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 – published in 1990
The Roland Garros Stadium in Paris has come to be regarded as a graveyard for the American dream. Few Americans are attuned to sliding about on Europe’s slow, loose-top surfaces and patiently manoeuvring for their points. In terms of temperament and background, the nation’s leading players have mostly favoured hustle and bustle, fast action, and short points. It may be that a series of six Davis Cup defeats in Paris in consecutive years (1928-33) gave Americans an enduring, negative attitude towards the alien and hostile territory of Roland Garros. There ensued, with a hint of sour grapes, sporadic comments disparaging the French Open championships. Some Americans avoided the tournament, or regarded it merely as rigorous preparation for Wimbledon. Whatever the reasons, until 1989 only five Americans had won the men’s title, all between 1938 and 1955, and in the next 33 years only five more had managed to reach the final. It took a little Chinaman to show them how to win the toughest of all tournaments. […]
Chang‘s parents, both reasearch chemists, have done their best to merge Eastern and Western cultural values and the blend is reflected in his tennis. Moreover, Chang has been a devout Christian since 1988. He is adamant that it is for the Lord to decide whether he wins or loses: but equally adamant that he will not get a nod from the Almighty unless he bends mind and muscle with total commitment. […]
Agassi, almost two years Chang’s senior, reached the French Open and US semi-finals in 1988 and looked the obvious man to carry the American flag when Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe passed it on. Chang gave us pause for thought in 1989 but Agassi may have the more exciting future if he can tighten his concentration and, tactically, learn to respect the odds – which should come naturally to any man born and brought up at Las Vegas.
Of the other players born in 1970 or later, four could be particularly worth watching: Jim Courier and Pete Sampras, both Americans, Goran Ivanisevic (a Yugoslav from Split, which also produced Nikki Pilic, one of the most engagingly argumentative chaps to enliven the early years of open competition), and Sergi Bruguera of Barcelona, who charmed us by the manner of his progress to the last 16 of the 1989 French championships. The long-limbed Bruguera has an elegant command of spins and angles and could develop into an enchanting clay-court expert. But one never knows what the future will have to say to the young.
Back to Chang, whose mother travels with him as ‘road manager’ and also looks after the cooking and laundry, joins him on fishing trips, and teaches him Chinese. In 1987, at the age of 15 years and 5 months, Chang became the youngest winner of the US boys’ 18 singles title. This was much to the credit of his fist coach, his father, a self-taught player who had taken up the game two years after Chang was born. Later, Chang was to benefit from the acquired wisdom of Brian Gottfried and Jose Higueras. His 1987 boys’ title earned him a place in the US Championships, in which he beat Paul McNamee. In 1988 he turned professional and headed for Paris, where he was overawed and given a hiding by McEnroe. But Chang had Leconte on the ropes for two spectacular sets at Wimbledon and at Flushing Meadow he beat the seeded Jonas Svensson and came from behind to win two consecutive five-set matches and reach the last 16. Agassi stopped him.
None of this prepared us – nor, one suspects, did it totally prepare Chang – for what happened in Paris in 1989. He had been a professional for a little less than a year and had played in only four Grand Slam events. But he came from behind to beat the first and third seeds: Ivan Lendl by 4-6 4-6 6-3 6-3 6-3 in the round of 16 and Stefan Edberg by 6-1 3-6 4-6 6-4 6-2 in the final. The Lendl match lasted four hours and 39 minutes, the final three hours and 41 minutes. At the risk of being too glib, one suggests that Lendl was outsmarted, Edberg outlasted.
Lendl did not take enough tactical initiatives. He seemed to think that if he kept pounding away from the baseline the lad would eventually be too tired and too inexperienced to do anything but lose. Chang did tire, too, but only in the legs – and Lendl was not cute enough to exploit blatant indications of cramp. Mentally, Chang was the sharper of the two when it mattered. Serving at 4-3 and 15-30 in the fifth set, Chang surprised Lendl with an underarm service that left Lendl embarrassingly exposed at the net. When Lendl was serving at 3-5 and 15-40 he missed his first service – and Chang wobbled forward on rubber-like legs to receeive the second ball while standing between the baseline and service line. The crowd roared at the little chap’s cheek. Lendl paused, to think about it: and then served another fault and was out of the tournament. Those two ploys by Chang were legitimate tests of Lendl’s alertness, nerves, and technical resilience; and there were no complaints from the ever-pragmatic Czechoslovakian.
The final was shorter because Edberg’s forecourt game abbreviated the rallies, one way or the other. In the first set Chang was all over him. Then Edberg took charge, finding his rythm with service, approach shot, and volley – and playing discreetly aggressive clay-court tennis to lead by two sets to one. The crux came in the fourth set. After an early break each way, Edberg had a total of ten more break points, the last of which would have left him serving for the match. But it was Chang who broke through, with the help of some good returns and, from Edberg, a few tired errors. That was how it was in the fifth set, too. Some of the spring had gone from Edberg’s legs and he was no longer quite confident enough on the forehand or quite quick enough when going to the net. But it was a classic final, an exemplary contrast between a nimble and crafty baseliner and a specialist in the service and volley.
Not that Chang could be dismissed as merely a baseliner. That was the basis of his game but he was more versatile and assertive than the likes of Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, Mats Wilander, and Lendl. His groundtrokes were admiably sound, whether he was going cross-court or down the line. Given a short ball, Chang went for a winner or a penetrating approach shot – and, rather like Ken Rosewall, ghosted his way to the net as imperceptibly as a gentle breeze on a summer night. He seemed to have the knack of being in two places at once: and was impressively secure with his volleys and overheads. Chang took the ball early when returning service. As he is only 5ft 8in tall this was particularly prudent when he was challenged by Edberg’s high-kicking ball.
Chang’s outstanding qualities lay in the brain and the legs. He was always thinking and never missed a trick. His quick anticipation and sturdy legs enabled him to parry most thrusts, until his opponent made a mistake or gave him the chance for a telling riposte – a passing shot or lob, or a sudden acceleration of pace. There was logic in everything Chang did and displayed an instinctive flair for reading his opponent’s game and making astute, split-second decisions. Against Lendl and Edberg in turn he gave wonderfully precocious deadspan performances. Ruminating on Chang’s contemplative bent for fishing one felt a wave a sympathy for fish.
Chang was brought up on hard courts but may excel only on clay, as he did in 1989. He will grow stronger but is unlikely to get much taller. One cannot be optimistic about his chances of acquiring the power to win major titles on the faster surfaces.
We noted that, for all Chang’s cunning and tenacity, he was outgunned by Tim Mayotte in the 1989 Wimbledon and US championships. Like Wilander and Boris Becker, who also won Grand slam championships at the age of 17, Chang has built a big reputation on small foundations – in terms of experience, that is. But his place in the game’s history is aleady unique: and that has to be a comforting feeling for a God-fearing young angler who hooked a couple of very big fish while he was still settling down on the bank.