ATP Heritage

Mats Wilander: 'Every Ball Comes Back'

In the shadow of Borg, Wilander soared to the top of the sport

June 04, 2020
Mats Wilander finished year-end No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings in 1988, the same season he won the Australian Open, Roland Garros and the US Open.
AFP via Getty Images
Mats Wilander finished year-end No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings in 1988, the same season he won the Australian Open, Roland Garros and the US Open. By James Buddell

As a part of a series highlighting all players to reach World No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings, looks back on the career of Mats Wilander. View Full List

First week at No. 1: 12 September 1988
Total weeks at No. 1: 20
Year-End No. 1s: 1988

As World No. 1
Mats Wilander ended Ivan Lendl’s 157-week stint at No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings on 12 September 1988 after capturing the seventh — and final — major singles title of his career at the US Open. The Swede also won the Australian and French Opens that year, making what happened next extraordinary. He won his next tournament (Palermo) but then claimed just one more title (Itaparica, 1990) the remainder of his career. He stayed at the top for 20 straight weeks after the '88 US Open, finishing as the year-end No. 1, before losing the position to Lendl. He’d first risen to No. 2 on 28 April 1986. "I felt like I was the best player in the world during the year of 1988, but once I got labelled No. 1 with an actual ranking, I actually had a shocking four months... I guess I was just horrible at dealing with that pressure," Wilander told this week.

Grand Slam Highlights
When Bjorn Borg’s passion for the sport began to wane, World No. 18 Wilander broke onto the scene and in just his third Grand Slam championship, at 17 years and nine months, he became the (then) youngest major singles champion with a four-set victory over Guillermo Vilas at Roland Garros. The record was subsequently beaten by 17-year-olds Boris Becker at 1985 Wimbledon and Michael Chang at 1989 Roland Garros. To date, Rafael Nadal (2005) is the only other player to have won the Roland Garros title at his first attempt. Wilander became only the second player, after Ken Rosewall, to win the junior and senior Roland Garros trophies in consecutive years. Wilander would win a further two Parisian crowns, in 1985 (d. Lendl) and 1988 (d. Leconte), also finishing runner-up in 1983 (l. to Noah) and 1987 (l. to Lendl). He won three Australian Open crowns, two on Kooyong’s grass in 1983 (d. Lendl) and 1984 (d. Curren), then again in 1988 at Melbourne Park, beating home favourite Pat Cash 8-6 in the fifth set. In 1988, Wilander was at the peak of his powers, and beat Lendl in the US Open final to end the Czech-American’s three-year reign at the top of the PIF ATP Rankings. He was the first Swede to win in US Open history. While he reached three straight quarter-finals at Wimbledon (1987-89), Wilander did capture the 1986 doubles title with fellow Swede Joakim Nystrom (d. Donnelly/Fleming). He won four major singles titles by the age of 20 and reached 11 finals in total (7-4).

Nitto ATP Finals Highlights
Wilander qualified for the Masters [now named Nitto ATP Finals] for the first time in 1982, competing at the season-ending championships at Madison Square Garden in New York across seven straight years. He reached three semi-finals in 1983 and 1984 (l. to McEnroe both times), and 1986 (l. to Lendl), before making it to the 1987 final, where he lost to Lendl 6-2, 6-2, 6-3.

Tour Highlights
Wilander started his career as a baseliner, but developed attacking skills and a solid volley. Midway through his career, in 1987, Wilander gained more pop on his serve and developed a highly effective backhand slice. After becoming No. 1 in September 1988, Wilander’s motivation disappeared and the last of his 33 singles titles came at Itaparica in Brazil in 1990. Wilander helped Sweden capture three Davis Cup titles in 1984-85 and 1987 from seven finals. In July 1982, American McEnroe beat Wilander 7-9, 2-6, 17-15, 6-3, 8-6 in the longest Davis Cup match in history over six hours and 32 minutes. In 1989, he played a Cup match against Horst Skoff of Austria that lasted six hours and four minutes. By 1991, he’d dropped to No. 157 before climbing to World No. 45 in 1995.

Overall ATP Singles Match Win-Loss Record 571-222
Overall ATP Singles Titles/Finals Record: 33-26

Biggest Rivalries
Wilander, who first rose to No. 2 in the PIF ATP Rankings on 28 April 1986, behind Lendl, had a 29-month wait to take the next step to a new career-high. Lendl led their 22-match rivalry 15-7, with nine of the meetings coming at Grand Slams (Lendl 5-4). At the time of Wilander’s 1988 US Open triumph, their five major final meetings was the most between any two players. Wilander beat Lendl 4-6, 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 in their first meeting in the 1982 Roland Garros fourth round, with their last match coming in 1994 at Delray Beach. Lendl won eight of their last nine meetings. Wilander edged countryman Stefan Edberg 11-9 in their 20 career meetings, but his younger rival won four of their last five meetings. Wilander won three of their five Grand Slam encounters, but Edberg won the lone major final they contested together, the 1985 Australian Open on Kooyong's grass.

In seven seasons, between 1982 and 1988, Wilander’s star burned bright, culminating in his rise to No. 1. But the 24-year-old struggled with a target on his chest and subsequently played only 13 more majors after his career-best 1988 season, retiring for good in 1996. He has since served as Sweden’s Davis Cup captain, coached Paul-Henri Mathieu and WTA player Tatiana Golovin in 2007, and served as a long-term analyst and television commentator for Eurosport.

Memorable Moment
Sensing a big run, Wilander’s older brothers took an overnight drive from Vaxjo, Sweden, to Paris in order to watch his 1982 Roland Garros semi-final against Jose-Luis Clerc. Match point down at 5-6, 30/40 in the fourth set, Clerc hit a shot that both players deemed to be a winner, but the line judge and chair umpire, Jacques Dorfmann, thought it was out. Dorfman announced, ‘Game, set, match’ and climbed down from his chair. Wilander, then 17, didn’t move in the Deuce court and requested to replay the point, not wanting to reach his first major final on a questionable line call. According to the rules, the match was over, but the chair umpire accepted and the point was replayed. Clerc hit a backhand into the net and Wilander had won 7-5, 6-2, 1-6, 7-5. Afterwards, Bud Collins, the late journalist and broadcaster, said: "It was the wrong decision, and yet everyone went away happy." The sportsmanship gesture garnered Wilander the Swede the Pierre de Coubertin World Fair Play Trophy.

Jay Berger on Wilander in 1988
"Andre Agassi's forehand is not the biggest weapon in tennis today. Mats Wilander's brain is."

Stefan Edberg on Wilander
"Mats was an incredible player in many ways and obviously the tactics, how he read the other opponents’ game and he would hardly ever miss the ball, so you actually had to play through him or try to manoeuvre him. But at his best, especially on clay, it was like playing against a wall. There was no solution to beat him. That’s always tough when you don’t find solutions. Every ball comes back, you come to the net and he passes you and you start all over again and you think it’s going to change."

Wilander on Wilander
"I actually wasn’t really No. 1 in the world when I was No. 1 in the world so to speak. I got to be No. 1 in the world in the rankings after I won the US Open in 1988. I felt like I was the best player in the world during the year of 1988, but once I got labelled No. 1 with an actual ranking, I actually had a shocking four months while I was No. 1. I couldn’t really answer how I dealt with the pressure, I guess I was just horrible at dealing with that pressure, if that’s what the pressure was. I think it’s more about feeling like you’re the best player in the world for a particular moment and I had that feeling for a little bit."

ATP Heritage: Milestones. Records. Legends.

Journalist/Broadcaster Graeme Agars

During his gruelling 4 hour and 42 minute four-set final win over Argentine great Guillermo Vilas at Roland Garros in 1982, I snuck out of my press seat midway through the match to nip down to the basement to get a quick drink. When I returned to my seat, a check of the scoreboard showed they were still playing the same POINT! No wonder Vilas was tipping buckets of ice water over his head in the fourth set.

Wilander was the first Swede to reach the top of men’s tennis following the stellar ground-breaking career of Bjorn Borg. But it would be unfair to categorise him as Borg 2.0. He was very much Wilander 1.0 and brought his own style to the game. Far from being a flamboyant performer, Wilander was all business on court and his fitness saw him grind many opponents into submission. A solid forehand and a very reliable two-handed backhand served him well from the baseline. If need be, he could shorten up points with an attacking game.

While 19 of his 33 titles came on clay, he was an accomplished player on all surfaces with a versatile game that he could adapt to the circumstances. He won the Australian Open twice when it was still played on grass at Kooyong, and then again on hard courts when the tournament moved to a massively upgraded facility at Melbourne Park. He won the French Open three times and US Open once. Only Wimbledon kept him from completing a career Grand Slam. When he won at Roland Garros in 1982, he was the then youngest Grand Slam winner at the tender age of just 17 years and 9 months.

Wilander didn’t leave the game after retiring in 1996 and is still seen regularly on Tour working as an astute TV commentator and as a still fit competitor in senior events and exhibitions.

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