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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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You didn't read about it in Rolling Stone, but a couple of years ago Mats Wilander became Sweden's underground singing sensation. He was headed for a press conference after losing the final of the 1986 Stockholm Open when his buddies kidnapped him. Wilander was blindfolded, stuffed into a pair of old pajamas and driven around town for an hour.

When the blindfold was removed, Wilander found himself cradling an acoustic guitar on a subway station platform in downtown Stockholm. His pals wouldn't let him leave until he sang a few songs. Subway cars rattled by, and a large crowd gathered. "In all the years I've known Mats," says fellow pro Joakim Nystrom, who was one of the perpetrators, "it was the only time I've ever seen him nervous." But Wilander drew on his ample self-confidence and settled into a cozy groove. "People must have liked the way Mats sang," says Nystrom. "They threw 43 kronor into his guitar case. That's almost seven dollars!"

The same sort of courtly cool has netted Sweden's aboveground tennis sensation more than $5 million in prize money. Wilander, 23, the world's third-ranked player, exploded on the scene at 17 by winning the 1982 French Open and has been in the top 4 since '84. He has been in nine Grand Slam singles finals all told, winning five (two French, three Australian), and is in line for the crown if Ivan Lendl abdicates. It doesn't look as if Wilander is going to depose Lendl any time soon, however. The 28-year-old Lendl has always overpowered him.

Wilander plays as if he had four lungs, and legs that could run forever. And he can read his opponent with the precision of a CAT scanner. "I've never seen Mats make a bad mistake in a big match," says Nystrom. "He always stays the same level, maybe even rises."

Yet Wilander's calm, methodical detachment on court is sometimes taken for indifference. John McEnroe once called him complacent and accused him of trying to inherit the top ranking instead of fighting for it. "I play tennis to play tennis," says Wilander. "It's strictly an American attitude to think that if you're not the best, you're a failure. I want to have fun, make a living and have good friends. Being Number 1 is somewhere down the line."

"Mats is a little different from most guys in the Top 10," says Amos Mansdorf of Israel, who is ranked 22nd. "He doesn't think he's a superstar or act like one. If you beat him, he congratulates you. And then maybe he'll meet you later for a drink."

"Mats can relax anywhere," says John-Anders Sjogren, his coach since 1981. Wilander has nodded off in the backs of cars, in the middle of a Men at Work concert. "I could fall asleep during a changeover," he says. According to Nystrom, sleep is one of three things Wilander craves most. The other two: sleep and more sleep.

"Actually," says Wilander, "I'm not so crazy about sleeping. I'm crazy about being lazy. I could lose a lot of days just by hanging out. In Sweden, there's more darkness, more snow, more cold. You get used to doing nothing."

When he's in the kitchen of his Greenwich, Conn., home, Wilander looks out the window a lot. You learn to do that in Sweden after spending several months each year waiting for the sun to come up. When Wilander is not staring outside, he's slowly twisting a paper napkin around his fingers. Or sprinkling a packet of sugar crystals onto the table and dividing them into piles. Or picking at loose threads of his patched-up denims, the ones he has had since grade school.

It's bright, clear and warm outside, a perfect day for Wilander to laze in his backyard, picking out chords on his guitar. Perhaps he wonders why he's in the kitchen of his Greenwich home being interviewed instead. But his voice is low and pleasant and patient.

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