Sometimes when I write it jolts the memory and my mind flicks through some pages from the vault, many times the subject will be in regards to my tennis heroes of years gone by. I mentioned a score line in my last chapter that reminded me of a match at the US Open in 1982 between Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl.
This particular match was the first played between the two on a hard court remembering of course that just a few months earlier Mats had beaten Lendl at the French Open in a monumental fourth round upset. The five set win on the clay in Paris was en route to Wilander's first Grand Slam title and he did it as a 17 year old who had no fear of his more credentialed rivals, yet plenty of respect.
I will touch on that statement in detail a little later which I believe is worth mentioning.
When the two played at the US Open in 1982 I for one was rather shocked at the ease at which Lendl won the match due to their marathon match at the French Open yet that was on the dirt which gives a player much more time to play their shots. The hard courts of Flushing Meadows suited Lendl and his hard hitting style that brought dozens of winners each match and gave his serve an edge that the clay did not.
Mats Wilander, despite matching not only Lendl but top ten players Vitas Gerulaitis, Jose Luis- Clerc and Guillermo Vilas in the penultimate match in Paris was still a player learning the art of the game. Hard court tennis was back then and still is a totally different ball game where the big hitters and servers usually dominate the clay court players who like to hit the ball with a little more spin and height over the net which ultimately gives them more time between each shot.
The 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 win by Lendl over Wilander that year in New York was a belting that gave the reigning French Open champion some food for thought when assessing his own ability and how to eventually out play or out think Lendl on hard court. Their next meeting at the US Open came a year later and it wasn't the much improved 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 loss by Wilander that had players talking but the rather honest take on his own chances of winning the tournament.
John McEnroe was the main voice when he criticized Wilander for playing down his own chances of winning in New York in 1983. Mac believed that every player should have owned his cut throat mental approach to big tournaments but Mats was not anything like Mac. The Swede respected his opponents far too much, a trait that gained more respect than criticism.
Wilander had just stepped into the big time as a 17 year old quite by accident just one year after winning the French Open junior championship. He now was forced to ignore the aura surrounding the legends which he watched countryman Bjorn Borg take on in some of the biggest matches of the 1970's. When you really think about it, that's a tough thing to do. Borna Coric was without a doubt the best junior in the World but when he took on Roger Federer this year he spoke of just how difficult it was to play someone of Federer's status.
It takes a remarkable mind set to do that.
In my last chapter I mentioned the need to learn from a loss or to simply gain as many games as possible even if a win is beyond reach as it can help with future matches. The 1987 US Open final was a match where I am not sure who was more disappointed at the result, Mats Wilander or myself, it was shattering. I trained with guys in Queensland who loved Lendl and his big hitting style however I was in awe of the 'lightweight' type of player in Mats who relied on not missing and a tactical mind. It was the style that I adopted myself as a kid.
The four set loss by Wilander to the Czech was even more disappointing considering the two set points Lendl saved in the pivotal third set however they were on Lendl's serve and he simply banged in two huge bombs to get out of trouble. The final score was 6-7, 6-0, 7-6, 6-4 and I didn't look that up, I just remember it. The match went for over four and a half hours.
To the following year and this is where I look at that first hammering by Lendl in 1982 of Wilander and tennis finally started to make sense. It really was a sport where a player learned from a loss and gathered information to eventually use against an opponent for an eventual victory. Mats did not play the same in 1988 as he did in 1982 or '83 but he simply tweaked or fine tuned what he did in the 1987 final. He put away a shot and developed another.
The slice backhand was a shot that Wilander hit to absolute perfection that year and it was a shot that not only conserved energy but it won him many points by coming into the net behind it. Baseliners love a topspin ball to strike a pass off but are nowhere near as comfortable off a low skidding ball which makes a player at times search for a nine iron to scrape underneath it. At times Mats would come in off a shorter hit sliced ball that had Lendl reaching forward on to try to hit a winner, that's tough for even the best players to deal with.
The 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 win by Mats in just a tick under five hours will go down as a tactical victory of the biggest kind against one of the biggest hitters of all time. It proved that a change in tactic can win the day or in this case the title and the number one ranking. What was the point in Mats hitting that double handed backhand of his that was never really going to bother Lendl who lived off those sort of shots from his opponents ? Mats may have played down his chances in 1983 however was he simply storing information for a future crack at the title ?
Tennis has numerous stories of players who were beaten up on by others for years before finally a change in tactic or mind set eventually reversed the result. Roger used to 'own' Novak, how the times have changed.
These last two chapters I wrote go hand in hand because they show a pattern in the sport that I suppose is common, we simply don't really give it too much thought though. Grab a few games here and there even if a loss is inevitable, give the mind some future matter to digest. Reprogram and don't be content with just an A game plan, work on B and C.
I am sure the great Mats Wilander will agree........