Before Federer, Mats Wilander was the last man to win three Grand Slam titles in a calendar year. So why is he neglected when it comes to talking about ‘the greats’?
Who won the most men’s Grand Slam singles titles in the 1980s?
John McEnroe, obviously.
Erm, no. Try again.
Yes, well done.
You’ve missed one…. Really!?
Ivan Lendl won seven Grand Slams in the 80s. As did… Mats Wilander. You might know the Swede best from his appearances on Eurosport’s ‘Game, Set and Mats’ programme during the Grand Slam tournaments, which really should be ‘Game, Schett and Mats’ given the presence of co-host Barbara Schett but I digress…
For the record, McEnroe won six (plus one in 1979), Becker four (plus a couple in the 90s), and Connors three after his five in the 70s. Lendl’s Grand Slam grand total was eight thanks to his 1990 Australian Open success.
So why is Wilander the forgotten man of that era, certainly in this part of the world? I’d say it comes down to two things: being less than demonstrative on court, and never reaching the final at Wimbledon. Ironically, Wilander’s sole Grand Slam doubles title came at SW19.
He sprung to prominence at Roland Garros in 1982 becoming, at that time, the youngest man to win a Grand Slam. This record was broken by Becker at Wimbledon (1985) and Michael Chang, also in Paris (1989). He was also the first man to win the French Open on his first attempt, a feat only matched by Rafael Nadal.
The unseeded Wilander stunned second seed Ivan Lendl before showing remarkable sportsmanship in his semi-final against Argentina’s Jose-Luis Clerc. At match point down (1:06:40 in), Clerc was adjudged to have hit a forehand wide. Clerc protested and Wilander appealed to the umpire that the point be replayed, saying he couldn’t win that way.
Wilander won the replayed point and then beat another Argentine, Guillermo Vilas, to secure a first major at just 17 and three-quarters. He claimed his second in the 1983 Australian Open when it was still played on grass (and held at the end of the year). In the final, he beat Lendl who would be his main rival over the coming years. While Wimbledon eluded both men, Lendl did not win the Australian Open until 1989, the year after it switched to hard courts.
Watching that match with Wilander often employing serve-volley, there’s a really obvious parallel to draw with one of today’s greats. Much like Novak Djokovic, Wilander didn’t have one standout shot. If you had to pick one, it would be his double-fisted backhand down the line. He was strong in all departments but his main asset was his ability to get everything back and not make unforced errors. You can see Lendl’s frustration growing as his teenage opponent refuses to buckle against the Czech’s forehand onslaught. Check out at 1:15:25 when a wonderful Wilander counter-attacking point leads to Lendl almost admitting defeat.
To be able to play that sort of game, you need serious physical and mental strength. Wilander had both in abundance but he also had guile. As former tennis writer David Higdon once wrote, “Wilander may have been one of the greatest court tacticians of all-time. He worked a point like Michelangelo painted ceilings.”
One other thing to note is that Wilander was, and continues to be, an incredibly nice bloke. The post-match interview from that Australian Open final is extraordinary – how many players would admit to surprising themselves at winning a Grand Slam? This article written by Peter Bodo in 1984 sums up Wilander’s humble background and how he flourished thanks to the Swedish team unit – comprising him, Joakim Nystrom, Hans Simonsson and Anders Jarryd – which toured the world.
Wilander retained his Australian Open title in 1984 with victory over the big-serving South African Kevin Curren who lost to Becker in the Wimbledon final the following year. A week later, he led Sweden to Davis Cup glory against the United States, defeating Jimmy Connors in straight sets to put the home side in the driving seat.
At 20, Wilander reclaimed the French Open title in 1985 to clinch his fourth Grand Slam title again at the expense of Lendl. No other man has won four majors before turning 21 and that scale of success at such a tender age was starting to tell. He turned to writing to alleviate some of his sadness on the tour and 1986 was a disappointing year on the Grand Slam singles front as he failed to make it past the last 16 (no Australian Open that year as it moved from December to January).
He did win his first Grand Slam doubles title with his best friend Joakim Nystrom at Wimbledon but, after the pair were beaten in the final at Flushing Meadows, Wilander took a two-month break from tennis to spend some time with his New York-based girlfriend Sonya Mulholland. Their marriage in January 1987 saw him miss the Davis Cup final, which Sweden lost to Australia, and the Australian Open won by compatriot Stefan Edberg.
Wilander was soon able to refocus on his tennis and won Grand Prix titles at Monte Carlo and Rome before losing in the French Open final to his old rival Lendl. For the second consecutive year, Pat Cash ended his hopes at Wimbledon with the Australian this time going all the way. And Lendl, after another heartbreaking defeat at the All England Club, beat the Swede again in the US Open final in four sets, the first taking an hour and a half.
But 1988 was undoubtedly Wilander’s year. The Australian Open’s move from the grass of Kooyong to Flinders Park (now known as Melbourne Park) and hard courts made Lendl a hot favourite but he went out to home favourite Cash in the semi-finals. The Aussie couldn’t complete the job with Wilander claiming his third title in an epic five-setter.
Wilander then won at Roland Garros for a third time with Lendl suffering from a chest injury which hindered him in his quarter-final defeat to Sweden’s number six Jonas Svensson. After defeating Andre Agassi in the semis, Wilander cruised past Henri Leconte in straight sets for Grand Slam title number six.
Before that French Open triumph came this piece in Sports Illustrated concerning whether Wilander could step up and take Lendl’s number one berth. He admitted that the Slams were where he was at his most motivated and, for the first time, he thought he was good enough to challenge for top spot.
There are references in that SI article to a faster first serve, the addition of a one-handed sliced backhand and improved net play but it’s not like these were sudden innovations (which player doesn’t fine-tune their game to some degree?). Wilander always had that sliced backhand and simply chose to employ it more, perhaps to ease some strain on his body. He was always a more than adequate volleyer, and his serve could certainly get him out of trouble. And things fell right for him in 1988 with Lendl below his best, McEnroe past his best, and the rest just not playing consistently well.
Except for at Wimbledon, of course. Wilander had made serene progress to the quarter-finals but bumped into Miloslav Mecir on a going day. Mecir, who probably merits a write-up of his own, was a ludicrously talented player who could beat anyone and always gave Wilander problems. Among his nicknames were ‘The Big Cat’ and ‘The Swede Killer’. The Slovak won 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 and Wilander’s quest for the first Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969 was over.
That would be Wilander’s only defeat in a major that year as he survived a scare against Kevin Curren (now a naturalised American citizen) and a marathon final with Lendl, lasting six minutes shy of five hours, to claim his first US Open title and that world number one ranking at 24.
Having reached the top of the mountain, Wilander made a rapid descent. There was a shock second-round exit to India’s Ramesh Krishnan at the Australian Open, which he followed by touring the outback with his wife in a campervan, and quarter-final exits to Andrei Chesnokov of Russia and a resurgent McEnroe at Roland Garros and Wimbledon respectively. And there was another second-round exit, at the US Open, to an unknown 18-year-old by the name of Pete Sampras.
Wilander did not win one title on the tour in 1989, losing in the final of the U.S. Pro Tennis Championships in Boston to Andres Gomez. No disgrace in that – the Ecuadorian beat Agassi in the Roland Garros final the following year – but the Swede had, as he admits, lost his edge.
To those that knew him, this was not a surprise. Tennis was never the thing which defined Mats Wilander. The achievements of 1988 took so much out of him, physically and mentally, that following up was always going to be difficult. While he worked hard at his game, he never obsessed over it. He liked winning, but he didn’t hate losing which made him a vulnerable number one. Nothing else changed, however. His on-court behaviour was as impeccable as ever, his grace in defeat remained, and no-one had a bad word to say about him, apart from perhaps casual tennis fans who saw him as boring.
There were still the odd flashes of past glories, such as his Australian Open quarter-final demolition of Boris Becker in 1990 before he was marmalised by Edberg in the semis. But his world ranking continued to fall and, after taking all of 1992 off, he was unable to halt the slide. A failed drugs test for cocaine at the French Open in 1995, which he contested and still attributes to flawed procedures, was a surprising footnote in an exemplary career.
As well as his Eurosport work, Wilander tours North America giving tennis clinics as ‘Wilander On Wheels’. And if you needed convincing that he’s one of the nicest people in sport, check out this interview with him on WOW duty and talking about his career. I hope I’m in as good shape when I’m 53.
PS. During that annus mirabilis of 1988, American pro Jay Berger (now coach to Jack Sock) was asked whether Agassi’s forehand was the biggest weapon in tennis. His reply was, “No, Wilander’s brain is.”
PPS. You’ve got to see this advert featuring three of the best players of their generation and wonder how much they got paid for it.