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An Astonishing Net Result

June 14, 1982
June 14, 1982

Table of Contents
June 14, 1982

The French Open
NCAA Championships
NBA Playoffs
The Mad Hatter
Nathaniel Crosby
Baseball

An Astonishing Net Result

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

The name is Mats Wilander. Mats as in mats. Wilander (vee-land-der) as in déj√† 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.

This is an article from the June 14, 1982 issue Original Layout

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.

A special press conference was held for Lendl to showcase his reams of dour wit. A Dutch p.r. agency offered 10,000 francs for the best photograph of him during the tournament. Lendl's Adidas signature haberdashery was everywhere, one day draped over the bodies of four players in three different matches on center court. If Lendl doesn't ever win a Grand Slam title, this display proved he would still leave a legacy as the courageous fellow who introduced the argyle tennis shirt to an astonished universe.

The man himself arrived in Paris having won 88 of 91 matches and 15 tournaments since the 1981 U.S. Open and having banked more than a million dollars in prize money this year. But Lendl's schedule during the previous month was hardly conducive to sleep or sanity, much less geared toward winning a major championship. He played his way from Dallas to Madrid to New York to Tokyo to Wojtek and Ewa Fibak's apartment, across the street from Roland Garros, where he presumably collapsed from jet lag or from the weight of his riches or both.

A more vexing problem was that most of Lendl's victories had come indoors, where he was accustomed to ending points decisively and early with his exploding slingshot forehand. But on the agonizingly slow bronze terrain of Paris, even the lowliest of European dirt-kickers could chase down the Lendl bullets, catch them in the teeth of their topspin and spit them back to prolong the rallies.

In the second round, Lendl was out of sorts and frustrated, embarrassed really, that his timing was so far off that he couldn't quickly do away with young Thierry Tulasne of France. Against Wilander in the fourth round, he found himself face to face with a genuine moving backboard who seemed unimpressed with all those argyles and dollar signs.

Jimmy Connors—you remember him?—later joked that he needed "a Nodoz pill" to watch Lendl-Wilander, that Lendl "lumbered" around the court and showed no "forcefulness." Yet Lendl easily could have won in straight sets. He defeated Wilander 6-4 in the first and 6-3 in the third and served for the second at 5-4, reaching 30-0. Two more points and Wilander surely would have been on his way back to Vaxjo. But Wilander stiffened and swept three games to save the set. Even after a bad call disallowed a Lendl ace at 3-4 in the fourth and he disgustedly whaled out at everything and threw away that set, not a soul in the stadium thought Lendl wouldn't turn on the juice and blow the kid away in the finale. Not even Wilander. "I thought Ivan would get his confidence back in the fifth set," said Wilander, who had never in his life even played a fifth set.

But Lendl's confidence didn't return, primarily because his patience had long since gone the way of his rhythm. Lendl had a terrible case of what the French call in a marvelous phrase "le petit bras"—the short arm. In the first game he sprayed a couple of wild groundies, and his serve was broken. In the third game Lendl made two more mindless mistakes to lose serve again, airbrushing a drop shot that bounced short of the net and coming in behind a weak second serve that Wilander thrashed. Even after he had a 4-0 lead, Wilander took no chances; he ambled along the baseline and consistently outdueled Lendl from the deep sectors of the court. Following his 4-6, 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory, Wilander was as succinct as could be. "I kept holding the ball on his backhand and he couldn't do anything," he said. And so it was that he not only snatched the tournament away from Lendl and everyone else: Win or lose, Wilander now was the tournament.

Any juvenile of Scandinavian origin who tousles his hair and hits a double-fisted backhand would be compared with Borg, of course. For some time before his victory in Paris, Wilander had been just one of a quartet of young players traveling under the tutelage of John Sjogren. Wilander was the one arm-in-arm with Annette. Anders Jarryd and Hans Simonsson, both 20, as well as Joachim Nystrom, 19, had had some good results, but since Wilander had won the French Juniors at Roland Garros last year, his nation's fondest hopes for an heir to the vacant throne—even Lendl speaks of the departed ruler in the past tense, e.g., "Bjorn was a great champion"—had been placed on Wilander.

His hometown, Vaxjo, is a city of 41,500 in the south of Sweden, the "wood district," where making furniture is a way of life. He's the youngest of three children, and last Saturday his father, Ejrvar, a foreman in an air-conditioning factory, flew to Paris, air fare courtesy of the Vaxjo press. Earlier, after Mats had beaten Gerulaitis 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 in the quarters, his two older brothers, Ingmar and Anders, had driven through the night from Sweden to see his semifinal match with Clerc.

In 1974 Borg won both Paris and Rome. This year Wilander nearly did the same. After reaching the quarters at Hamburg and Madrid and the finals at Brussels in recent months, three weeks ago he whiplashed some tough customers at the Italian Open, including Andres Gomez of Ecuador, whom Wilander led 7-5, 4-2 in the semis before falling into an exclusively defensive posture that cost him the match. Gomez went on to pummel Eliot Teltscher in the final.

Though Wilander's game is more versatile than Borg's was at the same stage—he can volley a little and feather a drop shot or two—his second serve is a lollipop, and except for his down-the-line backhand, he doesn't have the heavy ground game with which Borg punished opponents even as a lad. He does, however, have the master's icy imperturbability, his stoicism under pressure, his temperament. "Wilander's mind is a weapon," says Tiriac. "Let's put it this way: This is an old kid."

In the two weeks of Paris, the only time Wilander showed even a hint of ire was when the press mentioned how young he was and asked if he patterned his game after Borg's. "I am very soon 18," Wilander snapped. "I start with two-hand backhand even before Bjorn was getting famous."

During all the commotion over Lendl and then Wilander, Vilas' performance—he lost only 39 games in six matches to reach the finals—went virtually unnoticed. His inquisitors preferred, instead, to query him on other matters. Yes, he would fight in the Falklands, but he thought he was too old to be called up. No, he and his countryman, Clerc, were not friends, but they talk to one another civilly. Further upstaging Vilas was another Spanish-speaking romantic, the bearded Jose Higueras. Higueras had overcome many obstacles, including breaking his arm in a match at the French in 1974 and recently winning a two-year tiebreaker against hepatitis, to knock off the top American seeds, Teltscher (No. 6) and Connors (No. 1) with the loss of only six games in each match.

Alas, Vilas' 6-1, 6-3, 7-6 semifinal victory over Higueras, an exquisite demonstration of Vilas' power and consistency off the ground, was all too routine and happened to follow another Wilander surprise. This time the kid beat his opponent, Clerc, not once but twice. After breaking Clerc's first service game in each set, outsteadying him in the clutch and winning all the long rallies, Wilander dramatized the afternoon and embellished his instant legend by requesting that Clerc be given two balls after Clerc protested an out call on match point. "The ball was good," Wilander said to the umpire. "I don't want to win this way. It's impossible for me." He won the replayed point and the match 7-5, 6-2, 1-6, 7-5. In L'Equipe, the French national sports daily, Denis LaLanne wrote, "What a joy to discover an angel under that impenetrable armor!"

Andrea Jaeger, the little churl with the curl, wasn't exactly angelic following her 7-6, 6-1 loss to Navratilova in the women's final. She accused the winner of breaking the rules by receiving voice and hand signals from two buddies in the stands, Renee Richards and Nancy Lieberman. "Mentally-wise I'm stronger than Martina, and that's how you come back against her," said Jaeger, who squandered a set point at 6-5 in the first-set tiebreaker, to which she must have arrived by stealing the bunt sign. "But I can't keep concentration when it's three against one."

Jaeger and her father, Roland, a former boxer whom some people have accused of contributing a pugilistic aspect to his daughter's attitude, were wrong on two counts. Signals aren't against the rules, and even if they were, observers sitting nearby said neither Richards, who was silently taking notes, nor Lieberman, who was simply shouting encouragement like the basketball player she is, was giving any signals.

"Jesus Christ, I win this great title finally and I have to hear this," said an angry Navratilova, who had hit a brave backhand approach winner on Jaeger's set point and so deserved more than a crybaby's tantrum at the end. "Thank you, Andrea. I could decide in my sleep what to do against Jaeger. The players know I am as fair as they come. I'm also a good loser. If she can't be a gracious loser, that's tough. If she's getting this stuff from her father, Mr. Jaeger is a louse."

Actually, Navratilova, who now has won eight of nine tournaments, 42 of 43 matches and 85 of 96 sets this year in a rousing start toward the Grand Slam, might have thanked Jaeger for beating Chris Evert Lloyd 6-3, 6-1 in the semifinals. It was as desultory a clay-court performance as Evert Lloyd has ever been party to. Maybe she wanted to concentrate on rooting her husband, John, home in the mixed. (He reached the final with Wendy Turnbull.) Or perhaps, after so many years at the top, Evert Lloyd needs more than a steady diet of Palooka-ettes in preparation for her matches against the three or four women capable of winning a major tournament. In one span against Jaeger, Evert Lloyd lost 30 of 39 points, 25 of them on unforced errors.

Meanwhile, Hana Manlikova, the defending champion, gave less than her best in her semi against Navratilova, a match she lost 6-0, 6-2 in approximately 62 seconds. Mandlikova had defeated a rusty Tracy Austin 7-6, 6-7, 6-2 in an error-plagued quarterfinal match, and Mandlikova should have been primed for the defense. Instead, she nailed several balls into the back fences and then obviously quit. Afterward, Navratilova said of Mandlikova, "I wish she had tried harder." Tanka? Handitova?

In the men's final, Wilander gave a terrific interpretation of try. With all that his victory signified, it's most interesting influence may be on Borg, who ended a holiday in Greece early last weekend to fly back to Stockholm and watch Wilander in the French final on television. There's even talk Borg may join the Swedish Davis Cup team now that his country has a capable No. 2 man. No. 2? Well, maybe Borg and Wilander can play it off.

PHOTOPHOTOWilander's victims included Lendl, seeded second...PHOTO...Gerulaitis, who was seeded fifth...PHOTO...Clerc, the tournament's No. 4 seed...PHOTO...and the third seed, Vilas, who fell in the finals.PHOTOThe pugnacious Jaeger, who was playing in her first Grand Slam final, raised a ruckus.PHOTONavratilova, the champ, lifted her game.PHOTOEvert Lloyd increased her number of losses on clay to four in 222 matches since 1973.