Join Date: Sep 2006
Here's an article written in June '88 by Peter Bodo (when I felt he knew what he was talking about) on Wilander. Its a pretty good read.
In the past, it was always difficult to imagine Mats Wilander "living on the edge", unless the edge in question was the shoreline of a pristine Scandinavian fjord. From the time Wilander became the youngest male champion in French Open history, at age 17, in 1982, his game was much like his person: elegant but passive, effective but uninspiring. Looking back, Wilander freely admits, "I was never a gambler, not in tennis, not in golf, not in cards, not in anything. Not even in life. Some guys, when the chance comes up, they think, "O.K., I'm going to throw my card in, take a chance and see what happens". I just never liked that feeling. I don't like to give up control or put myself in the hands of fate."
Over the course of three years ending in 1985, Wilander harvested three more Grand Slam titles (two Australian Opens and another French at Stade Roland Garros). But his conservatism ultimately led him into a cul-de-sac, personally and professionally. From the summer of 1985 on, he was a player adrift - uncommitted to challenging for the no. 1 ranking, but happy to bank the king's ranson bestowed upon a top five player. He was not a materialist, a cynic or a flawed competitor - just a thoughtful 21-year-old kid going through the motions required to keep his place in the game. Just a kid who didn't want to throw in that card, who didn't want to draw attention to himself or assert himself against the John McEnroes or Ivan Lendls of tennis. "In that period when my game was a little stale, from the summer of '85 on, I was learning a lot about life", he says. "It was important, but my game suffered. Like a lot of guys today, I was just playing, not thinking of doing anything special, not realizing that I had to take control of the situation. I let tennis take me wherever."
At one point, McEnroe publicly took Wilander to task for his indifference to attaining the no.1 ranking, characterizing the Swede's complacency as a "cop-out". In hindsight, Wilander, now 23, says: "John was right in a way, but I don't think he understood what I was going through at the time. It was hard to focus on no.1 when I had guys like John and [Jimmy] Connors ahead of me. They were like heroes to me. I remember watching Connors win Wimbledon when I was 9 years old. It was hard for me to say to myself "O.K., I'm better than that guy". I was in the position of a kid who did so well in high school that he was told he could go straight on to graduate school, skipping college. I never felt I could do that. I always felt I had to go through all the steps, and I wanted to go through all the steps. So I resisted. It's possible to be no.1 at a very young age, but most guys aren't ready for it then. There are some situations in matches that you have to be very grown-up to handle. I think that's what Boris Becker found out and dealt with last year. I never wanted to have that kind of crisis."
Wilander took a seven-week sabbatical from the game at the end of 1986, partly to analyze his future. He did not decide to pursue the no.1 ranking, but to establish goals toward which he could work. He was in love with a New York model, Sonya Mulholland of South Africa, and suddenly she provided him with emotional inspiration. They married in January 1987, and Wilander returned to the tour that spring as a different player.
Over the ensuing year, Wilander solidly grasped the world's no.2 ranking. He played Lendl in the finals of the French Open, the U.S. Open and the Nabisco Masters, and while Lendl won all three meetings, Wilander established himself as the top challenger in the men's game. That position was affirmed beyond doubt in the first Grand Slam event of the current year, the Australian Open, in January. Wilander beat his Wimbledon nemesis Pat Cash in the final, after Cash had upset Lendl. A victory in a Grand Slam final after three consecutive runner-up showings gratified Wilander. "I'd always felt that if I got to the final of a Grand Slam event, I could raise my game and find a way to win", he says. "Suddenly after the '87 final at Flushing Meadow, I felt the opposite way. The idea of getting to Grand Slam finals but not winning another one again was a possibility. It made me feel terrible. That's why I was so happy to win in Australia."
Over the past 15 months, Wilander has shown remarkable flexibility as a player, highlighted by a new willingness to play adventuresome, gambling tennis. No top player in recent memory has changed his game as much as Wilander. He has dramatically improved his serve, which was once the weakest link in his game. He has added an effective one-handed slice backhand to complement his basic two-handed stroke. He has developed an opportunistic tendency to attack, even behind second serves - thereby keeping his opponents guessing on big points. But most of all, Wilander has accomplished something that, because of his extraordinary degree of self-possession, many people assumed he'd done ages ago: he's become an adult. Wilander always was mature. He probably was born that way. But now he is also grown up. And the difference shows.
Wilander is animated in conversation, and on court he brandishes the same ubiquitous clenched fist that more demonstrative players show after hitting winners. In a triumphant moment, he will bellow like Tarzan. These are changes in a young man who concedes that through most of his years on the tour he lived in a "shell", avoiding confrontations and opportunities to assert himself. Consider the situation that occurred at the Lipton International Players' Championships in March: During a changeover in his match against Wilander, a journeyman pro made a snide remark about Wilander's patient baseline style. In the past, Wilander admits, he would have felt apologetic and perhaps even agreed with his opponent's critical cheap shot. But the effect this time was to make Wilander angry. "There's no way I'm going to lose this match to you now", he thought, and - imagine these words in the mind and mouth of gentle Mats Wilander: "I'm going to kick your ***."
Wilander admits that at one time, a graph of his emotional state would have produced a straight line. But in the past year or so, peaks and valleys have appeared. "I'm more of an up-and-down person now", he says. "I feel more mature and free. I guess it's a stage. When I wake in the morning now, I'm not sure I'm going to want to go out and win a match, unless it's a Grand Slam event. It's new to me, living for the moment - showing anger, desire, whatever. I don't lose control, but I don't worry about losing control either. I'm not interested in just security anymore."
Perhaps Wilander's temperamental spontaneity is related to his willingness and ability to change his game - a need he came to grips with just prior to beating Lendl in the '85 French Open final. In the past year, he has continued the tinkering by enlisting his friend, former Yalie Matt Doyle, to travel with him as a permanent hitting partner and conditioning and training coach. Few people appreciate the difficulty entailed in changing a game, especially one that has been so serviceable at the highest level. "Mats has exceptional talent", says his countryman and friend Anders Jarryd. "Most players can learn to watch other players and figure out how to take advantage of their weaknesses, but not everybody can change his game to suit the job. The biggest problem is taking that change from practice, where you can do anything, into a match situation - because a match, especially in a big tournament, that's another world."