It had been quite a Roland Garros for 17-year-old Mats Wilander. A year earlier, he’d won the 1981 junior title there, the clay-court equivalent of being valedictorian of a high school graduating class. Now, in 1982, Wilander was earning a doctorate at warp speed. On the eve of the tournament, he’d practiced with No. 1 seed, Jimmy Connors—during which time Connors had ceaselessly trash-talked Wilander, an induction of sorts into faculty politics. Connors’ behavior was quite a contrast to a rare step Wilander would take later in the tournament, a gracious pause that continues to resonate.
Earlier in ‘82, he’d begun to make his way up the ranks, a pleasing ascent from 69 at the start of the year to 18 as Roland Garros got underway. In the early rounds, Wilander showed off superb shot selection, exquisite court sense and tranquility under pressure.
Then came two surprises. In the round of 16, versus the previous year’s finalist, second-seeded Ivan Lendl, Wilander rallied from two sets to one down to reach his first Grand Slam quarterfinal. There he beat the ’80 runner-up, fifth-seeded Vitas Gerulaitis.
Wilander’s semifinal opponent was the man who’d once inspired Lendl, the powerful Argentine, fourth-seeded Jose-Luis Clerc. Clerc at the time was one of the world’s best clay-courters. A year earlier at Roland Garros, he’d beaten Connors in the quarters, 6-0 in the fifth set. In the summer of ’8l, Clerc had won four straight clay-court tournaments.
But as the world was starting to see and would witness frequently throughout the ‘80s, nothing rattled Mats Wilander. Beaten? Yes. Intimidated? Never. Calmly, Wilander took Clerc’s measure, went up two sets to one and, after blowing a 5-1 lead in the fourth, reached match point with Clerc serving at 5-6, 30-40. A Clerc forehand was called long. Wilander didn’t see it that way.
Going back to tennis’ languid amateur days, an intermittently implemented custom of sorts called for the player who’d benefited from a poor line call to promptly reward the next point to his victimized opponent. Some considered this exemplary sportsmanship. Back in the ‘20s Bill Tilden, usually heavily in control of his matches, bestowed these small gifts in theatrical fashion.
But the great German player, Gottfried von Cramm, saw it more as gamesmanship and shared his views with a budding rival, the young Don Budge. As Marshall Jon Fisher wrote in his book, A Terrible Splendor, Cramm said, “You made a great show of giving away a point because you felt the call had wronged [your opponent]. But is that your right? You made yourself an official, which you are not, and in improperly assuming this duty so that you could correct things your way, you managed to embarrass that poor linesman in front of eighteen thousand people.” Cramm’s approach was to take the calls as they came and simply get on with the business of the match. Budge concurred. As tennis’ spirit of professionalism grew in the ‘30s and beyond, this became the protocol.
But in this extremely rare instance, Wilander had no desire to close out the match gaining from what he was certain was a bad call. Instead of walking up to shake hands with Clerc, Wilander approached the chair umpire, Jacques Dorfman.
“I told him, I can’t win like this,” said Wilander. “The ball was good. We should play two balls.”
At 17, while certainly driven to win, the last thing Wilander wanted his new pro peers to think was that this newcomer was so craven he’d gladly earn a victory that way. Years later, Wilander would also say that he was confident he’d win the replayed point. That he did, courtesy of a Clerc netted backhand.
“In all my experience,” said Dorfman, “I have never known a gesture of sportsmanship like that on a match point.”
If arrival in the finals this way constituted an outstanding oral exam, then what Wilander did two day later closed out his dissertation. Versus another formidable clay-courter, ’77 Roland Garros champion and third-seeded Guillermo Vilas, Wilander took four hours and 47 minutes to win 1-6, 7-6 (6), 6-0, 6-4.
At first glance, the obvious title for Wilander’s Roland Garros run was “Bjorn Again.” But over the course of the ‘80s, Wilander was far more than a sequel, building his own Roland Garros franchise with two more title runs (’85, ’88) and another pair of trips to the finals (’83, ’87). These were the years when it was common to say that the best weapon in tennis was Mats Wilander’s brain. Call what started in ’82, “Meet Professor Wilander.”