It was a special feeling when I converted the match point. It was a little bit different on the podium when the national anthem started up and you begin to realise what has happened. It’s very difficult to describe.
Before my quarterfinal I had friends from other sports, like handball, cycling and athletics, who had already finished their competition and some of them came to see me with their medals. They were talking about their experiences and everyone was hungry for this information. The emotion was really high and it helped me, it was a big inspiration rather than putting more pressure on me. I was playing against an opponent [Michiel Schapers] who I knew it was possible to go through against, so I just prepared for the match as normal, but I knew it was going to be better if I won.
I remember when my friend Jozef Pribilinec, who won the 20 kilometre walk, came to the Village the day before my semifinal against Stefan Edberg with his gold medal. I got to hold his medal and we had a talk. I asked him how he felt when he arrived in the stadium for the finish of the walk and the second man wasn’t far behind him. I asked
him if he was nervous and he said he knew he had enough in hand and wouldn’t be passed. It was important to know how other people handled pressure. It helped me a lot and I found out that it was possible for me to do the same.
It was really special because normally when I came home from a tournament it was just a regular day at the airport, but now coming home with other athletes and bringing some medals too there were a lot of people, some politicians, television crews – it was really different. Even before I had left Seoul I had received a lot of congratulations from friends and then to see them at the airport too… My wife was there with my son who had been born in January that year so it was good to see him again, it was really nice.
I got a prize from the President for representing the country, the kind of special award soldiers sometimes receive. It was not only for what I did at the Olympics, but without the Olympics I would never have got it.
From my point of view it was something else from the regular tournament. I came there not like a tennis player but a sportsman. The Olympics from a young age was very special for me. It felt a little bit different. I knew I was a tennis player but with all the sportsmen around it was kind of bigger for me.
For me, the Olympics, it’s kind of a Grand Slam. All the best players have the chance to go there and compete. In my day all the matches were best of five sets so it was even more similar. I think it’s a huge, huge event, it connects the people, it connects the sportsmen and women, which builds up the value even more. Of course, I didn’t win a Grand Slam but it’s hard to say if I would change it for anything else.
For a sportsman, it’s a big honour, it makes me proud. It’s one of the nicest achievements to have in sport. I made a lot of friends and it brought me closer to some of the other sports and generally brought me a lot of experiences I’d never had before.
Source: ITF Olympic book
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
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Miami Open. Over the past three decades, the tournament has grown into one of the biggest tournaments of the season, but the beginnings were quite chaotic. Let’s have a look at the early days of the Miami Open (then called the Lipton Open):
From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:
The second meeting of the tennis world takes place each year on the site of a former garbage dump. The formal title of the tournament held where Floridians once dumped their trash is the Lipton International Players championship. To everyone in tennis it is just the Lipton.
The Lipton is the creation of Butch Buchholz, a former pro who, after his playing days, became executive director of the ATP. Buchholz had always dreamed of starting a tournament – modeled after the Grand Slams – that would be the players’ favorite tournament of the year.
“I felt, having been a player myself, that I could put together an event that the players would enjoy, want to take part in, and look forward to,”
said Buchholz, a friendly, outgoing man of fifty, whose younger brother Cliff also played professionally.
“Back in 1961, a year after I had turned pro, open tennis missed being passed in the ITF by five votes That meant, as it turned out, that we had to wait seven more years before we could play in the Grand Slams again. We used to sit on the buses, back in the sixties, and talk about the day we would run ou own tournament. I never forgot that.”
While he was with the ATP, Buchholz got the Men’s Tennis Council to agree to clear two weeks on the calendar if he could put together the sponsorship of the tournament. In all, it took him three years to put the pieces together. In order to hold the tournament in 1985, Buchholz had to have his site and sponsorship in place by March 1, 1984. He signed the final two contracts on February 29, 1984. “Thank God for leap year,” he said, laughing.
From the beginning, the tournament had excellent fields. It was sort of a mini-Grand Slam, with 128 player draws in singles, the men playing best-of-five sets But in spite of Philippe Chatrier‘s fears that Buchholz might attempt to usurp Australia’s role as the traditional fourth Grand Slam, Buchholz never saw it that way.
“I’d like us to be right below the Grand Slams,” he said. “We aren’t going to be a Grand Slam, and that’s not what we’re trying to do. The problem we have, the problem we’ve always had, is establishing a place to play this tournament, one that we’ll be in for the next fifty years. You can’t build tradition without that.”
In three years, the Lipton was played in three different Florida cities. Buchholz agreed to move it to Key Biscayne in 1987, because he decided that going to a place whee there was nothing that trying to be part of a resort. At the resorts where the tournament had been played – Delray Beach, Boca West – the residents had complained that the influx of players, fans, and tourists for two weeks a year was a hassle and a nuisance. Why not go, Buchholz reasoned, someplace where there were no residents to be hassled?
“I can remember driving across the bridge from Miami to Key Biscayne and looking at the dump that was there,” he said. “I thought, This is the place.”
Only it wasn’t that simple. While Buchholz was putting up a temporary stadium in 1987, environmentalists were objecting to his plans to build a permanent one. Where Buchholz saw a garbage dump, they saw park land. Where Buchholz saw the opportunity to build his tournament, they saw more unneeded development. And so, the battle was on.
Three years later, it was still on. On the first morning of the 1990 tournament, Buchholz sat at breakfast with an exasperated look on his face.
“It just won’t go away,” he said. “Right now, if I were a betting man I would say we won’t be here in two years, perhaps not even next year. We’re talking to other people very aggressively now about moving.”
Specifically, Buchholz was talking to Scottsdale, Arizona, about taking the tournament there. He really didn’t want to move, but felt he might have to.
“Until we get established somewhere and build a permanent stadium, we’re nothing more than just another tour stop with a lot of prize money. That isn’t what I want.”
The tournament had already undergone several changes amid all the site problems. The men had been complaining about playing best-of-five matches in the Florida heat. As a result, the draw for both men and women had been cut to ninety-six, meaning the top thirty-two players drew first-round byes. The only match in the tournament that would be best of five would be the final. All of that meant a lot less work for the men. Of course, as the work went down, the prize money had gone up.
The tournament had lost $726,000 in 1989, not bad considering all the site problems and growing pains any new event must experience. But with the economic recession becoming more and more of a factor in tennis, Buchholz was looking at more and more headaches. Fortunately, his title sponsor, Lipton, was locked into a thirty-year deal through the year 2018. […]
The Lipton has always had strong fields – even though it does not pay guarantees.
“I told the Lipton people right from the start that guarantees are a cancer,” Buchholz said. “We’re all getting to be like the baseball owners. We push salaries higher and higher and the players have less and less reason to perform. If we failed, we failed, but we weren’t going to pay guarantees.”
The players came anyway because of the unique nature of the tournament, because the prize money was high, and because of corporate tie-ins. The women got their big names through to the final: Chris Evert, for years a Lipton spokeswoman, played in the first five finals: Steffi Graf, an adidas client just as the Lipton was, won the tournament twice.
But strange things always seemed to happen to the men. Tim Mayotte was the first winner of the tournament, in 1985, his first tournament victory ever. His victim in the final? McEnroe? Connors? Lendl? Wilander? Edberg? Ty Scott Davis.
In 1986, Connors and Lendl met in one semifinal, but the match ended when Connors walked off the court after a raging argument with chair umpire Jeremy Shales. He was suspended from the tour for ten weeks. Lendl then lost the final to Miloslav Mecir in straight sets.
In 1989, Thomas Muster, a rising star, reached the final with a dramatic five-set victory over Yannick Noah. En route back to the hotel on the Key Biscayne causeway, Muster’s car was struck by a drunk driver. His knee was shattered. He needed major surgery and didn’t play tennis for almost six months. Needless to say, there was no men’s final.
Maybe the garbage dump was haunted. There were stories that it once was an Indian burial ground.
From Pat Cash’s autobiography Uncovered
Losing the final of a Grand Slam tournament is hard enough; doing it in your home city is even worse. And the sensation that your shoulder is just about to drop off hardly adds to the feeling of well-being. But walking back into the locker room at Kooyong after being defeated by Stefan Edberg in the final of the Australian Open, I had to contend with something extra: the spectacle of Edberg’s agent, Tom Ross, shouting, screaming and leaping all over the place like some pubescent kid.
Ross worked for the management company that was responsible for Edberg, but in my excuse that was no excuse for this juvenile, unpofessional behaviour, even Edberg looked embarassed by it. I have always believed that the players’ locker room should be reserved for the sole use of the contestants themselves, their coaches and their physiotherapists, and no one else. Unfortunately, agents are allowed to ply their trade in the players’ lounges and restaurants, but certainly not the locker room.[…]
Returning to Kooyong was always going to be an extremely tough call, barely three weeks after the triumph of winning the Davis Cup final in such heroic manner. Many Australian fans believed it was a forgone conclusion that I would just carry on where I left off against Pernfors, and win the title with ease. But Neale Fraser, who had a better idea of the realities of the situation, has since admitted that he thought I would struggle to recapture my best tennis so soon after such an emotionally draining experience.
I almost proved dear old Frase wrong, and maybe I only came up short against Edberg in the final because of the intensive physical work I had put in beforehand. Seeded 11th, I got a bye in the first round, and then beat the Italian Claudio Pistolesi in four sets. A couple of Americans, Ben Testerman and Paul Annacone, should both probably have been dispatched more quickly than they were, but I made it through to the quarter-finals to face Yannick Noah.
Then midway through the match, I miss-hit a couple of shots and felt a jolt of pain in my right shoulder. Immediately I saw the danger signs flashing, because I had been working had on my serve and the joint had been taking a pounding. Fortunately I beat Yannick, ounding off the win to love in the fourth set; but I knew I was in trouble. The problem was simply over-use, and all it required was a week or so of rest. But of course that’s not possible in a Grand Slam tournament.
My shoulder was killing me as I faced Lendl in the semi, and the fact that I won remains one of the miracles of my career. I only managed to serve at three-quarter pace thoughout, and I got through to my first-ever final of a major because I volleyed so well; the grass court was dry and the ball bounced high, so just rolling my arm over generated sufficent pace.
I couldn’t practice at all on the day before the final. My trusty physiotherapist David Zuker tried loosening up the troublesome muscles, but the shoulder was shot – and Edberg was in no mood for sympathy. I’m sure he felt a revenge for revenge after the Davis Cup final, and he was playing me off the court. By courtesy of my half-paced serve, he rapidly took a two set lead.
Stefan knew the route to the title at Kooyong, having lifted the trophy two years previously. Throughout the tournament he had been in supreme form and had only dropped one set on his way to the final, in his opening match. Miloslav Mecir only managed to take nine games off Edberg in the quarter-final, Wally Masur fared just marginally better in the semi, and it appeared that I was next in line for the treatment. But somehow I managed to get myself back in the match, and levelled the score at two sets all.
However, I knew I was undoubtedly still the underdog. The shoulder pain became unbearable, and serving for the fourth set, I hit three successive double faults. There was no pace or stick on my delivery, and as I tried to find a little extra power, I lost my rythm altogether. I managed to grab the set after losing my serve, but I had lost the momentum. Edberg broke early in the fifth, and recaptured the title he’d won as a teenager. My hopes of a perfect Australian summer had fallen at the last obstacle, and my dreams of Grand Slam glory were forced back on hold.
After the match I was not in the best of moods – I defy anyone to be a good loser in those circumstances. Even before being infuriated by the sight of Ross in the locker room, I’d got myself into trouble on the awards podium. As is normally the case at the Australian Open, the runner-up is asked if he would like to make a short speech before the winner is presented with the trophy. Naturally I said well done to Edberg, because I’ve always viewed him as one of the finest players ever to grace a grass court. Then I said something along the lines of ‘I’m supposed to thank a load of people like the sponsors Ford and all that junk. But I won’t do that, I’ll leave it to Stefan.’
There are moments which make you famous and immortal overnight.
In the match of his life against Tomas Smid, Michael Westphal played himself into the hearts of a whole nation in 5 hours and 29 minutes.
Becker triggered off the tennisboom
It was Friday, October 4th, 1985 in the Festhalle in Frankfurt. Whole Germany was having tennisfever. The German team was playing in the semifinal of the Davis Cup against the CSSR.
A few months before a 17 years old redhead named Boris Becker from Leimen had won the most famous tennis tournament in the world in Wimbledon and triggered off a boom of the previously seen as dusted and snobby “white sport” in Germany.
In the wake of Boris Becker other hopeful talents grow up to excellent players. This applied to Michael Westphal, who wanted to go alongside Boris Becker with the German Davis Cup team for the second time since 1970 into the final. In the Festhalle of Frankfurt there was laid a fast carpet especially for Boris Becker to help to implement this project. Boris Becker didn’t have much problems with Miloslav Mecir in the first single and put the German team into a 1:0 lead.
The Davis Cup has his own laws
Afterwards Michael Westphal and Tomas Smid entered the Festhalle for the second single. The 20 years old Westphal was the clear outsider against the routinier Smid, who was supposed to appreciate the fast carpet more than the curly head from Hamburg. The Czechoslovak, who would work later on as a coach for Boris Becker, was an established Top 20 player and the #1 of the doubles ranking in that year. But that the Davis Cup has his own laws proved to be true in this memorable match.
At first everything seemed to go perfectly for Smid, who won the first set with 8-6. Back then there was no Tiebreak in the Davis Cup, which was established 4 years later in 1989. So each set went to the full distance. This fact should give the match the special flair. After Smid had won the 2nd set without any problems 6-1 and was up a break in the 3rd not many people in the audience and in front of the TVs believed in Michael Westphal. But the curly head fought back into the match and was to serve at 5-5 in the 3rd set.
Carpet rest in the Festhalle of Frankfurt
What happened then probably nobody has seen before in a tennis match. What happened? Westphal served, went to the net, made a lunge with his right feet in order to volley, slipped and pulled out a whole width of the green carpet. But he hold the balance, played the point at the net and even won it. He could be glad that nothing bad happened to him and that he came through this unscathed.
The match was stopped and the carpet new sticked. This unexpected break meant the turning point of the match. The last rally got repeated, but from this on Westphal could cope better and better with Smid, who didn’t benefitted from the carpet rest. Westphal won the 3rd set 7-5 and at the latest then mesmerised the whole audience and half of the nation in front of the TV with his fighting spirit. At 4-4 in the 4th set the mishap with the carpet happened again. On the way to the net Westphal catched his foot in the carpet and pullet it oud. The match was stopped once again in order to refit the carpet.
Game, set and match Westphal 6-8 1-6 7-5 11-9 17-15
The match got more intensive minute by minute. Michael Westphal fought till he drops, won the 4th set 11-9 and forced Smid into a deciding 5th set. The audience celebrated each point of the German as it would already be the matchpoint. The 5th set was on a knife-edge and became longer and longer. The audience in the Festhalle meanwhile had lost track of time and the millions of people in front of the TV were in anticipation of the sensation from the German player.
And so it happened. Supported by the audience Michael Westphal wrestled Tomas Smid down shortly before midnight in an epic long 5th set with 17-15 and put the German team into a 2:0 lead.
Germany had a new tennis hero! With 85 games it is until today the single with the most games ever played in the history of Davis Cup world group.
In the end of the semifinal it was a 5-0 win for the German team and the second time the Germans reached the final of the Davis Cup.
Michael Westphal was luckless in the final against Sweden and lost both of his singles. Germany lost 2:3 and had to wait for the first win of the “ugliest salad bowl of the world”.
HIV virus slumbered in the body of Westphal
As heroic the performance of Michael Westphal had been against Tomas Smid, as tragic his further life went on. Barely one knew that the HIV virus slumbered in his body. When he was 16 years old he should have contracted himself with the immune disorder from a drug-addicted female classmate. His tennis career was over sooner as it had begun. His highest ranking was #49 in March 1986.
From then on it went steadily downhill in the ranking. People accused the bon vivant from Hamburg to have a lacking opinion of his job as he seemed to enjoy his private life more than his job. “I need to have fun at tennis”, Westphal defended himself towards his critics.
In 1989 the immune disorder broke out, which had a debilitating effect on him and made many comeback attempts impossible. He suffered from loss of hair, skin allergies and had to take heavy meds. The huge support in his life was his girlfriend Jessica Stockmann who later married his friend Michael Stich and accompanied him in his most difficult and last hours.
Death at the young age of 26
In the night to June 20th, 1991 Michael Westphal died in the university hospital of Hamburg at only 26 years old. Only 10 years later Jessica Stockmann revealed his HIV infection. “I promised him to be silent for 10 years and to fight against AIDS”, she said, who established after the death of Michael Westphal together with Michael Stich the Michael Stich charity, in order to campaign for children with the HIV virus and draw attention to the fate of Michael Westphal.
What will be remembered of Michael Westphal? A role model, whose fighting spirit lives on in the bestowal of the Michael Westphal Award to people who render outstanding services to tennis and the fact, that players without a tournament victory and a high ranking can be immortal in the Davis Cup.
Article by Christian Albert Barschel for sportal.de, translated by Eden.
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.