In the Comfort Zone

Mats Wilander is happy being almost the top tennis player in the world. Question is, will he take the next step?
May 22, 1988

You didn't read about it in Rolling Stone, but a couple of years ago Mats Wilander became Sweden's underground singing sensation. He was headed for a press conference after losing the final of the 1986 Stockholm Open when his buddies kidnapped him. Wilander was blindfolded, stuffed into a pair of old pajamas and driven around town for an hour.

When the blindfold was removed, Wilander found himself cradling an acoustic guitar on a subway station platform in downtown Stockholm. His pals wouldn't let him leave until he sang a few songs. Subway cars rattled by, and a large crowd gathered. "In all the years I've known Mats," says fellow pro Joakim Nystrom, who was one of the perpetrators, "it was the only time I've ever seen him nervous." But Wilander drew on his ample self-confidence and settled into a cozy groove. "People must have liked the way Mats sang," says Nystrom. "They threw 43 kronor into his guitar case. That's almost seven dollars!"

The same sort of courtly cool has netted Sweden's aboveground tennis sensation more than $5 million in prize money. Wilander, 23, the world's third-ranked player, exploded on the scene at 17 by winning the 1982 French Open and has been in the top 4 since '84. He has been in nine Grand Slam singles finals all told, winning five (two French, three Australian), and is in line for the crown if Ivan Lendl abdicates. It doesn't look as if Wilander is going to depose Lendl any time soon, however. The 28-year-old Lendl has always overpowered him.

Wilander plays as if he had four lungs, and legs that could run forever. And he can read his opponent with the precision of a CAT scanner. "I've never seen Mats make a bad mistake in a big match," says Nystrom. "He always stays the same level, maybe even rises."

Yet Wilander's calm, methodical detachment on court is sometimes taken for indifference. John McEnroe once called him complacent and accused him of trying to inherit the top ranking instead of fighting for it. "I play tennis to play tennis," says Wilander. "It's strictly an American attitude to think that if you're not the best, you're a failure. I want to have fun, make a living and have good friends. Being Number 1 is somewhere down the line."

"Mats is a little different from most guys in the Top 10," says Amos Mansdorf of Israel, who is ranked 22nd. "He doesn't think he's a superstar or act like one. If you beat him, he congratulates you. And then maybe he'll meet you later for a drink."

"Mats can relax anywhere," says John-Anders Sjogren, his coach since 1981. Wilander has nodded off in the backs of cars, in the middle of a Men at Work concert. "I could fall asleep during a changeover," he says. According to Nystrom, sleep is one of three things Wilander craves most. The other two: sleep and more sleep.

"Actually," says Wilander, "I'm not so crazy about sleeping. I'm crazy about being lazy. I could lose a lot of days just by hanging out. In Sweden, there's more darkness, more snow, more cold. You get used to doing nothing."

When he's in the kitchen of his Greenwich, Conn., home, Wilander looks out the window a lot. You learn to do that in Sweden after spending several months each year waiting for the sun to come up. When Wilander is not staring outside, he's slowly twisting a paper napkin around his fingers. Or sprinkling a packet of sugar crystals onto the table and dividing them into piles. Or picking at loose threads of his patched-up denims, the ones he has had since grade school.

It's bright, clear and warm outside, a perfect day for Wilander to laze in his backyard, picking out chords on his guitar. Perhaps he wonders why he's in the kitchen of his Greenwich home being interviewed instead. But his voice is low and pleasant and patient.

"Hungry?" he asks. It's lunchtime, and Wilander is famished. "Can I fix you something?"

Probably not. Years of room service have rendered Wilander almost helpless in the kitchen. "I can boil an egg and fry an egg," he says, "but I can't poach one." He shrugs.

"I've never had a poached egg." Another shrug. "I don't even like eggs. In fact, I hate eggs."

During a four-hour conversation, that's as close as Wilander gets to an impassioned outburst. He pulls up beside a bowl of cornflakes. "If Mats is home alone," says his wife, Sonya, "he'll eat two bowls for breakfast, a couple for lunch and maybe another bowl or two for dinner." Wilander balances this diet with Häagen Dazs ice cream. "Macadamia brittle," says Sonya.

Sonya, 25, who was born in Zambia and raised in South Africa, is a Manhattan-based model. Her face is on display in Oil of Olay ads. Other parts of her anatomy are featured in ads for Olga bras, and she has appeared on the covers of Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan and Grazia, the Italian fashion magazine. Sonya met Mats at the 1985 U.S. Open. "I was drawn to his eyes," she says. "There was more to him than he'd let you know there is." Wilander had just broken up with his hometown sweetheart. He was tired of the constant traveling and fed up with the endless tournaments, and his weariness showed in his game: His easy touch had become knotted. "When Mats met Sonya, he got stabilized," says Nystrom. "He's more eager to be a better player, and he's happy outside the court."

They were married near Durban, South Africa, on Jan. 3, 1987. Wilander, who refuses to play in that country, ignored the pleas of anti-apartheid groups that the wedding be held elsewhere. Sonya wanted to get married in her hometown, and Mats bowed to custom. Besides their house in Greenwich, the couple has a loft in Manhattan and an apartment in Monte Carlo. The latter is Wilander's legal residence and enables him to avoid Sweden's stiff income tax.

Wilander comes from V‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üxj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√á, a small industrial city in southern Sweden. His parents, Einar and Karin, still live in the house in which Mats grew up. They still work at the same factories where they've been employed for more than 15 years—Einar is a foreman at one, and Karin works a few days a week on an assembly line at another. "Despite Mats's success, his parents haven't changed," says Kurt Magnusson, his first coach. 'They still stand from the ground."

When Mats, the youngest of three brothers, was about six, he started playing tennis on a parking lot outside the factory where his father works. Einar had painted boundary lines on the asphalt and fashioned a net out of chicken wire to play with his own friends. When Mats began to show interest in the game, Einar would spend his lunch breaks playing with him on the makeshift court. Then Mats would stick around and challenge anyone who came along until Dad returned at nine or 10 at night to drag him home.

Magnusson remembers young Wilander as being smart and cagey, though not exactly driven. "He practiced just enough to get by," says Magnusson, now an umpire on the pro tour. "But he never lost when you thought he might. He always, always made a better match than was expected of him." Wilander won his first national tournament—in the under-12 division—when he was 11 and went on to win the national titles in the under-14 and-16 divisions. "My coaches told me I had potential," says Wilander, "but they never pushed me. That's why I still enjoy playing. If somebody had pushed me, I wouldn't have played. It would have been too serious for me."

At 13, Wilander gave up hockey to concentrate full time on tennis. He had been a fairly slick forward for the Alvesta SK, a local sports club, but he decided he would rather play tennis. "In tennis, it's up to me if I want to win the match," he says. "In ice hockey, it's not."

Ironically, Wilander spent three of his first four years as a pro as a member of a team. He broke into the pro circuit in 1980, when he was 15, but from 1981 to '83 he and three of his contemporaries—Nystrom, Anders Jarryd and Hans Simonsson—benefited from a program inspired by Bjorn Borg's fame and glory. As members of Team SIAB, named after the construction company that sponsored it, they traveled together, ate together, drank together, cheered each other's victories and supported each other after losses. "In America, you're taught you can do anything you want,' says Wilander. "But Sweden is a socialist country. We have a whole system where anyone can play—but don't break the rules, don't go your own way don't show aggravation in public. In a way, it kills individualism, but we learn to get along."

Wilander established a reputation for sportsmanship at his first French Open In the semis against Jose-Luis Clerc, he refused to accept a match point that had been awarded to him. Wilander approached the umpire, who had already left the chair, and said, "Clerc's ball was good. I cannot win this way." The point was replayed, and Wilander won the match for the second time when Clerc netted a backhand.

Wilander chalks up the gesture to naivetè. "I don't know if I'd do it again," he says. "You play a few years on the tour and you realize nobody's going to do it for you. Now I just play the calls and let the umpire decide. When I was 17, I didn't understand."

Wilander was unseeded at Roland Garros in '82. Borg, who had won the four previous French championships, was embroiled in a dispute with the Men's International Professional Tennis Council and was boycotting the tournament. None of the remaining Swedes was given a chance. As a result, several Swedish newspapers had not bothered to send reporters to Paris. But a reporter for one of Sweden's three national radio stations was on hand, broadcasting results and highlights during the news. Wilander seemed on his way out in the fourth round as his opponent, the second-seeded Lendl, won two of the first three sets. But Wilander came back to win the fourth set, after which the reporter excitedly called the station. "Keep me on the air!" he pleaded.

The station complied and broadcast the play-by-play of the fifth set, which Wilander won. The next day just about every sportswriter in Stockholm boarded a plane for Paris. Borg, who was vacationing in the Greek Isles, returned to Sweden so that he could watch the match on TV. Wilander knocked off three more of the world's Top 10 players—Vitas Gerulaitis, Clerc and Guillermo Vilas—to supplant Borg as the youngest male ever to win a Grand Slam singles title.

Wilander was immediately hailed in Sweden as the new Borg. He did seem to be made in the image of Borg—slight build, long blond hair, two-fisted backhand, looping forehand, nonpareil stamina—but the comparison so annoyed Wilander that he cut his hair short. "I'm not Borg Two," he said. "I'm Wilander One, and that's enough for now."

In fact, Borg was never a role model. "I wanted to be like Jimmy Connors or Ilie Nastase," says Wilander. "You don't idolize someone who is like yourself. You idolize somebody you'd like to be like."

Wilander played Borg only once, when Wilander was 16 and Borg was 25. Borg won, 6-1, 6-1. They hardly know each other and have little in common, except tennis. "Mats is more curious and outward looking," says Per Yng, a sportswriter for the newspaper Göteborgs-Posten. "He's interested in far more things. And he has much more confidence socially."

Borg had such a bad relationship with Swedish journalists that he addressed them in English. Wilander is adept at handling the press. "Mats always leaves reporters satisfied," says Magnusson. "You never read a negative word about him." Wilander was even forgiven after cutting out for Monte Carlo in 1983. "When Borg moved there, a lot of Swedes said, What a bad guy!" Magnusson says. "But when Mats did, everyone said, Of course!"

Wilander has problems with motivation. He psychs himself up for tournaments on a sliding scale. "At Grand Slam events," Wilander says, "I get into every match 100 percent. I get into tournaments like the Masters 99 percent. There's something about the Masters that tells me it's not one of the best; it's fifth or sixth. The smaller tournaments I might get into 70 or 80 percent."

At exhibitions Wilander's enthusiasm barely registers. "They're usually badly run, and nobody's watching," he says. "I don't try to miss, but I don't care if I win or lose. I just swing my racket. It's just entertainment." Wilander is perhaps the world's worst exhibition player. Though his tournament record against Connors is 5-0, Wilander is 0-4 against him in exhibitions. "I need tension," says Wilander. "I think I handle pressure better than other players."

Still, Wilander has never made the run for No. 1 that would really test him. To reach the top, you have to play well week after week in places such as Livingston, N.J., and Kitzbühel, Austria, as well as at Wimbledon. And you can't lose early-round matches to the Thierry Tulasnes of the world. Lendl doesn't.

But then, Wilander is not even the best player in Greenwich. Lendl, a Czech emigrant who also lives there, works hard at maintaining his No. 1 ranking. He has a grueling training regimen and a special diet. To keep pace, Wilander recently began his own conditioning routine. He jogs and lifts weights with Matt Doyle, a 1978 Yale graduate who plays on Ireland's Davis Cup team. And Wilander has adjusted his style of play. No longer just another Swedish backcourt counterpuncher, he has kicked up his game and varied his attack. In particular, he has a developed a one-handed slice backhand to complement his two-hander and has improved his net play. Indeed, in 1986 he won the Wimbledon doubles with Nystrom.

"The improvement in Mats has been unbelievable," says Andreas Maurer of Germany. "His serve is unbelievable. His court coverage: unbelievable. He plays important points unbelievably well. But most unbelievable of all is that he can now be very aggressive." Opponents who read Wilander's insouciance as passivity are now getting burned when he takes the play to them.

Trailing Pat Cash 5-4 in the fifth set of the grueling 4½-hour final at this year's Australia Open, Wilander twice charged the net behind his serve and hit winners. He went on to win the set, 8-6, and the match. "I might have done that a year ago," he says, "but never two years ago. Never. My old coaches wouldn't have liked that. They think, when you're down, always play the way you've played best. But now everybody's so good from the baseline that the game is at another level. You have to go against your will.

"You're serving and running into the unknown, something you've never done. When I win a point, I think I've really played it like a man. And when I lose, I think, Why did I listen to those people?" It's not a question Wilander has to ask very often.

But then there's Lendl. Wilander hasn't beaten him since the finals of the 1985 French Open. Last year Lendl outlasted Wilander in excruciatingly long games of patty-cake at the French and U.S. Opens. At the Masters Lendl blew him away in straight sets.

To beat Lendl, says Wilander, "I have to hope he isn't serving too well and to make him play every point. I have to use psychology to unnerve him, to take control.

"Until now, I never thought I was good enough to be Number 1. But I'm so close and still improving. I must improve to keep on going and keep on going. I want to get there deservedly, like I've reached my limit."

Wilander has not yet defined his limitations. He remains enigmatic. He interrupted a TV interviewer at the Australian Open with his own question: "If a Czech and a Swedish tennis player jumped off the Empire State Building at the same time, who would land first?"

"Who?" asked the puzzled reporter.

"Who cares?"

Then Wilander slung a duffel bag over his shoulder and strolled away, wearing a secret smile.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRASince marrying Sonya last year, Mats has taken to tennis with renewed determination. PHOTOCARYN LEVYA natural baseliner, Wilander now has an effective net game as well. PHOTOCARYN LEVYA small but devoted band of Swedes watched Wilander win the Lipton in Key Biscayne. PHOTOAPSonya wanted to be wed at home, so the Wilanders tied the knot in South Africa. PHOTOSTEFANO MASSIMO/GRAZIASonya has appeared in ads and on magazine covers in the States, Europe and Australia. PHOTOULI ROSE/RICHARDSON-VICKS/OIL OF OLAY[See caption above.] PHOTORONALD C. MODRAShould Wilander's game falter, he can always find work as an underground musician.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)