Mats Wilander, Roland Garros magazine

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.

Bjorn Borg:

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

Yannick Noah, Roland Garros 1983

From Game, set and deadline by Rex Bellamy:

The men’s singles champion of France is a Frenchman – for the first time since 1946. Yannick Noah, aged 23, subdued Mats Wilander, last year’s winner, by 6-2 7-5 7-6 in two hours and 24 minutes here yesterday. We could only guess what was going on inside the inscrutable Wilander – a lad of 18 who was trying to resist not only Noah and most of the sell-out crowd of 17,000, but also the will of a nation.

Wilander’s gamee told us all we needed to know: he was far more erratic than he could afford to be. He could not keep enough rallies going, nor had the attacking resources to finish enough of them in his own favour.

This was a triumph not only for Noah and France and Africa (while playing professional football in France, Noah’s father married a Frenchwoman), but also for clay-court tennis. For almost a decade – what might be called the Borg era – this tournament has been dominated by baseliners specializing in top-spin. They were mostly two-fisted on the backhand and their aim was to wear down their opponents and induce indiscretions.

This was a joylessly negative way to play tennis. By contrast, Noah is a throwback to the days when good athletes with the spirit of adventure in them could win here: as long as they had sound ground strokes, a reasonably sure touch, and the sense to know when to attack. Tennis the Noah way is exciting.

Noah was born in France, brought up in Cameroun, which was formerly under French administration, but returned to France in 1973 after Arthur Ashe had spotted him during a goodwill tour of Africa. Noah sports a mop-headed, braided hair-style. What matters most is that there is 6ft4 in and almost 13st of him, all of it arranged to produce maximum spring and strength and reach, plus a quivering energy that never seems to be totally in repose.

Noah is rather like Jimmy Connors in the Tarzan act he puts on when an important point has been won. At times there is a wild look about him, not least when he is pacing restlessly about the back of the court between points like a tiger impatient for dinner.

What extraordinary scenes there were when Wilander hit the last shot of the match, a wayward service return. The crowd had been simmering with excitement in bright, sultry heat, voicing thunderous roars of approval or collectively shushing themselves with a noise like the sea creeping up a shingle beach. At the end they boiled over – most spectacularly, Noah’s father, who leapt from a high wall at one end of the court and fell on his bottom with a thud.

Evonne Goolagong

From Love Thirty: Three Decades of Champions, by Rex Bellamy

Evonne Fay Goolagong had two unusual names. The Evonne happened because her mother wanted something different, instead of the familiar French spelling. Goolagong means ‘tall trees by still water”. Her father was an itinerant sheep shearer and farm hand and she was one of eight children brought up in the bush: the rolling wheat and sheep country noth of the Murrumbidgee River. They lived in a tin shack on the outskirts of Barellan and were the only Aboriginal family in the vicinity. Fishing for yabbies, small crayfish, was fun for the children? But there was no money to throw around and they were a long way frol the tennis scene. They were a long way from most scenes.
It might have stayed that way – goodness knows what Goolagong would have been doing now – but for a local initiative that produced the War Memorial Club, equipped with four tennis courts. That happened in 1956 when Goolagong was five years old. The courts could not have been nearer home and within a couple of years she was acquiring a taste for the game.

Destinity took her by the hand again when London-born Vic Edwards, who ran a huge coaching operation from Sydney, was induced to include Barellan in his network of week-long tennis schools held in bush towns while children were on holiday. The two coaches assigned to Barellan insisted that Edwards himself should have a look at Goolagong and he flew hundreds of miles to do so. Edwards was impressed by her movements, reactions, and ball sense – that innate judgement of a ball’s speed and bounce on which timing depends.
She was nine then. Two years later she made her first trip to Sydney for intensive coaching and at 13, in 1965, she moved in with the Edwards family. Edwards became her legal guardian, assuming responsibility for her education on and off court. But Goolagaong retained close ties with her own family and with Barellan, where local residents dipped into their pockets to subsidize her career. She was already winning age-group championships and in 1970 she became Australian junior champion without losing a set and went on her first overseas tour. Edwards, a hearty bear of a man, was to travel with her as coach, manager, and surrogate father until 1976, by which time Goolagong had matured and married and was assuming an independent life style.

Edwards thought she could win Wimbledon in 1974. But in 1971 Goolagong surprised him. She surprised everybody. In January she led Margaret Court 5-2 in the third set of the Australian final but was afflicted by cramp and could no longer do the running Court demanded of her. A month later she beat Court in the Victorian final. Over to Europe, where Goolagong won the French championship at the first attempt without conceding a set and then beat Nancy Richey, Billie Jean King and Margaret Court in consecutive matches to become Wimbledon champion. At the age of 19, on her second trip overseas, the brown-skinned lass from a tin shack in a bush town had won two of the game’s four major titles.

Evonne Goolagong, Wimbledon 1971

Goolagong did not find it easy to build on that, partly because her toughest rivals had worked out how to play her, partly because her game veered wildly between splendour and mediocrity, and partly because she was not greedy for glory. She lost 11 of the 18 Grand Slam finals she played. That was hardly surprising, because the players who beat her were King (four times), Court and Chris Evert (three each), and Virginia Wade. At the same time one could not resist a frivolous line of logic: Goolagong loved playing tennis, had to win in order to enjoy another match in the next round, but was deprived of that incentive whenever she reached a final. She was a determined competitor but tended to value the game more than the prize. She was not in the same class as King, Court and Evert when it came to a concentrated, total commitment to success.

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By Alan Trengove, World of Tennis, 1984

The evolution of Mats Wilander as a formidable grass-court player was undoubtedly the most significant feature of the tournament. After an unimpressive opening match, in which he was taken to five sets by Ben Testerman, the Swede beat Roscoe Tanner, Paul McNamee, defending champion Johan Kriek, John McEnroe, and, in the final, Ivan Lendl. His greatest asset was his return of service, particularly off the backhand, but it was his volleying, improving with every match, that was the eye-opener. By the end of the fortnight he was moving confidently to, and at, the net. And though his volleys weren’t as decisive as they might have been, he kept opponents under pressure with good, deep first volleys.

McEnroe gave no early warning of his semi-final d├ębacle. He began strongly against Wilander, who had beaten him on the only two other occasions they met in 1983 – in the French Open and at Cincinnati – but after going to a 5-2 lead in the first set was lucky to scrape out of it, 6-4. Wilander realised that McEnroe’s service held no terrors for him, and either because of the Swede’s accuracy, or the wind and glare, to which McEnroe was unaccustomed after two months of indoor tennis, or, of course, the pressure, the New Yorker’s touch steadily deserted him. He hit many backhands out of court, misjudged volleys, and finally allowed Wilander to dictate strategy. “Shocking” was how he described his performance, but he was gracious enough to say Wilander was a great player…

Lendl was playing a pretty fair brand of serve-and-volley tennis with his usual overpowering serve and groundstrokes. But once again in a final he did not do justice to his ability. It was the first ever Australian final between two players from Europe, and Wilander was to become the first non-British European to capture the title since Jean Borotra did so in 1928. The first four games resembled a match at Roland Garros, with one rally extending to 29 shots and lasting 95 seconds. From the outset, though, Wilander showed the most willingness to go to the net, and when he broke for 3-1, Lendl’s game fell away. Lendl led 4-2 in the second set, only to double-fault twice in the next game and drop his service. Once more, he lost his grasp, and what had seemed likely to become a titanic, all-court battle faded into a rout. Lendl became completely intimidated by Wilander’s double-handed backhand, and either over-hit in desperation or played tentatively.

Extract from The Rivals by Johnette Howard:

“By the late-August start of the 1983 US Open, Navratilova had won all five of her 1983 encounters with Evert, and eight of their last nine matches overall. The US Open still loomed as the last major title Navratilova had never won despite ten previous tries. If Navratilova was going to finally win the tournament, it seemed only fitting that she found herself having to go through evert for the championship. As the two of them padded around the otherwise deserted dressing room the day of their final, staking out their own corners and quietly preparing themselves to play, they both knew they were at a crossroads.

Navratilova and Evert were about to play the thirty-ninth final of their decade-long rivalry, and their record now stood at perfect equipoise: a 19-19 deadlock in championship matches. After so many years spent chasing Evert, Navratilova would finally, inarguably nudge ahead with a win. It would be the last accomplishment Navratilova needed to signify that she had finally conquered herself as well as Evert.
As Navratilova waited to take the court, her legs began to shake. Her hands were trembling. She told Mike Estep:

The time is now. It’s now or never.

Navratilova took the first set from Evert so quickly, a skywriting plane that was droning high over the stadium was unable to finish writing “Good luck Chrissie” until three games were already done in the second set.
Nothing hindered Navratilova – not the 93 degree heat, not her pre-match nerves, not her awful history at the Open. She overwhelmed Evert 6-1 6-3, in just 63 minutes. She celebrated match point as if a jolt went through her body. She flung both her arms in the air. Her eyelids snapped up like two window blinds that had been rugged down and let go. Her mouth opened wide and she screamed.

If I don’t win another tournament in my life, at least I can say I did it all.

Navratilova’s performance was so complete, there was little Evert could do beyond affectionately tap Navratilova on the head with her racket and smile when they shook hands at net, same as she had done the first time Navratilova finally won Wimbledon five years earlier.”