SI Vault
 
SUDDENLY, A DOOR-MATS
Franz Lidz
May 15, 1989
Everybody and his brother is trampling on Mats Wilander, whose reign as the world's No. 1 player lasted but four months
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 15, 1989

Suddenly, A Door-mats

Everybody and his brother is trampling on Mats Wilander, whose reign as the world's No. 1 player lasted but four months

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

Two years ago Wilander's marriage to Sonya signaled the beginning of a new fertility in his game. Once dismissed as just another human backboard, he improved his serve, added a one-handed slice backhand to his Borgian two-hander and became more daring. He kept Lendl off-balance at the U.S. Open by greyhounding to the net nearly every chance he got—often behind second serves and chipped backhands. "I was amazed," says McEnroe. "How could a guy who has always been the classic counterpuncher change his game so radically?"

Truer to form, Wilander celebrated the victory at the apartment of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, jamming with him until sunrise. Then came the morning after. "It was such a special win that nothing else in tennis seemed important," recalls Wilander. "I thought, What am I working for now? It was weird. I had trained for years to reach the top, and when I finally got there I realized I'd have to work even harder to stay there. All I really wanted was to take a holiday. I just didn't think it would last six months."

Wilander's ambivalence about being No. 1 borders on indifference. Whereas McEnroe and Connors zealously defended the top spot, Wilander acted more like an accidental tourist. "John and Jimmy felt a responsibility to reaffirm their ranking every week," he says. "It was different for me. I have nothing to prove. Ever since I was a promising junior, people have been telling me I'd do well, but never well enough to be Number One. Well, I've just been Number One. What am I supposed to do, show them I can be Number One again?"

McEnroe, himself still trying to reclaim the top ranking after a five-year absence, affirms Wilander's thoughts. "Mats puts more emphasis on the majors," he said. "I thought my job was to go out there and show people every week why I was Number One."

After the U.S. Open, Wilander simply stopped training. Instead, he watched TV. And slept. And strummed a few chords. And slept. And puttered around the garden. And slept. "I enjoyed hanging out without feeling the pressure to be fit," he says. "Basically, I couldn't get motivated."

Not even for the Davis Cup final against West Germany in December in G�teborg, Sweden. He was stunned on clay by the unremarkable Carl-Uwe Steeb, losing 8-10, 1-6, 6-2, 6-4, 8-6. Never before had Wilander blown a five-set match after having won the first two sets. Then, with West Germany holding an insurmountable 3-1 lead, he begged out of the meaningless fifth match. The home team defaulted and was jeered mercilessly. "I had no incentive," says Wilander. "I didn't want to be there. I was just going through the motions." Four months later Sweden eliminated Austria in the second round of this year's Davis Cup competition, but Wilander lost both his singles matches in that tie. He is as capable of marking time in lesser tournaments as he is of wasting it in his private life. Against Cancellotti at Forest Hills, he played as if he had a gig to make. Time after time he served Swedish meatballs that Cancellotti gobbled up. Wilander made 22 unforced errors to Cancellotti's five. The match was over in a tidy 56 minutes. "Hey Mats," called a spectator as Wilander walked off the court. "What are you ranked these days, two...hundred?"

Wilander skipped the press conference to join Sonya and Oates at the club bar. He looked embarrassed and disheartened. "In a way all this losing may help," he said. "You win a little, you lose a little. It keeps up your interest. It makes it easier to set goals."

His immediate goal is to perform well at the upcoming French Open, which he has won three times. "The French doesn't worry me at all," he says. Indeed, Lendl still considers Wilander one of the favorites. "You never underestimate a guy like Mats," he says. "Never, ever. He may win a couple of matches and get hot again."

On the other hand, Paris could be his Waterloo. "For Mats, the tournament is very important," says John-Anders Sjogren, Wilander's coach. "If he wins, things could change overnight."

And if he loses?

Continue Story
1 2 3