Pat Cash, Wimbledon 1987

Extract from Pat Cash’s autobiography Uncovered:

To my mind I wasn’t just taking on Jimmy Connors, I would also have the crowd against me. He knew every trick to get them on his side, and he would be doing everything possible to break my focus. It didn’t matter that he was nearly thirty-five years of age and hadn’t won a tournament since 1983. Zivojinovic hit twenty-five aces against him, but Jimmy had still won. A round earlier he had fought back from an abysmal start and a two set deficit to beat Mikael Pernfors.

Many people perceived Jimmy to be something of an arsehole, but in my opinion he was a great player. He had such an unusual style, nobody ever played like him and nobody ever will. He was a great athlete, but tough as nails in the bargain. Barkers [Ian Barclay] and I regularly used to watch Jimmy practice and were amazed by his drive. Every point was regarded as the most important of his life: it was inspirational to see, and that was exactly how he played his matches. Maybe that’s why he made so many comebacks and reached the US Open semifinal at the age of thirty-nine. I make no secret of the fact that I was a fan, besides which I ever had any problems with Jimmy on court. Sure, he used to play to the crowd and joke with the line judges in a thinly disguised attempt at giving himself a little rest, but tennis is all about entertainment. The first time we ever played one another was at the Canadian Open in Toronto. I was told he was making faces at me for miss-hitting a ball; I didn’t see him, so I don’t know, and I will keep an open mind. However, it’s fair to admit that opponents can certainly goad me.

Jimmy and I didn’t really socialize. He never seemed to mix with the rest of the guys, but that’s understandable – who would, if they were married to a Playboy centerfold? He had a certain style. In the States he played the true super star by climbing out of his limousine and walking straight into the court. McEnroe doesn’t hold his countryman in such high esteem as I do, but that’s because he is consumed by a competitive jealousy.

I couldn’t have a better start in the semi-final, hitting an ace with the first ball. But Jimmy was intent on being no pushover, and fought fiercely to break back at five all, after I’d served for the first set. Walking back to the baseline to return, I knew this was a crucial moment. I was determined not to fold under the pressure, and broke back immediately before taking control. This was again testimony to the work of Jeff Bond, who had instilled in me that following any loss of concentration, I should immediately snap myself back awake. Late in the third set the fire alarm went off, although I didn’t pay attention. I had moved into a 5-0 lead, dropping just four points. The bell seemed too late to save Jimmy, but he was trying all his tricks with the crowd to disrupt my concentration. I knew he’d spotted I was tense, and I didn’t want him to be inspired into another comeback as he’d managed against Pernfors. Summoning up all my focus, I managed to finish him off. The relief was immense.

Boris Becker and Ivan Lendl, Wimbledon 1986

Extract from Boris Becker’s autobiography, The Player:

Before my first Wimbledon final I felt like a child in a toyshop; everything was possible and I had it all before me. Every round I survived had been a triumph. Since then everything had changed. The training was more concentrated and less relaxed, and felt more like a state of emergency than anything else. The endgame against Ivan Lendl would finally answer the questions everyone was asking. Was Becker 1985 a fluke, or is he really a mega talent? It felt like a matter of life or death. At this stage, I defined myself solely through tennis and any defeat meant the complete loss of my self-confidence. Only victory could rescue me.
In 1986 I was happy when it was over. It was the most pressure I’d ever been under. The wunderkind had to prove himself. Even I couldn’t be sure how good I really was.

Lendl had never won Wimbledon, and he’d almost lost the semi-final against my friend Bobo Zivojinovic. It was only because Bobo was undone by the umpire in the fifth set that Lendl won. I preferred to have Lendl as my opponent. I knew Bobo too well, because we often practiced together, and he could break my serve, but I couldn’t break his. Lendl was already sitting in the changing room, and we didn’t speak a word. Not his usual jokes, not even a comment, just silence. He was number one in the world. I was number six. He was twenty-six and wanted to win Wimbledon at last. I was eighteen, and had to win at least one more time. I was convinced I’d win. It sounds strange, but the previous night I’d dreamt of victory, just like the year before. Lendl, on the other hand, seemed frightened, almost transfixed.

I take the first two sets 6-4 6-3 – a stress-free hour. In the third he leads 4-1, a small crisis for me. Soon he’s leading 5-4, and I’m serving. I go down to love-40. My attitude is, OK, let him win the third set, but I’ll come back in the fourth. Then three second serves, three reflex return volleys… Somehow I turn it around and win the game. Five all. I realize he’s falling. Lendl serves – I break to 6-5. I’m serving for my second Wimbledon success. It’s 40-30. When the match ends I’m on the same side of the court as in 1985. Lendl is devastated. “Well played”, he says. I’m up in the clouds, immensely relieved.

I felt I’d been transformed from a boy to an adult. I’d opened the gate to the future and now I could have faith in myself. The victory in 1986 was the most important of my career. In 1985 I’d hardly known what I’d done; one year later I knew all too well. The reaction in Germany was overwhelming, but it left me strangely cold. After all, only a month before they’d written me off.

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.

Mats Wilander and Henri Leconte, Roland Garros 1988

By David Irvine, The Guardian, Monday June 6 1988

It is perhaps an apt comment on their contrasting sense of priorities, as well as their ability (or otherwise) to play their best tennis when it matters most, that Mats Wilander, who has never been ranked number 1 in the world, now holds as many Grand Slam titles as Ivan Lendl, the world champion since 1985.

Yesterday the 23-year-old Swede claimed his sixth major singles championship, and his third on the red clay of the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, when he cut the charging Henri Leconte‘s challenge to ribbons by 7-5 6-2 6-1 in the most one-sided final since his distinguished compatriot Bjorn Borg, annihilated Vitas Gerulaitis in 1980.

Wilander, a quiet and self-effacing man who has never been fully appreciated by British audiences – his best performance was to reach the quarter-finals last year – is nevertheless the only player yet to win major championships on red clay, grass and synthetic surfaces.
But heading the computer, a favourite topic of Lendl’s, has never bothered Wilander. When he said as much, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors were appalled, but his views have not changed.

“It’s always been more important to me to win the big events; that’s what really counts. To get to no.1 you have to win almost every tournament you play, and that’s not my style any more. But now I’ve won two Grand Slams in a year for the fist time, so the next step has to be the US Open and Wimbledon.”

Indeed Wilander is now halfway to completing the first Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969. “But that’s still a dream” he admitted, “although I have to recognise that the chance is there.”

Many wondered if his superb five-set victory over Pat Cash in the final of the Australian Open at the new Flinders Park stadium in January indicated that he had changed his game too much to maintain his supremacy on clay.
But Wilander, whose closest call came when he met Slobodan Zivojinovic, gave an emphatic answer to such speculation by resisting Leconte’s first-set challenge before overwhelming him.

“I was a bit worried when he served for the first set at 5-4” said Wilander, “but not, I feel, as mch as he was. When I won the first set that was it. After that he was far too tense.”
This showed in a French flood of backhand errors, while his own passing shots, hit with deadly accuracy from either side, were never better.
A low-level pass by the Patrouille de France, the Gallic equivalent of the Red Arrows, celebrated 100 years since the birth of Roland Garros and brought a sense of anticipation to the occasion which Leconte whipped to a climax as he broke Wilander to love at 4-4.
But the journey from climax to anticlimax was swift. Wilander broke back, took the set and proceeded to make Leconte look as out of place in a final as Steffi Graf had done to Natalia Zvereva 24 hours earlier.

Wilander said that although he was aware that Leconte was not regarded with the same hero-worship as Yannick Noah, he was surprised that the crowd “were not really there when he needed them most.”

Jean Borotra, who will be 90 in August, and his 87-year-old fellow musketeer René Lacoste, the losing finalist when the stadium was first used 60 years ago, presented Wilander with the trophy and the winner’s cheque for £150,000.