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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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Ironically, Wilander spent three of his first four years as a pro as a member of a team. He broke into the pro circuit in 1980, when he was 15, but from 1981 to '83 he and three of his contemporaries—Nystrom, Anders Jarryd and Hans Simonsson—benefited from a program inspired by Bjorn Borg's fame and glory. As members of Team SIAB, named after the construction company that sponsored it, they traveled together, ate together, drank together, cheered each other's victories and supported each other after losses. "In America, you're taught you can do anything you want,' says Wilander. "But Sweden is a socialist country. We have a whole system where anyone can play—but don't break the rules, don't go your own way don't show aggravation in public. In a way, it kills individualism, but we learn to get along."

Wilander established a reputation for sportsmanship at his first French Open In the semis against Jose-Luis Clerc, he refused to accept a match point that had been awarded to him. Wilander approached the umpire, who had already left the chair, and said, "Clerc's ball was good. I cannot win this way." The point was replayed, and Wilander won the match for the second time when Clerc netted a backhand.

Wilander chalks up the gesture to naivet�. "I don't know if I'd do it again," he says. "You play a few years on the tour and you realize nobody's going to do it for you. Now I just play the calls and let the umpire decide. When I was 17, I didn't understand."

Wilander was unseeded at Roland Garros in '82. Borg, who had won the four previous French championships, was embroiled in a dispute with the Men's International Professional Tennis Council and was boycotting the tournament. None of the remaining Swedes was given a chance. As a result, several Swedish newspapers had not bothered to send reporters to Paris. But a reporter for one of Sweden's three national radio stations was on hand, broadcasting results and highlights during the news. Wilander seemed on his way out in the fourth round as his opponent, the second-seeded Lendl, won two of the first three sets. But Wilander came back to win the fourth set, after which the reporter excitedly called the station. "Keep me on the air!" he pleaded.

The station complied and broadcast the play-by-play of the fifth set, which Wilander won. The next day just about every sportswriter in Stockholm boarded a plane for Paris. Borg, who was vacationing in the Greek Isles, returned to Sweden so that he could watch the match on TV. Wilander knocked off three more of the world's Top 10 players—Vitas Gerulaitis, Clerc and Guillermo Vilas—to supplant Borg as the youngest male ever to win a Grand Slam singles title.

Wilander was immediately hailed in Sweden as the new Borg. He did seem to be made in the image of Borg—slight build, long blond hair, two-fisted backhand, looping forehand, nonpareil stamina—but the comparison so annoyed Wilander that he cut his hair short. "I'm not Borg Two," he said. "I'm Wilander One, and that's enough for now."

In fact, Borg was never a role model. "I wanted to be like Jimmy Connors or Ilie Nastase," says Wilander. "You don't idolize someone who is like yourself. You idolize somebody you'd like to be like."

Wilander played Borg only once, when Wilander was 16 and Borg was 25. Borg won, 6-1, 6-1. They hardly know each other and have little in common, except tennis. "Mats is more curious and outward looking," says Per Yng, a sportswriter for the newspaper G�teborgs-Posten. "He's interested in far more things. And he has much more confidence socially."

Borg had such a bad relationship with Swedish journalists that he addressed them in English. Wilander is adept at handling the press. "Mats always leaves reporters satisfied," says Magnusson. "You never read a negative word about him." Wilander was even forgiven after cutting out for Monte Carlo in 1983. "When Borg moved there, a lot of Swedes said, What a bad guy!" Magnusson says. "But when Mats did, everyone said, Of course!"

Wilander has problems with motivation. He psychs himself up for tournaments on a sliding scale. "At Grand Slam events," Wilander says, "I get into every match 100 percent. I get into tournaments like the Masters 99 percent. There's something about the Masters that tells me it's not one of the best; it's fifth or sixth. The smaller tournaments I might get into 70 or 80 percent."

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