Join Date: Sep 2006
Wilander agrees with the analysis. But changes such as his slice backhand approach were incorporated into his arsenal long before he dared trot them out in tournament play. He points out that he always knew how to volley, as his Australian titles in 1983 and 1984 attest, but on slower surfaces he always fell back upon the reliability of his baseline game. He says "The great thing about being a baseliner is that it gives you a foundation. I can experiment with anything because I always have the solid baseline game to go back to." He also resents the charge that a baseliner plays "boring" or defensive tennis, with its implication of cowardice. He feels that for the top practitioners, playing from the baseline is an act of extraordinary self-confidence. In Wilander's eyes, Connors is the prime example of the confident, aggressive player incarnate. And Connors is, if anything, a baseliner. "Connors only comes in when he's good and ready to come in", Wilander says. "He never does it because he feels he has to. That's what I've always aimed at, that kind of control. It's no good to throw in an approach and run to the net at the first chance - that's got nothing to do with confidence. It's more not knowing what to do, like you're saying: "O.K., here I am running to the net - now you do what you have to do or miss the shot." When I play from the baseline, I'm not waiting for the other guy to make an error. I'm trusting that when the time comes for me, I can win the point."
Such theories and speculations reveal Wilander as a master of the conceptual game. He is watchful and open-minded when it comes to strategy, knowing that his intelligence is a tool that can help him to compensate for a relative lack of firepower. "A Lendl or a Becker, they have a lot of power so they probably feel that the winning game is inside of them", he says. "They don't have to worry about the other guy. They believe that if they play their own games well, they'll win. It's different for me. I think a lot about the other guy, what he's doing and how he's feeling. I look at his eyes to see if he's confident or a little down. I adjust my game to what I see."
Wilander reaches the zenith of his style on the most important occasions, which is a tribute to his strength of nerve and a confirmation of his credentials as a great player. He acknowledges that he is a lesser player in run-of-the-mill Grand Prix events. In fact, the utter lack of correlation between Wilander's performance in "tune up" events and the subsequent Grand Slam meetings is downright unique. In 1986, he won the ATP Championships and lost in the round of 16 at the U.S. Open, while last year he lost in the third round of the ATP event and played the Open final. A year ago Wilander lost to Eric Jelen in the first round at Queen's Club but went to the quarters at Wimbledon, losing to the eventual champion, Cash. Early this year, Wilander improved his tournament record over Connors to 7-0, while he is 0-6 against Connors in exhibitions. The pattern holds true down the line: Wilander is a big-match player.
"The Grand Slam tournaments really are different for me," he says. "That's where you see who really believes he can win the big ones. Nobody pops up out of nowhere to win a Grand Slam. I can lose to a guy three times in a row on the tour and if we play in the first round of a Grand Slam, it's a different story. I guess I feel I've got a psychological edge in Grand Slam events. And I like the tension - big matches under pressure in front of thousands of people, that's what it's all about. Part of my edge is the ability to play loose. I know that Lendl's forehand is better than mine. He wins a lot of matches because guys just can't handle that forehand. But, in the atmosphere of a big match, guys can't handle my forehand. I don't hit it differently, it's just that in a big match they play a little tighter and I play a little looser. It's enough to give me an advantage."
Wilander's track record against his primary domestic rival, Stefan Edberg, is a vivid case in point. In garden-variety tour events, Wilander feels he really has to play his best tennis to fend off Edberg's powerful serve-and-volley attack. But come a big occasion, and Wilander thinks he has an edge. Thus, he manhandled Edberg in their 1987 semi-final at Flushing Meadow, outlasted him on the Supreme Court of the Nabisco Masters in the semis after losing to him in the round robin, and subdued him in the Australian Open semis. Critics who are partial to Edberg's big game lamented that it was bad luck, their favorite just had a bad day on the wrong day. Wilander doesn't buy that rationalization any more than McEnroe bought Wilander's claim that he didn't much care if he was ever ranked no.1. He says: "I know Stefan didn't play so well in those matches, but there should be nothing like playing bad in a Grand Slam. If you play bad in big matches, it's more of a problem than an accident."
In big events, Wilander also tends to gamble more these days. In the past, he would never come in against a certain player's backhand unless he was 100 percent sure that he could win the point. Now he will come in for the sheer surprise value. As Jarryd says, "Mats has found a good way to keep the other guy off balance, unsure of what is coming next." Wilander also understands the rhythms of a match. He puts a high priority on winning the first point of a game, particularly when he is serving. He knows that he may lose serve several times in a match on faster surfaces, so he must seize every opportunity to break, searching for moments when his opponent relaxes his concentration. Furthermore, Wilander tailors his philosophy to each player. If he is down 30-40 on service against Lendl, he may chance a surprise foray to the net behind serve, knowing that there is a certain "choke" factor. But against Becker in the same situation, he knows that the German youth is going to pull the string and go for a winner. In other words, to a greater degree the point is in Becker's hands. These qualities have helped make Wilander a much more entertaining player. At 18, he didn't care if he was perceived as boring or defensive - he just wanted to win matches. But he now plays to the crowd more often. He would just as soon win by 6-2, 6-2 showing some flashy shotmaking as clean up love and love.
In the last few years, Wilander has sought the same kind of balance in his life. He has left behind the sleepy life of his hometown Vaxjo, Sweden, and settled in the same suburban New York community as Lendl - Greenwich, Connecticut. The arrangement is convenient, although he is not wild about the Topsider way of life. He is enamored of Manhattan, where most of the Wilanders' friends live. Wilander harbors a rebellious, idealistic streak. He diligently plays guitar ("Rhythm", he explains. "McEnroe plays lead.") and prefers folk music. His favorite musician is Bob Dylan - let no man accuse Wilander of being just another trendoid. He also has a strong social conscience, formed partly in the embrace of the Swedish welfare state. He is more inclined to believe that governments are responsible for ending world hunger than he is to blame governments for causing it. To that end, he works with the Irish international relief organization, GOAL.
So, some three years after the issue was first raised, the question comes up again: does Mats Wilander, strategist extraordinaire, master of the big match and budding gambler, want to be the no.1 player in the world?
"We Swedes know he wants it", Jarryd says.
"Sure I want it, but only when I feel I deserve it", Wilander says. "It's a hard thing to explain, but the fact is, I don't really want it until I know I've reached the limit of my talent, worked on all aspects of my game and felt I've exhausted every area of potential. If Lendl quit right now, or if he broke a leg, suddenly I'm no.1. But it wouldn't mean that much to me because for the moment there's no voice inside me that says "Yes, you're really the no.1 guy now."
And for Wilander, that inner voice has always been the most important one of all.