This week Padraic Kilcoyne looks back on the career of seven-time Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander. Wilander was one of a number of great stars to come out of Sweden and many see him as one of the greatest overachievers in the game.
Wilander’s greatest weapon was his mind. He was one of the smartest players of his time. A counter-puncher at heart, his shot variety and ability to retrieve was as good as anyone. After losing to Mats in the fourth round of the 1988 US Open, Mark Woodforde said of Wilander:
“He controlled me like a puppet. He plays such a variety of shots. I had to lean in to take one shot, and the next one would jump at me. The next one bounced up to shoulder height, and the following one skidded through.”
Wilander, similar to last week’s legend Bjorn Borg, was also an early bloomer. He was the youngest ever male Grand Slam singles champion at just 17 years and 9 months, a record since broken by Boris Becker and Michael Chang.
Wilander was well known as one of the fairest guys on the tour. In the 1982 French Open he beat Jose Luis Clerc in the quarter-finals with a questionable refereeing decision at match point. He then requested that the point be replayed as he didn’t want to win the game on a questionable decision. This was seen as an extraordinary display of fairplay by his peers and garnered him the Pierre de Coubertin World Fair Play Trophy. Mats went on to set many records in the tennis world. He, alongside Rafael Nadal, is one of only two players to this day to have at least two Grand Slam titles across all of the three surfaces.
The only Grand Slam title that eluded Wilander was Wimbledon. Despite winning two Grand Slam events on grass in the Australian Open, Wilander’s best result at SW19 was a quarter-final appearance.
1988 was the pinnacle of Wilander’s career. During that famous year he became one of only a number of players to have won three Grand Slams in a calendar year. His slam wins at the Australian Open, French Open and US Open also gave him the world number one ranking.
However, it was a level of play that he could not sustain. A lack of motivation and ambition the following year saw his ranking plummet to no.12 in the world and saw him lose early in the slams. The trend continued as Wilander seemed unable to adapt to a new generation of power hitters that came on the scene towards the twilight of his career.
Wilander was very much in the shadow of other Swedish players such as Bjorn Borg and Stefan Edberg but he still managed to rack up 7 grand slam titles. His tennis career is very much like the story of David and Goliath. Wilander consistently found solutions to win matches he was expected to lose, which is a true testament to his tenaciousness and intelligence as a player.
Padraic Kilcoyne, Pundit Arena.