Catching the Tape: No. 1, and Done

by: Steve Tignor | September 09, 2013

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NEW YORK—In September 1981, Sweden’s best player, Bjorn Borg, lost in the final of the U.S. Open. Afterward, he skipped the trophy ceremony, drove out of Flushing Meadows in an unhappy rush, and never played another Grand Slam. He was 25.

In September 1988, Sweden’s best player, Mats Wilander, won his first U.S. Open title in a classic final, ascended to the No. 1 ranking for the first time, and spent the wee hours of the night hanging and jamming with Keith Richards in Manhattan. He never won another Grand Slam. He was 24.

Wednesday is the 25th anniversary of Wilander’s five-set win over Ivan Lendl in the final of the 1988 Open. At the time, it was seen as the crowning achievement of a six-year transformation effort. A born dirt-baller who won the French Open at 17, Wilander had spent years patiently expanding his game. He reinforced his two-handed backhand with a one-handed slice, and learned how and when to get to the net. Few pros are able to make themselves into different players once they’ve reached the top, but then few pros are Grand Slam winners at such a young age. Mats was the rare champion who successfully added important new elements to his core game.

The work paid off in ’88, Wilander’s annus mirabilis. He began that season by christening the Australian Open's brand new Flinders Park (now Melbourne Park) tennis center with a five-set final, which he won over the home favorite, Pat Cash, 8-6 in the decider. Six months later, in Paris, Wilander crushed another local hero’s dreams by trouncing Henri Leconte in the Roland Garros final. While the match itself wasn’t memorable, a quote from Wilander gives you an idea of what a methodical and single-minded competitor he was. Before the final, Leconte made the mistake of saying that he would attack Wilander’s second serve. Mats, hearing that, said, “OK, I won’t hit any second serves.” He missed two first serves over three sets.

Wilander’s chance for a calendar Grand Slam ended the next month when he lost to Miloslav Mecir in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. But the season’s big goal was still in sight: the U.S. Open. Much of Wilander’s work over the years had been devoted to winning this tournament. It would mean doing something that no Swede had ever done; Borg famously lost four finals at Flushing Meadows. The National Tennis Center was also near Mats's new home, in Greenwich, Conn. (where he was neighbors with Lendl). And Wilander had been getting closer to the trophy. The previous year he had reached the Open final for the first time, losing to Lendl in a marathon that became the longest title match in the tournament’s history—4 hours, 47 minutes—despite only going four sets.

In ’88, the two men would do it all over again. This time Wilander and Lendl played five sets in 4 hours and 54 minutes, a record for an Open final that was tied last year by Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. Rarely has a tennis match elicited such sharply divided reviews—you either loved this one or hated it. 

On the love side was Tennis Magazine’s Peter Bodo, who said that Wilander-Lendl was the best match of the Open era to that point, and the best match he had ever seen. Pete was absorbed by the subtle push and pull between Mats and Ivan, as the Swede tried to find a winning formula against a man he had lost to six straight times. In the hate column was the Chicago Tribune’s Mike Conklin, who described it as “an exercise in exorcism that was beginning to look like it was going to last all night.”

Sports Illustrated’s Curry Kirkpatrick was even less impressed. He called the match a “tour de tedium,” advised Lendl and Wilander to take “their unbearably tedious Connecticut state championship rivalry back to Greenwich, where it belongs,” and noted that by the start of the supposedly climactic fifth set, a quarter of the fans in Louis Armstrong Stadium had left. Kirkpatrick seemed to have it in for Lendl in particular. "His dour mien," he wrote of the Czech, "was enough to darken the sun."

I remember watching the match in a college dorm room. Before researching this post, my only memory from it had been of match point. I remember being pleased and relieved when Lendl’s last return of serve landed in the net, and Wilander threw his arms in the air. It felt like it had been a long time coming for Mats, who had always been a favorite of mine. 

Though he was just 24, it had been a long time coming for Mats, maybe too long. The effort to overcome Lendl, win the Open, and reach the top would, in a way, prove to be too much for him. His win in ’88 was the flip side of Borg’s career-crushing loss on the same court in ’81. In Wilander’s case, achieving his dream would be his professional undoing.

That night, Mats called it the biggest win and happiest moment of his life, but he also sounded a little hollowed out in his post-match presser. “I never knew what it took to be No. 1,” he said. It took, he seemed to realize, too much. (See Wilander and Lendl's post-match pressers here. Ivan sounds not unlike like Tomas Berdych.)

The last thing that Wilander wanted was to do it again. After the Open, he took a vacation and essentially never returned. By January, he had lost the No. 1 ranking. By May, he was losing so often that Sports Illustrated ran an article entitled, “Suddenly A Door-Mats: Everybody and his brother is trampling on Mats Wilander.”

In it, Wilander said that after the Open he had asked himself, “What am I working for now?” His wife Sonya said that Mats, a guitarist and wanna-be rock star, was spending more time in his recording studio than he was on the practice court. Wilander claimed that after years of training, he enjoyed not having to worry about being fit. 

“I proved I could be No. 1,” Mats said. “What am I supposed to do, show them I can be No 1 again?” When he came back in ’89, he had nothing left. “I’ve got no drive or confidence," he said. "It gets so I feel like I’m trapped on the court.” By 1991, at age 27, he had retired.

Wilander was, from a tennis perspective, a child of the two great heroes of the late 70s and early 80s, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. He had his countryman’s patience, quiet drive, and work ethic, and he used that to reach No. 1. But like his fellow amateur musician McEnroe, he wanted to be star on stage as well—Mats called his pickup rock group the Viicht Traveling Band. (It’s a strange coincidence that, as Bodo once noted, Mats looked a little like Paul Westerberg, lead singer of the great '80s indie band the Replacements, a band known among its fans as the Placemats, or the Mats for short.) Before the ’88 Open, Wilander was Borgian; afterward, he indulged his McEnrovian side. In 1989, Wilander could be heard onstage singing a version of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” with appropriately personalized new lyrics: “Lord, take this racquet from my hand/I can’t play it anymore/My forehand’s bad, too bad to play/I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.

McEnroe said that the difference between Mats and himself was that the Swede didn’t need to show people, every time he played, that he was the best in the world. To Johnny Mac, being No. 1 was an identity. To Wilander, it was a goal, something separate from himself. It was, he found out when he got there, just a number.


There are various clips of the ’88 Open final on YouTube; you can watch all 4 hours and 54 minutes of it if you wish. I wanted to embed a 22-minute video that covers the last, dramatic games here, but that capability has been disabled—the USTA, or CBS, or whoever owns the rights to these things, tends to do that now. So here is the link to it, and below are a few thoughts I had as I watched it.

—We reminisce about the old days of serve and volley, but 25 years ago the two best players in the world were looping the ball back and forth to each other from the baseline. If this court really was faster back then, it obviously didn’t hurt the guys who stayed back and rallied. 

—At the same time, Wilander’s performance proves that net-rushing tennis, used judiciously and competently, can be successful against even the strongest of baseliners.

—These two rarely, if ever, went to the towel between points. Instead, we see Wilander rub his face with his sweatband. My lasting image of McEnroe from those days is of him lifting his arm and wiping his face on his shirtsleeve between every point. There's no attractive way, it seems, to get rid of sweat.

—Lendl’s expressions of vehement frustration remind me of Andy Murray’s. Lendl's famous grip-drying sawdust also makes an appearance.

—Tony Trabert says that it’s unlikely tennis will ever have official replays. He was right; the sport never did, at least in the way he imagined it. Shows you the limits of our technological imaginations.

—Who was right about the quality of play, Bodo or Kirkpatrick? Looking back, this match clearly must have tried even the most ardent tennis fan’s patience. The players hit a lot of routine rally balls, and took a lot of time between points. But in the end I agree with Bodo’s positive view. It’s fascinating, even here, to see Wilander try to outhink the bigger-hitting Lendl, and ultimately succeed.

—Even the memories we’re most sure about can be faulty, but I was right about how the last point unfolded. What I had forgotten was how exciting the last game was; Lendl had two break points and just missed a backhand pass on one of them. If that ball had landed in, there's a good chance he would have gone on to win, and Wilander may never have become No. 1.

Sadly, that may have been the best thing that could have happened to Mats.

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