Connors and Ashe, 1984 Davis Cup final

From John McEnroe’s autobiography, Serious:

You know that line in the Beach Boys song, ‘Sloop John B’ – “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on”? That’s what it was like to fly to Sweden and play Davis Cup that December. As it would turn out, it was my last Cup match for three years. I really went out with a bang.

My heart sank as the plane took off from Kennedy. Tatum was back at my apartment. Connors and I still weren’t speaking. My mind was a million miles from tennis. I sighed and sank into my seat, hoping the week would pass quickly.

I arrived in Gothenburg Tuesday morning to find a debacle already in progress. Jimmy had come over despite the fact that his wife was just about to give birth to their second child, so he was totally on edge, and acting like it. To give just one instance, the car that had been supposed to pick him up for practice on Monday hadn’t come, so he was furious, and – if you can believe it – wrote a nasty message to Arthur (Ashe) in the snow.

Things felt frosty between Peter Fleming and me. And Jimmy Arias was our fourth player, and he’s always been a personality I don’t quite get – I just don’t understand his sense of humor. Add to this the fact that I was in love and wishing I wasn’t there in the first place…

What’s the opposite of team spirit? That’s what we had in Gothenburg.

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Sweden wins the 1984 Davis Cup

Sweden created history and hoisted a signpost for the future at the huge Scandinavium stadium in Gothenburg the week before Christmas when, with clinical and emphatic efficiency, they defeated the United States in the NEC Davis Cup final – thus becoming the first nation outside the competition’s big four (America, Australia, Great Britain and France) to win the Cup more than once. The eventual margin was four rubbers to one, John McEnroe having salvaged a modicum of American pride and dignity by beating Mats Wilander over the best of three sets; but by then Father Christmas, having delivered the goods ahead of time, had climbed back up the chimney, cracked his whip and sent his reindeer skidding over the nation’s roofs to spread the joyous word. Sweden’s tennis players were the best in the world!

Dispassionately one could argue otherwise, but why bother? The United States had taken an unbeaten doubles partnership and two of the greatest singles players that country has ever produced to Sweden, and had lost not only the first three matches but nine of the first ten sets played. The specially laid clay court obviously helped the Swedes, but there were far more significant reasons for the severity of America’s humiliation.

The U.S. team lacked harmony, spirit and, most of all, proper preparation. Jimmy Connors, never a good team man at the best of times, was worrying about the pending arrival of his second child and had not played competitive tennis for six weeks. As a result of suspension and then injury, McEnroe had not played for seven weeks. Even then the Americans wasted two practice days by not arriving in Gothenburg until Wednesday for a tie due to start on Sunday. Disaster, like the snow, hung in the air, and by Monday both had arrived – a blanket thrown over the corpse of American ambition, but for the Swedes a white, glistening carpet of triumph.

It had started, in front of 12,000 people, with Wilander‘s 6-1 6-3 6-3 annihilation of Connors. Still tanned by Kooyong’s sun where he has triumphed in the Australian Open exactly one week earlier, Wilander seemed imbued with a new spirit of aggression after his second title-winning performance on grass. He repeatedly came in behind hard-hit forehands that put Connors under tremendous pressure and frayed the American’s nerves. Connors, in fact, was docked a penalty point for an audible obscenity midway through the second set and then a whole penalty game for a further outburst. At the end Connors shook umpire George Grimes’s chair and called him names which were heard by millions of television viewers…

[In the second singles] Henrik Sundstrom played the match of his life to beat McEnroe 13-11 6-4 6-3 – serving coolly when his big chance came at the end of that crucial first set and then keeping McEnroe off balance with the depth and variation of his heavy topspin groundstrokes…[and then, in the doubles], after a run of 14 Davis Cup matches without defeat, McEnroe and Peter Fleming came apart at the seams in the face of some inspired play by Anders Jarryd and, in particular, by his 18-year-old partner, Stefan Edberg, who poached brilliantly on the backhand volley, never dropped serve despite twice being 0-40 down and returned serve with enormous power. Although marginally less spectacular, Edberg was just as effective in determining the outcome of the match as Paul McNamee had been for Australia when facing Jarryd and Hans Simonsson in the final at Kooyong 12 months earlier. Fleming did not play well and compounded American frustration by double-faulting on match point. But McEnroe would not want Peter to take all the blame. John did not play well either and looked like his real self only in the fourth rubber. But by then it was all too late. Sweden had turned what everyone had felt would be a very close contest into a rout…

Incredibly, that was exactly what Hans Olsson‘s superb young team – Jarryd, at 23, is the oldest – had also done to the Czechs in the semi-final at Bastad. As in Gothenburg, Wilander had done the expected by beating Smid, and then Sundstrom had then followed up with the killer blow. This time Ivan Lendl had been the victim, losing his temper, his timing and eventually the match 4-6 3-6 6-3 6-1 6-1 after Sundstrom had trailed 0-40 on his serve at 0-3 in the third set. The Czech captain, Jan Kodes, was furious with Lendl’s performance and was not much happier with Smid and Pavel Slozil the next day when his team served for the match in the fourth set and then, as Edberg got his big-match nerves under control, succumbed 2-6 5-7 6-1 10-8 6-2…

France were unlucky to be without the services of the injured Yannick Noah when they travelled to meet Czechoslovakia outside Prague [in the quarter-final], but even so Henri Leconte scored a sensational upset in the opening rubber by beating Lendl in straight sets. However, the reliable Smid steadied the Czech ship to give Kodes’s team a 3-2 victory. With Noah playing it might have been different, but even so it is doubtful if anyone could have prevented the 1984 Davis Cup from being a Swedish celebration.

by Richard Evans, World of Tennis 1985

Mats Wilander

Enjoy the second edition of Break Point, our monthly roundup of the best tennis-related articles on the web:

– 7-time Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander turned 50 on August 22nd, learn more about his life as a tennis vagabond in this Men’s journal article.

– another veteran player, Pat Cash talks about life on the Seniors tour: A Week With Tennis Champions: Private Planes, Celebrities and Locker Room Gossip

– ever wondered what it’s like to be a ballboy at the US Open? Enjoy this Grantland post: I Tried Out to Be a US Open Ball Boy and Saw Dave Chappelle, and All I Got Were These Two Lousy T-Shirts.

– in May 1984, six of the world’s Top 10 were American, as were 24 of the Top 50. 30 years later, there are only 3 Americans in the top 50, with a chance at winning a Slam really close to 0. Can US Men’s Tennis Rise Again?

– the story of Irish player James McGee, who qualified for the main draw of the US Open for the first time of his career: James McGee rekindles fond memories of grinding out wins in Gabon as he aims for the bright lights. Also James great blog post on financing the tour.

why Wimbledon defeats the #USOpen game, set and match in the social media arena, by Tennis Buzz contributor Andreas Plastiras.

– and finally, Mauro’s article on how Stefan is transforming Federer into an “Edberg 2.0”

Photo credit: Margaret

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.”

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.