Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
Years played: 1980–1996
Major titles: 7*
Did Bjorn Borg send his ghost to play in Paris? That’s what Wilander’s opponents at the 1982 French Open might have been wondering as they looked across the net. Borg had won the title in six of the previous eight years, but he hadn’t entered the tournament that spring. Instead, it was Wilander, an unheralded, unseeded, 17-year-old, who upset Ivan Lendl, Jose-Luis Clerc, Guillermo Vilas and Vitas Gerulaitis—the No. 2 through 5 seeds—on his way to a stunning victory. Some fans may have felt like they had seen a ghost, but Sweden, and men’s tennis, had a new star.
Wilander began his career as more compact version of Borg: he had the same two-handed backhand, mind-numbing consistency and quiet killer instinct. It was enough to earn him two more titles at Roland Garros, two Australian Opens and two Davis Cup titles for Sweden. But Mats wanted to be more than a Borg clone and a one-dimensional grinder; he wanted to win on hard courts and at the US Open, in the country he had made his home.
With those goals in mind, Wilander set about doing something that few proven champions had dared to do before: he broke down his game and retooled it, beefing up his serve, adding a slice one-handed backhand to augment his two-hander, and attacking the net regularly. The payoff came in 1988, when Wilander put together one of the Open era’s best seasons. In addition to his third French Open, he won the first Australian Open played at Melbourne Park, in a classic five-set final over Pat Cash, and his first US Open, in an even better five-set final over Lendl.
At 24, Wilander was No. 1 in the world, but like Borg, his fall from the top would be as premature as it was precipitous. Wilander would play for eight more years without reaching another Grand Slam final. Still, he made more out of his talent than most people expected, and in his ability to expand his game, he stands as a (rarely heeded) example of how, in tennis, an old dog really can learn new tricks.
Defining Moment: It was the match Wilander had wanted for a year: a rematch with Ivan Lendl in the US Open final, with the No. 1 ranking on the line. He had lost six straight times to the Czech, and it looked like he might lose again when this one went to a fifth set. But in one of the Open era’s most stirring—and longest—contests, he used his new all-court game to overcome Lendl in four hours and 55 minutes. Wilander had reached the mountaintop.
Watch: Mats Wilander wins the 1988 Australian Open title