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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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At exhibitions Wilander's enthusiasm barely registers. "They're usually badly run, and nobody's watching," he says. "I don't try to miss, but I don't care if I win or lose. I just swing my racket. It's just entertainment." Wilander is perhaps the world's worst exhibition player. Though his tournament record against Connors is 5-0, Wilander is 0-4 against him in exhibitions. "I need tension," says Wilander. "I think I handle pressure better than other players."

Still, Wilander has never made the run for No. 1 that would really test him. To reach the top, you have to play well week after week in places such as Livingston, N.J., and Kitzb�hel, Austria, as well as at Wimbledon. And you can't lose early-round matches to the Thierry Tulasnes of the world. Lendl doesn't.

But then, Wilander is not even the best player in Greenwich. Lendl, a Czech emigrant who also lives there, works hard at maintaining his No. 1 ranking. He has a grueling training regimen and a special diet. To keep pace, Wilander recently began his own conditioning routine. He jogs and lifts weights with Matt Doyle, a 1978 Yale graduate who plays on Ireland's Davis Cup team. And Wilander has adjusted his style of play. No longer just another Swedish backcourt counterpuncher, he has kicked up his game and varied his attack. In particular, he has a developed a one-handed slice backhand to complement his two-hander and has improved his net play. Indeed, in 1986 he won the Wimbledon doubles with Nystrom.

"The improvement in Mats has been unbelievable," says Andreas Maurer of Germany. "His serve is unbelievable. His court coverage: unbelievable. He plays important points unbelievably well. But most unbelievable of all is that he can now be very aggressive." Opponents who read Wilander's insouciance as passivity are now getting burned when he takes the play to them.

Trailing Pat Cash 5-4 in the fifth set of the grueling 4�-hour final at this year's Australia Open, Wilander twice charged the net behind his serve and hit winners. He went on to win the set, 8-6, and the match. "I might have done that a year ago," he says, "but never two years ago. Never. My old coaches wouldn't have liked that. They think, when you're down, always play the way you've played best. But now everybody's so good from the baseline that the game is at another level. You have to go against your will.

"You're serving and running into the unknown, something you've never done. When I win a point, I think I've really played it like a man. And when I lose, I think, Why did I listen to those people?" It's not a question Wilander has to ask very often.

But then there's Lendl. Wilander hasn't beaten him since the finals of the 1985 French Open. Last year Lendl outlasted Wilander in excruciatingly long games of patty-cake at the French and U.S. Opens. At the Masters Lendl blew him away in straight sets.

To beat Lendl, says Wilander, "I have to hope he isn't serving too well and to make him play every point. I have to use psychology to unnerve him, to take control.

"Until now, I never thought I was good enough to be Number 1. But I'm so close and still improving. I must improve to keep on going and keep on going. I want to get there deservedly, like I've reached my limit."

Wilander has not yet defined his limitations. He remains enigmatic. He interrupted a TV interviewer at the Australian Open with his own question: "If a Czech and a Swedish tennis player jumped off the Empire State Building at the same time, who would land first?"

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