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In the Comfort Zone
Franz Lidz
May 23, 1988
Mats Wilander is happy being almost the top tennis player in the world. Question is, will he take the next step?
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May 23, 1988

In The Comfort Zone

Mats Wilander is happy being almost the top tennis player in the world. Question is, will he take the next step?

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"Hungry?" he asks. It's lunchtime, and Wilander is famished. "Can I fix you something?"

Probably not. Years of room service have rendered Wilander almost helpless in the kitchen. "I can boil an egg and fry an egg," he says, "but I can't poach one." He shrugs.

"I've never had a poached egg." Another shrug. "I don't even like eggs. In fact, I hate eggs."

During a four-hour conversation, that's as close as Wilander gets to an impassioned outburst. He pulls up beside a bowl of cornflakes. "If Mats is home alone," says his wife, Sonya, "he'll eat two bowls for breakfast, a couple for lunch and maybe another bowl or two for dinner." Wilander balances this diet with H�agen Dazs ice cream. "Macadamia brittle," says Sonya.

Sonya, 25, who was born in Zambia and raised in South Africa, is a Manhattan-based model. Her face is on display in Oil of Olay ads. Other parts of her anatomy are featured in ads for Olga bras, and she has appeared on the covers of Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan and Grazia, the Italian fashion magazine. Sonya met Mats at the 1985 U.S. Open. "I was drawn to his eyes," she says. "There was more to him than he'd let you know there is." Wilander had just broken up with his hometown sweetheart. He was tired of the constant traveling and fed up with the endless tournaments, and his weariness showed in his game: His easy touch had become knotted. "When Mats met Sonya, he got stabilized," says Nystrom. "He's more eager to be a better player, and he's happy outside the court."

They were married near Durban, South Africa, on Jan. 3, 1987. Wilander, who refuses to play in that country, ignored the pleas of anti-apartheid groups that the wedding be held elsewhere. Sonya wanted to get married in her hometown, and Mats bowed to custom. Besides their house in Greenwich, the couple has a loft in Manhattan and an apartment in Monte Carlo. The latter is Wilander's legal residence and enables him to avoid Sweden's stiff income tax.

Wilander comes from V�xj�, a small industrial city in southern Sweden. His parents, Einar and Karin, still live in the house in which Mats grew up. They still work at the same factories where they've been employed for more than 15 years—Einar is a foreman at one, and Karin works a few days a week on an assembly line at another. "Despite Mats's success, his parents haven't changed," says Kurt Magnusson, his first coach. 'They still stand from the ground."

When Mats, the youngest of three brothers, was about six, he started playing tennis on a parking lot outside the factory where his father works. Einar had painted boundary lines on the asphalt and fashioned a net out of chicken wire to play with his own friends. When Mats began to show interest in the game, Einar would spend his lunch breaks playing with him on the makeshift court. Then Mats would stick around and challenge anyone who came along until Dad returned at nine or 10 at night to drag him home.

Magnusson remembers young Wilander as being smart and cagey, though not exactly driven. "He practiced just enough to get by," says Magnusson, now an umpire on the pro tour. "But he never lost when you thought he might. He always, always made a better match than was expected of him." Wilander won his first national tournament—in the under-12 division—when he was 11 and went on to win the national titles in the under-14 and-16 divisions. "My coaches told me I had potential," says Wilander, "but they never pushed me. That's why I still enjoy playing. If somebody had pushed me, I wouldn't have played. It would have been too serious for me."

At 13, Wilander gave up hockey to concentrate full time on tennis. He had been a fairly slick forward for the Alvesta SK, a local sports club, but he decided he would rather play tennis. "In tennis, it's up to me if I want to win the match," he says. "In ice hockey, it's not."

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