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An Astonishing Net Result
Curry Kirkpatrick
June 14, 1982
With his string of stunning upsets, Swedish prodigy Mats Wilander won the French Open in Borglike style
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June 14, 1982

An Astonishing Net Result

With his string of stunning upsets, Swedish prodigy Mats Wilander won the French Open in Borglike style

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The name is Mats Wilander. Mats as in mats. Wilander (vee-land-der) as in déjà vu. Because if that wasn't Bjorn Borg all over again in Paris last week, slashing topspin winners from deep in the corners of Roland Garros Stadium, keeping ice cool in the 95° heat and simply reeking of honor and glory and stardom, there's no midnight sun in Sweden.

In 1974 Borg won the Championnats Internationaux de France 10 days after turning 18. Last Sunday, when Wilander defeated Guillermo Vilas 1-6, 7-6, 6-0, 6-4 to win the French Open, he beat Borg's record by 87 days. Afterward, everyone was wondering if it could possibly be true that just as Borg is showing signs of fading, another gifted blond teenager has been sent out from the homeland to spread the gospel according to placidity, sportsmanship and the two-handed backhand. Or as Ion Tiriac, Vilas' aide-decamp, put it, "You expect every five years Sweden to produce an Einstein?"

Though the unseeded Wilander entered the tournament as the 18th-ranked player in the world, he was known more for squiring the fabulous Annette Hjort Olsen, also 17, around the circuit—they have been traveling together for two years: Oh you kids—than for his tennis. But after he had upset Ivan Lendl, Vitas Gerulaitis and Jose-Luis Clerc, seeded two, five and four, respectively, to reach the final, it was easy to spot him. Annette had returned to the Kateeral School in Vaxjo ("She isn't interested in all this," Wilander said), but Wilander was hardly alone. He was being trailed by thousands of writers and photographers and just plain admirers everywhere he went.

Playing against fate, history and the beginnings of a legend, Vilas, the No. 3 seed who very quietly has won five tournaments this year, didn't stand a chance in the title match even after crushing Wilander in the opening set. "I thought that is what the whole match was going to be like—6-1, 6-1, 6-1," said Wilander. What the "match turned out to be was a tedious show of grueling, interminable rallies. One point went on for 90 shots. Tennis to be respected, someone said, rather than enjoyed.

In the second set Wilander began forcing the play, and by the tiebreaker Vilas felt he had to take the net at every opportunity. To his shock Vilas, long noted for his fitness, also discovered that this slender, rawboned kid was "stronger, yes, physically, than me. His ball is very slow, taking a long time to come down. I could never deal with it."

After Vilas knocked off a fine leaping overhead to reach set point at 6-5 in the tiebreaker, he gambled once too often, jumping on Wilander's second serve and sending the return a foot deep. On the next two points a shaky Vilas popped up a volley, off which Wilander scored with a lob, and dumped an overhead, normally his hole card, into the net. The tiebreaker was gone, 8-6, to Wilander.

The scoreboard mirrored what that sequence did to Vilas' confidence. As Wilander outsteadied him from the baseline and rushed to a third-set shutout, Vilas was no longer flexing his considerable musculature like some walking advertisement for the Conan the Barbarian Health Club. While he was throwing his body into every shot, Wilander was gliding. The kid was the fresher of the two.

In the fourth set Vilas' shots lacked length, and now it was Wilander who was coming to net. With a short volley he broke to go up 4-3. Ever the fighter, Vilas broke back at love, but in the next game Wilander wrong-footed Vilas with a backhand volley to break once more. Wilander then served out the match after four hours and 47 minutes.

"Borg was the first to do all this, and there's only one him," Vilas had said before the final. But as Wilander walked off the court after winning his first major championship, his ferret eyes hollow and somehow haunted by the incomprehension of what just had been and was yet to be, you could have sworn....

Before Vilas, before Wilander, before Martina Navratilova buried forever her reputation of gagging on the grand occasions by sashaying through a women's draw that was the strongest in years, the French belonged to Lendl. Because of Borg's refusal to play qualifiers and John McEnroe's withdrawal because of a gimpy left ankle, Lendl became l'homme at Roland Garros, where he was odds-on to dominate the field much as he had dominated the sport the preceding eight months.

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