SUDDENLY, A DOOR-MATS

Everybody and his brother is trampling on Mats Wilander, whose reign as the world's No. 1 player lasted but four months
May 14, 1989

Happiness is a thick, paralyzing pastry settling clown on one's everyday life.
—Ingmar Bergman

Mats Wilander's soul is not stricken. He doesn't suffer from isolation, nor is he haunted by nameless terrors. He does not, in short, ooze milky Swedish angst. Indeed, what seems to have gone so mysteriously wrong for this once blissful baseliner is that everything was so right. "He's extremely content in his private life," says his wife, Sonya. "I think he's just bored with tennis."

In September, with a five-set triumph over Ivan Lendl in the finals of the U.S. Open, Wilander overcame years of dogged expectations by ending Lendl's three-year reign as the world's No. 1 player. With victories at the Australian and French Opens already tucked away, he became the first male player since Jimmy Connors in 1974 to win three Grand Slam titles in the same calendar year. But Wilander's stay atop the computer rankings lasted only four months. He hasn't won any of the six events he has played this year and has made it past the quarterfinals only once. Along the way he has been thumped by some of the dimmest stars in the tennis firmament: Ramesh Krishnan, Mikael Pernfors, Horst Skoff and Alex Antonitsch. And Alberto Mancini—twice. The latest indignity came last week in his opening match at the Tournament of Champions at Forest Hills. Francesco Cancellotti, an Italian journeyman famed the length and breadth of Perugia, routed him 6-1, 6-3, on clay no less, Wilander's favorite surface. At 24, Wilander has suddenly become a door-Mats.

"The Wilander I beat today is not the Number Two player in the world," said Cancellotti, who was playing in his second singles match of the day. "I didn't do anything to beat him—he's just not fighting anymore. It looks like it doesn't make a difference whether he wins or loses. To see Wilander on the court like this is not a good thing for the game."

Wilander plays percentage tennis, and when he's at his best, he plays it better than anyone else in the world. He works slowly and surely, outlasting his opponents with subtle verve and dazzling intensity. To be locked in the throes of a five-set parley with Wilander was to be largely without hope. "Wilander's game is a game in which he has to be mentally there," says John McEnroe. Lately, there's been no there there.

Wilander is not an effusive sort, so it comes as no surprise that he offers few reasons for his malaise, except for an absence of motivation. "It's always been a little hard for me to focus on the first few matches of a tournament when I'm up against unknowns," he says. "But now, more and more, it's just plain difficult. I've got no drive or confidence. It gets so I feel like I'm trapped on the court."

Sometimes it seems that what Wilander really wants is to be a rock star. "Actually, all tennis players want to be rock stars," says his friend John Oates of Hall and Oates. "I guess it's because rackets have strings and are shaped like guitars." Wilander's occasional dallyings with the acoustic guitar are well known. He brings his Washburn and an electronic drum machine on the road. He lays down tracks on a portable four-track recorder. He has even erected a sound studio in the basement of his Greenwich, Conn., house. "Mats spends more time there than on the practice courts," says Sonya. "He stays down there so long that I have to phone him on the studio line to tell him that dinner is on the table."

Wilander's noodling isn't just a solitary pleasure. During last month's Monte Carlo Open, Wilander and his pickup group, the Viicht (which means, loosely, a Swedish high-five) Traveling Band performed Honky Tonk Women on French TV. "He was more excited about that than playing in the tournament," says Sonya.

Unlike McEnroe, who plays lead guitar and has strummed onstage with the likes of Carlos Santana, Wilander seems to have few of the necessary qualifications for rock stardom. He's low-key and effortlessly charming, not agitated and threatening. He has a ready laugh, yet his deep, hooded eyes leave the impression he's taking aim at you.

Wilander, who has always had the ability to mock himself, confronted his tennis decline in song in December at a black-tie charity ball in Manhattan. Guitar in hand, he took the stage and warbled his own version of Bob Dylan's Knockin' on Heaven's Door. "Lord, take this racket from my hand/I can't use it anymore/My forehand's bad, too bad to play/I feel I'm knockin' on heaven's door."

Two years ago Wilander's marriage to Sonya signaled the beginning of a new fertility in his game. Once dismissed as just another human backboard, he improved his serve, added a one-handed slice backhand to his Borgian two-hander and became more daring. He kept Lendl off-balance at the U.S. Open by greyhounding to the net nearly every chance he got—often behind second serves and chipped backhands. "I was amazed," says McEnroe. "How could a guy who has always been the classic counterpuncher change his game so radically?"

Truer to form, Wilander celebrated the victory at the apartment of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, jamming with him until sunrise. Then came the morning after. "It was such a special win that nothing else in tennis seemed important," recalls Wilander. "I thought, What am I working for now? It was weird. I had trained for years to reach the top, and when I finally got there I realized I'd have to work even harder to stay there. All I really wanted was to take a holiday. I just didn't think it would last six months."

Wilander's ambivalence about being No. 1 borders on indifference. Whereas McEnroe and Connors zealously defended the top spot, Wilander acted more like an accidental tourist. "John and Jimmy felt a responsibility to reaffirm their ranking every week," he says. "It was different for me. I have nothing to prove. Ever since I was a promising junior, people have been telling me I'd do well, but never well enough to be Number One. Well, I've just been Number One. What am I supposed to do, show them I can be Number One again?"

McEnroe, himself still trying to reclaim the top ranking after a five-year absence, affirms Wilander's thoughts. "Mats puts more emphasis on the majors," he said. "I thought my job was to go out there and show people every week why I was Number One."

After the U.S. Open, Wilander simply stopped training. Instead, he watched TV. And slept. And strummed a few chords. And slept. And puttered around the garden. And slept. "I enjoyed hanging out without feeling the pressure to be fit," he says. "Basically, I couldn't get motivated."

Not even for the Davis Cup final against West Germany in December in Göteborg, Sweden. He was stunned on clay by the unremarkable Carl-Uwe Steeb, losing 8-10, 1-6, 6-2, 6-4, 8-6. Never before had Wilander blown a five-set match after having won the first two sets. Then, with West Germany holding an insurmountable 3-1 lead, he begged out of the meaningless fifth match. The home team defaulted and was jeered mercilessly. "I had no incentive," says Wilander. "I didn't want to be there. I was just going through the motions." Four months later Sweden eliminated Austria in the second round of this year's Davis Cup competition, but Wilander lost both his singles matches in that tie. He is as capable of marking time in lesser tournaments as he is of wasting it in his private life. Against Cancellotti at Forest Hills, he played as if he had a gig to make. Time after time he served Swedish meatballs that Cancellotti gobbled up. Wilander made 22 unforced errors to Cancellotti's five. The match was over in a tidy 56 minutes. "Hey Mats," called a spectator as Wilander walked off the court. "What are you ranked these days, two...hundred?"

Wilander skipped the press conference to join Sonya and Oates at the club bar. He looked embarrassed and disheartened. "In a way all this losing may help," he said. "You win a little, you lose a little. It keeps up your interest. It makes it easier to set goals."

His immediate goal is to perform well at the upcoming French Open, which he has won three times. "The French doesn't worry me at all," he says. Indeed, Lendl still considers Wilander one of the favorites. "You never underestimate a guy like Mats," he says. "Never, ever. He may win a couple of matches and get hot again."

On the other hand, Paris could be his Waterloo. "For Mats, the tournament is very important," says John-Anders Sjogren, Wilander's coach. "If he wins, things could change overnight."

And if he loses?

"Then it's a different story."

His countryman Bjorn Borg walked away from the game at 26. Though Wilander retirement rumors keep bubbling to the surface, it's clear that he still needs to exorcise at least one demon. "I want to win Wimbledon," he says. Wilander has never advanced beyond the quarterfinals there, but he has won two Australian Opens on grass. "I keep thinking that one year I'll be lucky," he says. "I mean, it seems unlikely, but it's possible."

Winning Wimbledon is more important to him now than reclaiming the top ranking. "I've been Number One, so I can't be disappointed if I never do it again." he says. "I had a great time, and I'm still enjoying the fact that I got that high. Naturally, I'd prefer to be Number One and still have something to aim for. But it's hard to be on top of the mountain and trying all the time to get higher. No matter how well you play, the only way to go is down."

PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINEven before he fell to Cancellotti, Wilander looked more than ready to throw in the towel. PHOTOROGER GOULDWilander speaks these days of feeling "trapped on the court." PHOTORONALD C. MODRAA year ago Wilander already seemed to have the makings of a first-class couch potato.

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)