing-room and have somebody to talk to.”

The Swedes form a distinct group within the fragmented society of pro tennis. They are as conspicuous and insular as Japanese tourists. Because they don’t do a great deal of mixing, the Swedes often remain provincial. After practice, they play soccer using a tennis ball and the service boxes. They go to movies or out to dinner together.

The week before Wimbledon this year, the Swedes observed their national tradition of holding a party on the eve of the summer solstice. Then, they travelled to central London to dine together. Wilander explains: “We have been traveling and doing things together since the age of 13 or 14 and it has just stayed that way. It’s comfortable.”

Lately, Wilander has been paying a higher price for the benefits of camaraderie. In the first half of this year, he lost important matches to Swedish players, most of them friends. Wilander was beaten by Stefan Edberg in the final at Milan and twice by Henrik Sundstrom, in the final at Monte Carlo and in the semis at Hamburg. “It’s easier for the other Swedes to beat Mats”, Sjogren admits, “They know him so well that there isn’t that tension you feel with a stranger, that fear.”

Wilander is aware of the condition, but maintains that he has never entertained notions of divorce in the interests of better results against his fellow Swedes. He is not even convinced that, in the big picture, withdrawing from his friends would improve his results.

“It does matter to me that I have lost to the other Swedes”, he admits. “But you just don’t care as much about winning or losing if you are playing with a close friend. The one thing I know for certain is that when I’m not in a good mood, I can’t play good tennis. I need to feel harmony. To just go and hit tennis balls, staying apart from everybody, that would be boring for me. I think I would lose my interest in the game.”

The allegiances developed through his participation in a nationally administered tennis program, and the security bred by team identification during his formative years as a pro, had a profound impact on Wilander. They imbued him with a highly cultivated social sense and a much greater capacity for group identification than most of his rivals show. “Maybe the team idea has taken away a little from the killer instinct”, says Hellberg. “That is one of the ways Mats is different from Borg, who was always alone.”

With the dissolution of the original Team SIAB and the emergence of Wilander as a player of the first rank, the bonds of team fidelity are being tested. During the French Open, Wilander broke with tradition and stayed at a different hotel from his friends. Sjogren has been trying to expand Wilander’s range of practice partners to keep complacency and lack of variety from eroding his form. As Bioul puts it: “It would be great for Mats to practice with a (Guillermo) Vilas here or a (Vitas) Gerulaitis there.”

The recent losses to Swedish players and the growing financial security of Wilander (a Monaco resident now for tax reasons) have raised questions lately about his motivation. Critics suggest that his situation is too secure from every angle. Wilander does not bridle at the charges. “To tell the truth, I think now I could be happy with an ordinary job. I know I did something in tennis and I’m proud of it. With two Grand Slam titles I could be content if I left the game.”

“I have the drive to be on top, too, but to me it doesn’t feel right to be so serious about it. Let’s face it: there are 50 players who believe they can be no.1 and ten who maybe could do it.”

“I never expected to be in the top 10. When I made the top 80, enabling me to get straight into Grand Prix tournaments, I thought it was incredible. Then I couldn’t believe it when I made the top 50. I once felt that if I won the French Open I would achieve everything I wanted in tennis. But after I won it didn’t seem to matter that much. The feeling goes away soon after you’ve won. In fact, the joy of winning dies down to about 10 percent by the time you finish your shower. The best moment – the real moment – is the time between the last point and the handshake.”

Like many restrained and well-mannered Europeans, Wilander seems intimidated by the scale of the U.S. He seems puzzled by the friendly, loud, unsophisticated citizenry, surprised at the general lack of culture and uninterested by what he describes as “cities that all look the same and all the new houses, like little boxes.” Wilander adds: “The attitude in the States seems to be “take whatever you can.” I don’t get the feeling that people care as much about each other. On the other hand, people aren’t as jealous as in Europe. They don’t resent your success as much.”

Along with many other European pros, Wilander regards the U.S. Open with skepticism and thinly-veiled disdain. “The difference between Flushing Meadow and Wimbledon is night and day”, he says. “Wimbledon is perfect to play tennis in, while Flushing Meadow is just the opposite, like playing in an airport. Flushing Meadow lacks tradition.”

Like Borg, Wilander has found that adapting to tennis on cement poses distinct problems. It is different from, but no less challenging than, adjusting to clay or grass courts. “Mats should play well on any fast surface because he has a good service return”, Sjogren says. “If you have good ground strokes, good physical conditioning, you should play well on any surface. Usually the rest is a matter of your returns.”

Sjogren points out that Wilander is not a “volley-killer”, maintaining that his protégé won the Australian title by keeping his own volleys in court and successfully converting more passing shots than his opponents. “On cement”, Sjogren maintains, “You have to step into the court more and kill any ball in the midcourt area. The power and mentality you need for that is not natural to Matsie.”

Wilander at his best is a master of containment, a man whose precision and consistency keeps his opponents from generating any kind of attacks. To some observers he is “boring”, but that charge stems from a shallow view of his style. “I’ve thought about the philosophy of baseline tennis a few times”, Wilander says. “And the way I see it, if you’re a serve-and-volley guy, you give the other players a good chance to win every point. Taking risks and being picked apart isn’t the most positive kind of aggression. Connors is the most aggressive player I’ve ever seen and he doesn’t play serve-and-volley tennis.”

To Wilander, tennis on cement requires difficult, spontaneous decisions. The relentless attack by the server is not as profitable as it is on grass. “It’s difficult to tell on cement what ball to come in on”, Wilander says. “Also the courts are consistent and high-bouncing; my serve isn’t good enough so that I can always come in on it. On grass, a consistent first serve is good enough. On cement, you have to hit the big one.”

Wilander was able to serve rocks as he took the ATP Champion-ships on cement just before the U.S. Open last year, but he maintains the result was deceptive. “I won the tournament because it was the best week I had serving in my life. But that didn’t make me a complete cement player, and it was wrong to relate the Cincinnati result to the Open because the courts at Flushing Meadow are much, much faster.”

The vital role played by Wilander’s serve provides a general key to his game. Against players such as Noah, Lendl and even McEnroe, Wilander is reminiscent of a light heavyweight who fights up in the heavyweight division. Although he plays with less abandon than Connors, Wilander is no less reliant on mobility and reflexive counter-punching. He hits off his toes, thinks in motion and puts a fence round most opponents’ ambitions.

Lately, Wilander’s energetic game has taken a toll on his lean body. Through the first half of 1984, he suffered ankle and wrist injuries that taught him not to take sound health for granted. Consequently, freedom from injury has become a top priority for Wilander. He was eagerly awaiting Flushing Meadow as an event in which he would be completely fit. The 1984 U.S. Open loomed as Wilander’s best chance to reassert his sovereignity, particularly if he can survive a confrontation with McEnroe.

In selecting a world’s no.1 after the 1984 Masters, one panel chose McEnroe by a split vote. “I’m not playing tennis to be selected no.1,” Wilander insists. “I’m playing to show myself what I can do. On the other hand, they chose McEnroe and it’s nice to know that I beat him three times last year on three different surfaces.”

Contemplating the Champion’s Ball that he missed this spring when the world’s no. 1 man and woman pros were honoured, Wilander adds that “I’m glad I didn’t have to dance, that’s all.”

Stefan Edberg, Wimbledon 1988

From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990

For the obvious reason that he is still a young man, capable of striding along the summits for many more years, ths can be no more than a half-term report on a graceful, classic exponent of the ‘big’ game. Unless memory lies, Mal Anderson has been the only other player of comparable class who, in the past 30 years or so, has served and volleyed with as much elegant facility as Edberg. In 1968, in Hamburg, I spent a long time watching Anderson. The serve and volley routine can be hard to take. It lacks charm. But Anderson’s instinctive ease of movement and racket-contol somehow gave that routine the uncomplicated allure of a Strauss waltz. So it is with Edberg. This is not to suggest that Edberg is the most efficient modern graduate of the serve-and-volley school. One refers only to the natural flair with which he does his thing. Unlike such heavily muscled contemporaries as Becker and Pat Cash, Edberg brings an aesthetic quality to the three-shot rally. His emergence is a striking eminder that Bjorn Borg‘s playing method – that of a baseliner with a two-fisted backhand – inspired no more than a transient trend in Swedish tennis. That method was Borg’s, not Sweden’s.

The main features of Edberg’s game are his mixture of services (many players find the second ball more difficult to handle than the first), his volleying, especially the cross-court backhand, and his backhand service eturns, which often explode down the court like shells. His forehand is a comparatively second-class shot for a first-class player: seldom threatening, and often wayward when his confidence is low. But Edberg’s command of the backhand and the top-spin lob gives him weapons enough for counter-punching from the back of the court. He is happiest in the forecourt, bending like a sapling in a gale as he springs this way and that and tucks away the volleys – whereupon he often gives a little hop of satisfaction at a point well won.
His general demeanour, though, is one of sad, dreamy languor. Often, he looks only half-awake. But this embodiment of a sight is a dangerously deceptive as those tall, quiet gunfighters familiar from Western movies. Edberg seems reluctant to hurry but, when he does move, the action tends to be swift and short and terminal. One can picture Edberg casually blowing the smoke out of the barrel and instantly going most of the way back to sleep.

He is that kind of man: by no means the aggressive, pushy type, but stubbornly resistant to being pushed. Edberg likes a peaceful, comfortably stable life. Gentle and unassuming, reserved and laconic, he is a private man who enjoys company as long as it is not too demanding. No fuss, if you please. He is among those who apply to themselves the principle that everybody is important but nobody is very important.
Physically, Edberg is a long-limbed, willowy 6ft 2in (which Rod Laver considers may be the ideal height for a tennis player) and weighs around 11st 7lb. He has an arresting and attractive court presence and when that handsomely composed but gloomy mien is enlivened by one of his slow smiles, the mothering instinct wells up in ladies of all ages.

Edberg has a London apartment, in Kensington, but his home is the industrial home of Vastervik on the Baltic coast. He played tennis from the age of seven, took up the game full time at 16, and in the following year, 1983, won the junior Grand Slam. This invited less attention than the 17-year-old’s form in the now defunct Bournemouth tournament. He had to qualify but then reached the semi-finals by beating the cerebral and charming Balazs Taroczy, a specialist on such slow surfaces. Edberg told us that he was a policeman’s son and took up tennis because his mothe wanted him to. His Bournemouth form, plus the comment about his mother, was the first hint we had that he was something special but needed help in fuelling the fires of ambition.

For a few years he was none too sure of himself, none too sure what he wanted out of tennis, and none too sue if the ultimate prizes were worth the effort. He was lucky in that the European representative for Wilson’s, the company who made Edberg’s rackets, turned out to be a congenial friend and, before long, assumed the more constructive roles of manager, coach, and – most important of all – motivator. Tony Pickard had, in fact, turned up in Sweden almost five years before Edberg did. That was in 1961, at Bastad, where Pickard made his Davis Cup debut for Britain. As a player Pickard did not have quite enough talent to match his self-assurance. He soon discovered that it was the other way round for Edberg.

The biggest problem, was to get him to believe in himself. It took nearly three years.

Pickard, almost 32 years older than Edberg was exactly what the young man needed: a wise, witty, avuncular extrovert who knew when to nag Edberg and when to leave him alone.

At 18 Edberg made his Davis Cup debut, playing a spectacular role as Anders Jarryd‘s partner in two remarkable doubles wins. At 19 he confirmed his growing reputation as a tough, resilient competitor by winning the Australian championship. He saved two match points against Wally Masur and beat Ivan Lendl 9-7 in the fifth set. A week after his 21st birthday Edberg produced further evidence of his guts and his belief in himself when he retained the Australian title by beating Melbourne’s local hero, Pat Cash, in a five-set final contested in fierce heat. Between them, Edberg and Mats Wilander won that Australian title for Sweden five years in a row. No other overseas nation has done that.

The next big triumph for Edberg came at Wimbledon in 1988, when he recovered from two sets down to beat Miloslav Mecir in a semi-final that provided an enthralling contrast in playing methods – and then played a glorious match to beat Boris Becker in the first men’s singles final to begin one day and end the next. That year, too, Edberg came from behind to beat Mecir 9-7 in the fifth set of a decisive Davis Cup match.

In 1989 Edberg played the finest clay-court tennis of his career to each – and almost win – the French final. Becker was too strong for him in the Wimbledon final. But it takes a player of exceptional talent and competitive maturity to advance to the French and Wimbledon finals in the same summer. During the era of open competition (1968 onwards) the only other men to manage it were Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe – formidably distinguished company for a player who, for a time, had seemed to be vulnerably diffident. With Pickard’s help, Edberg learned the truth of a couple of lines in Shakespeare:

Our doubts are traitors, And make us lose the good we oft might win

By John Barrett, World Tennis 1985

Blame it on Borg. It was the phenomenal achievement in the late 1970s of the blond young Viking with the flowing mane and the rolling gait, as he plundered so many of the game’s greatest titles with seeming invincibility, that started the revolution. Between 1973 and 1980 the number of tennis players in Sweden doubled. Now, a decade after his first majour success – the capture of the French Open in 1974 as a 17-year-old – four of Bjorn’s fellow Swedes have ended 1984 ranked among the top 11 in the world – Mats Wilander (4), Anders Jarryd (6), Henrik Sundstrom (7) and Joakim Nystrom (11); a fifth, the 1983 World Junior Champion, Stefan Edberg, was at No 20.

For any nation (apart from the United States with its huge tennis community) that would have been a remarkable feat. For Sweden, with a total population of 8.5 million and only 125,000 registered tennis players, plus another estimated 275,000 who play occasionally, it is a miracle. And yet, hard as it is to believe after so much success, in this sports-mad country where 2.5 million of the energetic inhabitants participate regularly in some form of athletic activity, tennis is only the eighth most popular sport in terms of affiliated members.

As Borg grew into a national hero, it became the dream of every youngster who wielded a racket to emulate him. The municipalities throughout Sweden were beseiged by frustated parents who could not find anywhere for their children to play or anyone to teach them. Accordingly the local authorities were forced to embark upon an ambitious building programme, and with the northern climate allowing only a four-month outdoor season, that meant indoor courts. Some 200 of them are in Stockholm, the rest are dotted around the country – in twos and threes in small towns, in fours and sixes in larger towns – to provide ample opportunity for anyone with ambition. The proof that the system does indeed work can be found by looking at the home-towns of the five present leaders. They all come from different towns (not one is from Stockholm) and Nystrom hails from Skellefta, right up in the north of Sweden, where it would have been impossible to emerge without cheap indoor facilities.

This question of modest cost is another vital factor. The whole ethos surrounding Swedish sport is centred upon opportunity – the opportunity for any boy or girl with ability, regardless of his or her financial position, to be able to develop it and, most importantly to enjoy it. The average tennis club, which often belongs to the members, charges $10 or $20 per year as a membersip fee, which merely gives advance booking rights. Otherwise any member of the public can walk into any club and play on any free court by paying the modest hourly charges of $6-9. The structure perfectly fits the sophisticated nature of Swedish socialism. Through each of the country’s 23 Administrative Districts, the Swedish Sports Federation, founded in 1903, provides over the year many weekend courses, covering a wide range of subjects such as club administration, psychology and physiology and – in co-operation with the regional branches of the 57 Sports Associations – courses for trainers, umpires, officials and so on. Central Government makes an annual grant of $22-25 million to the Swedish Sports Federation; the county councils provide another $4-5 million for educational activities and the local authorities a further $70 million to help the 40,000 sports clubs with their pursuits.

It is all very-well integrated. Not only are there weekend courses for performers; the administrators and coaches are trained too. Herein lies the hidden strength of the Swedish system. In everry sport there are large numbers of amateurs helpers – organisers and coaches, who are often former high-level performers past the age of competiton – who give up their time to help the next generation. The Svenska Tennisforbundet, for example, have trained approximately 8,0000 amateur coaches and helpers during the past decade. Superimposed on this structure are the activities of the svenska Tennisforbundet’s main committees, each of which is mirrored at District level and again at Club level. Coaching for the most promosong of the young players is easily organised by these local organisations who nationally employ some 300 professional coaches, some full-time others part-time, based in selected clubs.

The Swedish Tennis Association’s share of the Government’s grant is about $300,000 which represents a quarter of the total income of $1.25 million. The balance comes from the Davis Cup (all the Swedish players sign contracts by which they agree to play for nothing in return for the help they received as juniors), from the Swedish Championships in Bastad, membership fees from affiliated clubs ($65,000 per year), from TV and radio fees, from equipment testing fees and, increasingly, from commercial sponsorship. Only about 6.25 per cent of the total income can be spared for junior training, which explains why the amateur coaches play such a vital role in the development chain.

The base of the pyramid is impressively wide, simply because the dedicated parents bing their offspring at an early age to the ‘Short Tennis’ sessions that are used to encourage the 5-8-year-olds to enjoy the experience of hitting a moving ball. These weekly meetings with their friends are not strictly coaching sessions but rather a way of detecting early whether or not a child has natural ball sense. In a strict but friendly atmosphere the youngsters learn, early and unconsciuosly, the need for discipline, and they really enjoy themselves because the sponge ball offers no danger of injury and the gentle nature of the bounce gives them a marvellous opportunity to sustain lengthy rallies. To watch a group of five or six-year-olds at one of these sessions is to know that they will grow to love tennis for the sheer joy it offers of performing a difficult skill well.

Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander:
Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander
Left: Henrik Sundstrom. Right: Anders Jarryd and the Simonsson brothers:
Sundstrom, Jarryd, Simonsson brothers

Leif Dahlgren, the Director of Education for the Swedish Association, does not underestimate the importance of parental attitudes:

“Without he wholehearted co-operation of the parents no youngster, however talented, will succeed. If Bjorn Borg’s parents had not been prepared to drive 20 miles a day in each direction to give Bjorn the early coaching with Percy Rosberg how could he have developped?”

At the top of the pyramid are the national squads in each of the age groups – 14 and under, 16 and under and 18 and under, which are the responsibility of one (or sometimes two) selected coaches. For the very best of the senior 18 and under players of 1981 lay the SIAB sponsored squad, the vehicle through which (thanks to the $125,000 the building company was prepared to invest each year) Wilander, Jarryd, Nystrom and Hans Simonsson emerged in senior tennis under the sympathetic control of Davis Cup captain, Jan-Anders Sjogren. This scheme was the forerunner of commercially sponsored national and local teams. Even the most optimistic supporters of the original scheme could hardly have envisaged the immediate success in 1982 when Wilander won the French Open at the age of 17 years, 9 months and 6 days, the youngest and the first unseeded player ever to win a Grand Slam Championship. Following Borg’s exploits this extraordinary achievement – along with the doubles success of Jarryd and Simonsson at the same Championships the following year – guaranted that the tennis boom in Sweden would accelerate.

The last, vital ingredient in this well-planned structure is competition. With regular weekend and annual competitions within the clubs and regions, it is inevitable that the strongest characters will emerge to earn selection for the national and international tournaments and team matches, plus the annual training camps, that are the recognised pathways to success. And because the competition is so widespread and begins around the age of 10 or 11, the ultimate champions in the various age groups can stand comparison with any in the world, as a glance at the honours board of the European Age Group Championships or the Orange Bowl Championships will readily prove. There you will find the same names – Borg, Wilander, Jarryd, Sundstrom, Nystrom and Edberg.

Perhaps the most important of all the domestic competitions is the Kalle Anka (Donald Duck) Cup, the tournament that inspired the present world-wide Sport Goofy Championships. Organised in three age groups for the boys – 11 and under, 12 to 13 and 14 to 15 – and two for the girls – 12 to 13 and 14 to 15 – this annual event, which began in 1970 with an entry of 1,137 has grown into arguably the largest tournament in the world with more than 13,000 entries per year. Small wonder that the winners of this gigantic event feel confident that they compete with anyone in the world. You will no longer be surprised to learn that among the past Kalle Anka champions are Borg, Wilander, Sundstrom, Stefan Simonsson and Edberg.

Something that worries the Swedes as much as it puzzles outsiders is the lack of comparable success among the Swedish girls. With all the same opportunities they have only two players in the top 100 – Catarina Lindqvist at 17 and Carina Karlsson at 95 – and little prospect of others joining them. It is an extraordinary contradiction that has no easy answer. Perhaps most telling is the lack of a folk hero in the Borg mould for them to look up to. If planning and effort can solve the problem, then it will soon be licked, for the new Volvo squad under the control of former French Open Champion and Swedish No.1, Sven Davidson, has all the brightest talent available. However, I have the feeling that girls as pretty and vivacious as the delightful Carina Karlsson, who made such an impression at Wimbledon last year, will find it hard to concentrate solely on her tennis. At least, I’m sure there are plenty of red-blooded young males who will make it hard for her!

Left: Joakim Nystrom. Right: Kent Karlsson:
Joakim Nystrom and Kent karlsson

Meanwhile the young Swedish males continue to set the pace at all age levels. Next on the senior horizon are the two Carlssons, Johan and Kent (no relation, by the way) who have been mopping up many of the 16 and 18 age-group titles between them, and seem destined to follow a path that is becoming all too familiar – and depressing if you were born outside Sweden! Like Bjorn himself and the entire present crop, these two display the same controlled courtesy on court that is so refreshing to spectators. When, in the fullness of time, we look back and try to analyse the contribution this remarkable group of young men have made to our sport, perhaps the most important element will be the restoration of a sense of pride and propriety on the court and a sense of comradeship and delight in the successes of their teammates off it. I can truly say it is always a delight to be in their company and takes me back to the cameraderie that used to exist among the great Australian players of the 1950s and 60s – men like Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson and Fred Stolle, Neale Fraser, John Newcombe and Tony Roche … the list is endless. Come to think of it there is a strong parallel between the two eras with success breeding success. How appropriate that the young Swedes, like those Australians on so many occasions, have just won the Davis Cup.

How far the Swedish miracle has left to run only time will tell. At least they have their priorities right. Leif Dahlgren again:

In Sweden it is a widely accepted idea among trainers and leaders that young players should be trained early gradually to accept full responsibility for their own tennis. The sooner a player realises that whether he is going to become a top player or not depends on him and nobody else … the greater are his chances to achieve his goals… One might say that the most important job the trainer has to do is to make himself superfluous!

In fact what the Swedes have done is delighfully simple and holds lessons for the other tennis nations who strive mightily without producing results. By offering nationwide facilities cheaply, combined with coaching and competition, they have given their ambitious youngsters the opportunity to plumb the depths of their own personalities in a way that unlocks the hidden talent; then they have moulded that talent with imaginative leadership and not too much interference. What more could any young player in any country ask?

Probably the lesser known italian sportswear brand.

The brand was founded by Leardo Gabrielli in the 1950’s but it wasn’t until circa 1980 that it first started to make an impact on the pro tennis circuit following the sponsorship of a young relatively unknown Czech tennis player called Ivan Lendl. Later on top players such as Anders Jarryd, Goran Ivanisevic and Petr Korda courted Australian as it became more widely known.

australian by l’Alpina can sometimes be mistaken for Kangol which uses a similar logo: a kangoroo.

australian by l’Alpina sponsor all the italian tennis teams, including the italian Fed Cup team, winner in 2006, 2009 and 2010.
You can have a look here at the australian by l’Alpina spring/summer 2011 collection.

Australian Spring/Summer 2011 Preview

More infos about australian by l’Alpina on their website.