WATCH—Stories of the Open Era – Cultural Icons:
Flushing Meadows is tennis’ largest stage, and over the last 50 years, it has been the site of some of the sport’s greatest dramas. This week, we’ll count down the 10 most memorable US Open matches of the Open Era. To follow the countdown, click here.
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 No. 1 for the first time, and spent the wee hours jamming with Keith Richards in Manhattan. He never won another Grand Slam. He was 24.
Wilander’s win over Lendl was the crowning achievement of a six-year transformation effort. A born dirt-baller who won the French Open at 17, Wilander 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 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 new Flinders Park (now Melbourne Park) 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.
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 big prize was still in sight: the U.S. Open. Much of Wilander’s work 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 steadily 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—four 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 four hours and 54 minutes, a record for an Open final that was tied in 2012 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. He 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 Sports Illustrated’s Curry Kirkpatrick. He advised Lendl and Wilander to take “their unbearably tedious Connecticut state championship rivalry back to Greenwich, where it belongs.” Kirkpatrick seemed to have it in for Lendl in particular. “His dour mien,” he wrote of the Czech, “was enough to darken the sun.”
Who was right, Bodo or Kirkpatrick? Yes, Wilander and Lendl hit a lot of rally balls, and took a lot of time between points. But it’s fascinating, in this slam-bang era, to look back and watch Wilander try to outhink the bigger-hitting Lendl, and ultimately succeed. His performance proved that net-rushing tennis, used judiciously, can be successful against even the strongest of baseliners.
Sadly, that the would be the last Wilander performance worth preserving. The effort to overcome Lendl, win the Open, and reach the top would 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 happiest moment of his life, but he also sounded hollowed out in his post-match presser. “I never knew what it took to be No. 1,” he said.
The last thing 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 SI ran an article entitled, “Suddenly A Door-Mats: Everybody and his brother is trampling on Mats Wilander.”
“I proved I could be No. 1,” Mats said. “What am I supposed to do, show them I can be No. 1 again?”
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 discovered when he got there, just a number.
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