Happiness is a thick, paralyzing pastry settling clown on one's everyday life.
Mats Wilander's soul is not stricken. He doesn't suffer from isolation, nor is he haunted by nameless terrors. He does not, in short, ooze milky Swedish angst. Indeed, what seems to have gone so mysteriously wrong for this once blissful baseliner is that everything was so right. "He's extremely content in his private life," says his wife, Sonya. "I think he's just bored with tennis."
In September, with a five-set triumph over Ivan Lendl in the finals of the U.S. Open, Wilander overcame years of dogged expectations by ending Lendl's three-year reign as the world's No. 1 player. With victories at the Australian and French Opens already tucked away, he became the first male player since Jimmy Connors in 1974 to win three Grand Slam titles in the same calendar year. But Wilander's stay atop the computer rankings lasted only four months. He hasn't won any of the six events he has played this year and has made it past the quarterfinals only once. Along the way he has been thumped by some of the dimmest stars in the tennis firmament: Ramesh Krishnan, Mikael Pernfors, Horst Skoff and Alex Antonitsch. And Alberto Mancini—twice. The latest indignity came last week in his opening match at the Tournament of Champions at Forest Hills. Francesco Cancellotti, an Italian journeyman famed the length and breadth of Perugia, routed him 6-1, 6-3, on clay no less, Wilander's favorite surface. At 24, Wilander has suddenly become a door-Mats.
"The Wilander I beat today is not the Number Two player in the world," said Cancellotti, who was playing in his second singles match of the day. "I didn't do anything to beat him—he's just not fighting anymore. It looks like it doesn't make a difference whether he wins or loses. To see Wilander on the court like this is not a good thing for the game."
Wilander plays percentage tennis, and when he's at his best, he plays it better than anyone else in the world. He works slowly and surely, outlasting his opponents with subtle verve and dazzling intensity. To be locked in the throes of a five-set parley with Wilander was to be largely without hope. "Wilander's game is a game in which he has to be mentally there," says John McEnroe. Lately, there's been no there there.
Wilander is not an effusive sort, so it comes as no surprise that he offers few reasons for his malaise, except for an absence of motivation. "It's always been a little hard for me to focus on the first few matches of a tournament when I'm up against unknowns," he says. "But now, more and more, it's just plain difficult. I've got no drive or confidence. It gets so I feel like I'm trapped on the court."
Sometimes it seems that what Wilander really wants is to be a rock star. "Actually, all tennis players want to be rock stars," says his friend John Oates of Hall and Oates. "I guess it's because rackets have strings and are shaped like guitars." Wilander's occasional dallyings with the acoustic guitar are well known. He brings his Washburn and an electronic drum machine on the road. He lays down tracks on a portable four-track recorder. He has even erected a sound studio in the basement of his Greenwich, Conn., house. "Mats spends more time there than on the practice courts," says Sonya. "He stays down there so long that I have to phone him on the studio line to tell him that dinner is on the table."
Wilander's noodling isn't just a solitary pleasure. During last month's Monte Carlo Open, Wilander and his pickup group, the Viicht (which means, loosely, a Swedish high-five) Traveling Band performed Honky Tonk Women on French TV. "He was more excited about that than playing in the tournament," says Sonya.
Unlike McEnroe, who plays lead guitar and has strummed onstage with the likes of Carlos Santana, Wilander seems to have few of the necessary qualifications for rock stardom. He's low-key and effortlessly charming, not agitated and threatening. He has a ready laugh, yet his deep, hooded eyes leave the impression he's taking aim at you.
Wilander, who has always had the ability to mock himself, confronted his tennis decline in song in December at a black-tie charity ball in Manhattan. Guitar in hand, he took the stage and warbled his own version of Bob Dylan's Knockin' on Heaven's Door. "Lord, take this racket from my hand/I can't use it anymore/My forehand's bad, too bad to play/I feel I'm knockin' on heaven's door."