A Wilander interview is always worth a read. Prior to Roland Garros 2015, Mats Wilander opened up to Roland Garros Magazine about his three victories in Paris, Bjorn Borg, and the futile notion of the result.
My first image of Roland Garros is from the TV. It’s me as a kid then as a teenager, watching Bjorn Borg’s finals glued to the screen. I’m not sure as to whether I saw the first, against Manuel Orantes. I am certain I watched the next four though. At the time, there were only two TV channels in Sweden, but we certainly never missed one of Borg’s matches.
The whole of Sweden was proud of what Bjorn Borg achieved. He wasn’t a star as such – he was beyond that, too big to fit that description. He was inaccesible, out of reach. For us in Sweden, he was the greatest player of all time, the hold he had on the two biggest tournaments in the world, Roland Garros and Wimbledon, was unheard of. And who cares if he never won the US Open. On a personal level, he wasn’t my idol. I preferred Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase and other less legendary players like Adriano Panatta and Guillermo Vilas. But Borg was a cut above the rest. There was something unreal about him.
1981, Roland Garros juniors’ title:
That year I won the juniors’ title, seeing off some hefty competition. If my memory serves me correctly, I beat Pat Cash, Miloslav Mecir and then Henri Leconte in the final. I had already stopped playing in most junior tournaments. I had been to Wimbledon once the previous year when I was 16 and lost in the first round, and I’d never played the Australian or US Open. To me it was a big win and I savoured it all the more since I knew that it was my last junior tournament. My coach Jan-Anders Sjogren and I had decided to make the step up after Roland Garros. And I have this memory after winning the juniors final of leaving No.1 Court to go to Centre Court and watch the last set of the final between Borg and Ivan Lendl.
What a moment that was. Seeing Bjorn Borg, in the flesh, win his sixth French Open. It was the first time that I saw him live on the court that had been the scene of his finest achievements, and he polished off the last set of the final 6-1.
1982, first Roland Garros title:
Despite my win in the juniors’ the previous year and my semi-final in Rome coming into the tournament, no-one thought of course, but that was all, that’s where it stopped. The pressure was on other people’s shoulders. I just did what I did best – I felt at home on clay, I never got tired and I played at the same level from the third round all the way through to the final. The fact that my level never slipped meant that my opponents must have thought that they were playing the ghost of Borg, and they couldn’t keep their emotions in check when they were confronted by this situation. They just couldn’t manage it. They were playing me but for them it must have been like facing Borg junior, with all the unpleasant memories that this brought back! Particularly for Guillermo in the final, he must have thought that he was stuck in a nightmare, reliving his defeats to Bjorn.
Roland Garros 1982 represented my scent to adulthood. I was a kid whe I arrived, but after a fortnight I’d become a man. To be exact the whirlwind started coming into the tournament. I came in from Rome where I’d lost in the semis to Andres Gomez. My coach and I drove there overnight due to an Alitalia strike so I got to Paris on the Sunday morning, just in time to hot-foot it over to Roland Garros, where I could practice on Centre Court for the first time in my life. And surprise, surprise, the player waiting for me on the other side of the net was Jimmy Connors.
I was tired, after the journey and all that, but he didn’t care. We had a hit-out for half an hour, then we played a practice set. And I took the lead and found myself 4-1 up. Suddenly Connors stopped, came towards me, and pointed at me, yelling: “You’re a fucking cocksucker!” I turned to Jan-Anders and said: “Did you hear that?” “I heard it, just ignore him!” How could I ignore it? “fucking cocksucker…” That’s how it all began – a kid being insulted by Jimmy Connors. And then, two weeks later I won Roland Garros. This tournament made me grow up double quick. There was the insult from Connors, my win over Lendl – how did I manage to beat Lendl? I didn’t think I stood a chance! My fourth round match against Ivan was the last piece of the puzzle. After that, I told myself that I could be Gerulaitis, then Clerc in the semis, and then Vilas in the final … and I won.
1983, defeat to Yannick Noah:
There were a few defeats in my career where I didn’t feel depressed afterwards. This was the case in the final of the Australian Open 1985, against Stefan Edberg. And then there was Yannick. Of course I thought that I could win. I was the best player in the world on clay at the time.
In the space of a year, from the start of Roland Garros 1982 until the final in 1983, I’d only lost two matches on the surface, so obviously I was disappointed to lose. Disappointed, but not depressed, no. Yannick, was … different. He had a passion for what he did. He was always a nice guy in the locker-room, full of smiles. He was always the one to get the players’ parties started. I later found out that we shared a love of music. He wasn’t just a tennis player – not that this stopped him from being excellent out on court. He was a cool guy. So when we bumped into each other on the night after the final in a nightclub called Le Duplex, I wasn’t sad in any way. I’d lost to a great guy. And when someone plays better than me, I don’t see what the problem is. He’d earned his victory. On the contrary: in hinsight, I learned a lot from this match and the way Yannick played on clay. Seeing him play, I understood that I couldn’t just hang back on the baseline if I wanted to win as I was neglecting too many interesting options – backhand and forehand slice, coming into the net when the opponent didn’t expect it. In a certain sense, I owe him all these things that helped me win another six Grand Slam titles, despite the fact that there was such strong competition at the time.
1985, victory over Ivan Lendl:
The 1985 French Open was perhaps my most important title. First of all in the terms of quality of the opponent I faced – Thierry Tulasne to start with, Boris Becker in the second round, Tomas Smid in the round of 16, Henri Leconte in the quarters, John McEnroe in the semis and then Lendl in the final. Such a tough draw. During the final, I totally changed my tactics for the first time ever, leaving the baseline and coming in to the net. I came to the net so many times. On clay. At the time, none of the specialists on the surface ever risked that. Maybe Victor Pecci at a push, but Pecci couldn’t play from the baseline so he had to come in. But for a player with a reputation as a solid baseliner to suddenly choose to rush into the net, on clay… It was so unexpected that it worked. I still had to wait another three years after that to win my next Grand Slam. But I’d chosen the right way to go. Ivan had become better than me at playing from the baseline. He’d started inflicting some heavy defeats on me, at Roland Garros, at the US Open… I’d lost ground and I needed to come up with something different. And it worked.
1988, victory over Henri Leconte:
In a way this was the most expected of my seven Grand Slam victories. Everyone said that I was going to beat Henri. It’s true that I was enjoying a purple patch at the time – I had already won the Australian Open at the beginning of the year and I felt that I could go on and add Roland Garros to the list. Particularly since Lendl had lost quite early in the tournament to Jonas Svensson, “Mr Drop-shot”. But I still find it difficult to analyse this final. People didn’t realise that if Henri had won the first set – and he came pretty close – there was every chance that the match would go the full five. And there, who knows, Henri was playing extremely well at the time, and even though I played a good match and was very solid throughout the three sets, Henri collapsed so spectacularly from the second set onwards that I can’t say that it was just down to me.
World number one:
From the age of 1, tennis had been the most important element in my life, but as time went by, I was driven less by the notion of pleasure than I was by victory, with the result becoming more important than the way I played. When I reached No. 1 in the world in 1988, I’d achieved my goal and I didn’t have the motivation any more to go down that road. So I decided to go back to the well and rediscover the simple pleasure of just hitting a ball and the almost childlike sensation of playing a nice point. The result was no longer the most important aspect. Personally, these years helped build me. They are an important part of my life and my career, even if that can’t be measured in the number of titles I won. I learned a lot when my status changed from start to just another player. I also had a lot of highlights, and I think that I earned people’s respect by living the same way whether I was centre stage or behind the scenes.
The last years:
My favourite memory as a player comes from that second part of my career – right at the end of my career actually. It was in 1995. I’d lost to Wayne Ferreira out on Court Suzanne Lenglen, 8-6 in the fifth. We’d played for something like five hours and I was out on my feet. And I just had to go back to the locker room, have a shower, put on another pair of shorts and a t-shirt and I was back out to play doubles with Karel Novacek. We beat Tomas Carbonell and Francisco Roig 14-12 in the third set! I was exhausted. I went back to the locker-room and there everyone got to their feet and applauded me, shouting “Well done, Mats!” I have to say that it took my breath away. A first round loss, a first round win… It didn’t matter, it was cool and it went beyond the futile notion of the result. All I remember is that unique moment where all these guys around me were congratulating “the old fellah”.
Source: Roland Garros Magazine
From Love Thirty: Three Decades of Champions, by Rex Bellamy
The summit of Everest has had many transient colonists since Hillary and Tenzing first “knocked the bastard off”, as Hillary put it. In the same way, Swedes have crowded the upper slopes of world tennis since Bjorn Borg showed them that it was possible. Wilander led the charge – succeeding Borg as French champion, grabbing the two major titles that eluded Borg, winning Grand Slam championships on four surfaces (clay, grass and two varieties of hard courts) and serving as the rock on which Sweden built a Davis Cup run only four nations have equalled. At the age of 24 Wilander had already won as many Grand Slam singles titles as John McEnroe. Yet somehow this quiet achiever manages to ghost his way through tournaments without attracting attention until the last two or three days – when there is hardly anybody else to attract it.
There is nothing spectacular about Wilander’s tennis or his personality. He just goes about his business in an unfussy way and, unless a Grand Slam event or a Davis Cup tie is in progress, sometimes conducts himself in such a casual manner that one would think the result of a tennis match was no more important than a row of beans. Wilander has to work hard for his points, physically and mentally. That kind of game is demanding: and he admits that he cannot give a hundred percent all the time, that he tends to reserve it for the big occasions. In all this – and in his playing method, too – he is much like Borg. But although Wilander’s game has more variety, he lacks Borg’s unquenchable thirst for winning.
Bjorn Hellberg, rare among Swedish journalists in that he was reporting Wimbledon in the pre-Borg era, makes interesting comparisons between Borg, Wilander and Stefan Edberg. “I watched them as juniors, when they were 11 years old”, Hellberg tells me, “and from the very beginning Wilander and Edberg have always been nice to work with: extremely pleasant young men. Always modest, helpful and generous. Wilander has kept his calmness, his controlled mood, during his whole career. Edberg was a little patchy as a junior, – more temper on court – but that disappeared very early. Two gentlemen. Borg is a different story but on court Borg, too, was a gentleman. What would have happened if they had all been at their best at the same time? Well, Borg always had trouble with attacking players and because of that I think it would have been extremely difficult for him to beat Edberg on fast surfaces. On the other hand I believe Borg would have beaten Edberg on clay, any time.
“With Wilander it is more difficult to say, because he has such a high standard when he is motivated. When he is really “on” he is probably the best of them. The highest potential. Wilander has changed his game all the time. When he beat Vilas in the 1982 final in Paris he won only on his patience, his youth, his willingness to work, and his safe ground strokes. After that he gradually improved his game. He still has his double-fisted backhand but he also has a one-handed sliced backhand, which won him the final of the 1988 U.S. Open against Lendl. He has also improved his attack – his approach game and his net play. On the other hand tennis meant more to Borg and means more to Edberg than it does to Wilander, who finds other values in life. He can have spells when he doesn’t look so interested”…
Wilander won a string of Swedish junior titles and, in 1978, the European championship for 14-year-olds. He left school in 1980 and earned good opinions a year later by qualifying for the German championships and winning the French junior event while Borg was taking the senior title which was to be his last Grand Slam championship. All that was impressive but hardly seemed an adequate basis for Wilander’s achievements in 1982. What matters about experience, though, is its intensity rather than its duration. Wilander had a lot of hardening competition and practice behind him when he went to Paris in 1982 and (at 17 years and 9 months) replaced Borg as the youngest French champion and became the only player except Ken Rosewall – 29 years earlier – to win the junior and senior titles in consecutive years. Wilander’s older brothers undertook an overnight drive in order to watch his semi-final, which ended with an incident that, after Hellberg’s comments, will not surprise you.
José-Luis Clerc, match point down, hit a shot that both players considered to be a winner. The line judge and umpire thought the ball was out: and Jacques Dorfmann, the umpire, announced game, set and match to Wilander and climbed down from his chair. Wilander protested that he could not win that way, that he wanted the point replayed. According to the rules the match was over. But Dorfmann decided that the prevailing climate of courtesy mattered more than the rules. The players were behaving like gentlemen, he told me later, so it was up to him to do the same. The point was replayed.
Wilander had previously played the first five-set match of his career, a four-hour win over Lendl, the favourite. The final was shorter but longer, because four sets with Guillermo Vilas took four hours and 42 minutes…The unseeded Wilander was not playing for fun. He was playing to win: and at that time the only way he could do it was by attritional warfare…What mattered was that on Borg’s birthday Wilander succeeded him as champion of France. In terms of length and quality the French final paled by comparison with the deciding match of a Davis Cup tie played that year at St Louis: John McEnroe beat Wilander 9-7 6-2 15-17 3-6 8-6 in an epic that spanned six hours and 32 minutes. The lad from Vaxjo was beginning to make a habit of playing more tennis in one match than most men play in two.
Wilander now had a status he could not consolidate. Like Boris Becker, who was to win Wimbledon in 1985, he tucked away one of the game’s two most important titles when only 17 years old and still learning his trade. In each case the evolution into genuine all-surface competence was to take a long time. But in 1983 Wilander sprang another surprise, this time on grass, when he competed in the Australian championships – largely as preparation for the Davis Cup final scheduled for the same courts a fortnight later – and beat McEnroe and Lendl in consecutive matches to win the title…In 1984 we were reminded that Wilander still had much to learn, even on clay. Lendl was too smart for him in their French semi-final…Pat Cash stopped Wilander at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadow but the tousle-haired Swede kept the pot boiling by retaining the Australian title. And in 1985 Wilander, now a match-hardened 20, beat McEnroe and Lendl in consecutive matches to regain the French championship. By this time he was a more versatile, positive and mature player: more competent and confident at the net and in his exploration of the short angles.
Four years running, Wilander had won either the French title or the Australian. His future looked rosy. But he was beginning to suffer from wear and tear – partly physical, partly psychological. In his next nine Grand Slam tournaments he could do no better than finish runner-up three times: once to Stefan Edberg (the 1985 Australian championships featured the first all-Swedish final of a Grand Slam event) and twice to Lendl. We began to wonder if Wilander still had it in him to make that last push to the summit. Would he, like Borg, be burnt out by the middle 20’s? But those paying close attention were aware that – with the help of his coach, Jan-Anders Sjogren – Wilander was still refining his game. He wanted to make it more interesting. So he worked on the one-handed backhand (which he had often used in emergency, for wide balls) so that he could use it more consistently as a variant to the two-handed shot. The one-handed sliced backhand is less strenuous than the double-fisted stroke: and more effective in dealing with low balls and hitting approach shots. That last point was an important component of another improvement – in Wilander’s net game. Thus it was that his tennis gradually acquired the technical and tactical variety that was the basis for what we may assume was Wilander’s finest year, 1988 (his 1989 recession bore ominous signs of ebbing motivation).
In 1988 Wilander mixed his game admirably, came through a bunch of five-set matches, won three out of the four Grand Slam championships, and was unquestionably the best player in the world. In the first Australian championships played at Flinders Park he won consecutive five-set matches with Edberg and Cash. The final, against Cash, lasted four hours and 28 minutes and was notable for a memorably dramatic fifth set. It was a pity there had to be a loser but Wilander’s was a superb performance in its tactical craft and unflinching tenacity. He was a popular champion, too, with a more engaging, less peevish personaity than that of Cash, a local man. In Paris, Slobodan Zivojinovic came within two points of beating Wilander (as Cash had done in Melbourne) but the Swede was never in such serious trouble again during his four remaining matches. A familiar bete noire, Miloslav Mecir, baffled Wilander at Wimbledon. Then came the U.S. championships and five set wins over Kevin Curren and, in the final, Lendl. That classic final, particularly exhilarating during the crises of the fourth and fifth sets, lasted four hours and 54 minutes. Wilander went to the net almost twice as often as Lendl and, ultimately, broke through by challenging Lendl to pass him with backhands down the line.
It had been a gloriously harrowing year: glorious because of what had been achieved, harrowing because of the mental and physical cost of achieving it. One suspects that Wilander cannot do it again, that (like Lendl) his only remaining ambition is to win Wimbledon. Should that ever happen, Wilander would doubtless put his marriage, his golf, his guitar-playing and his composition of verse way ahead of his tennis. The game is his job, not his life. Wilander just happens to be a sportsman, in both senses. Apart from that, he is a gently contemplative, stoically phlegmatic chap who enjoys winning but can do without the fuss that goes with it. And his common sense and his droll sense of humour will never desert him.
In the post-Wilander years we shall remember that he never quite made 6 feet or 12 stone, that his face was lined, his eyes tired, his hair curly and unruly, his shirts large and flapping loosely over his shorts. He has always had the weary but indomitable air one associates with marathon runners. We shall remember, too, the nimble tactician with wonderfully accurate ground strokes, an unflappable temperament, and a strength of mind that saw him through many a long match. There has always been an air of serenity about Wilander. He lacks the capacity to panic. Maybe that is why he is a single-handicap golfer.
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.”
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.
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!
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?