Class of 2002
World No. 1 (1988)
Grand Slam Results
8-time major champion, 6-time finalist
Overall Record: 739-349
Singles Record: 571-222
Doubles Record: 168-127
Member of the Swedish Davis Cup Team 1981-1990, 1995
Member of the Swedish Championship Davis Cup Team 1984-1985, 1987
Captain of the Swedish Davis Cup Team 2003-2009
Overall Record: 43-18
Singles Record: 36-16
Doubles Record: 7-2
For Mats Wilander, the comparisons to Björn Borg were inevitable. Both were Swedes. Both were punishing baseliners who hit heavy topspin, though Wilander used a one-handed slice backhand as much, if not more, than he rolled his two-handed backhand like Borg. Both were stoic under pressure and never let their emotions show on court. Both were prepared to smash back as many balls as it took to win, their inner resolve eerily similar.
Both were multiple major singles champions, both shined at the French Open – Borg winning six championships; Wilander copping three. Both didn’t delve into doubles much, Borg winning only four career titles; Wilander just seven. Both heralded an era of resurgence for Swedish tennis, winning four combined Davis Cup championships: Borg in 1975 and Wilander in 1984, 1985, and 1987.
Then the similarities and comparisons had a historically significant diversion. Borg never won the US Open or three major titles in one year. In 1988, Wilander became the first Swede in history to win at Flushing Meadows, following championships at the Australian and French Opens.
Wilander didn’t have a tennis racquet placed into his tiny hands as a youth like so many tennis stars did. In Sweden, kids played ice hockey and soccer, and Wilander was no different. Wilander’s father Einar started playing tennis himself in the 1940s. The day after watching the Davis Cup on television he turned the parking lot at the local factory into a tennis court, which was his son’s introduction to the game. Wilander found junior tennis tournaments enjoyable and when he turned 13, the family moved from Vaxjo, separating him from his ice hockey and soccer teams. “I was pretty shy and couldn’t imagine joining another team at that point in my life,” Wilander told Sun Valley Magazine. “So, I just focused more on the tennis.”
That focus was intense as Wilander won the junior French Open title, the European under-16 and under-18 tournaments and the prestigious Orange Bowl under-16 tournament in Miami. He made the professional leap as a 16-year-old in 1980, playing in the Swedish Open. Two years later, Wilander was playing in the 1982 French Open finals and en route to winning seven major singles championships in a compact six year span, five of which came by age 20, making him the youngest male player in history to achieve that feat. Wilander advanced to 11 major singles finals, winning seven. Three of these wins came against his rival Ivan Lendl; the pair squared off in five of the 11 trips the Swede made to championship matches. Lendl earned victories at the 1987 French and US Opens respectively.
In 1982, no one at Roland Garros saw Wilander as a threat to win the championship. Though he was the 18th ranked player in the world, he was not worthy of a seeding. The championship trophy was supposed to be hoisted by either No. 1 seed Jimmy Connors or No. 2 seed Lendl, but in the fourth round Wilander upset Lendl in five grueling sets, 4-6, 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. He then toppled No. 5 Vitas Gerulaitis in the quarterfinals, 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, and reached the final with a 7-5, 6-2, 1-6, 7-5 victory over No. 4 Argentine Jose Luis Clerc. Another Argentine, No. 3 Guillermo Vilas, awaited Wilander in the final. In a 4 hour and 42 minute marathon match of wits – one point alone lasting 90 shots – Wilander out-stroked the clay court specialist Vilas, 1-6, 7-6, 6-0, 6-4. At the time, the victory made the 17 year and 9 month old Wilander the youngest male French Open and major singles champion in history, a mark since surpassed by Boris Becker and Michael Chang. Remarked Vilas aide Ion Țiriac afterwards,”Wilander’s mind is a weapon.”
With a title in his first major final, Wilander earned that accomplishment faster than anyone in history, only equaled by Gustavo Kuerten at the 1997 French Open. Wilander’s run on the clay in Paris included championships as the No. 4 seed in 1985 over defending champion Ivan Lendl (3-6, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2) and in 1988 as the No. 3 seed in a 7-5, 6-2, 6-1 victory over Frenchman Henri Leconte.
From 1983 to 1985, Wilander made three consecutive trips to the Australian Open finals, one of only three players to achieve that feat, Lendl and Novak Djokovic the others. When he defeated Lendl routinely in the finals, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4, he became the second youngest Australian Open champion in history behind Ken Rosewall. That championship included a nifty 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory over No. 2 seed John McEnroe in the semifinals. The 1984 title was earned over South African Kevin Curren, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 6-2, but in 1985 his streak was halted by compatriot Stefan Edberg, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. In 1988 Pat Cash gave Wilander his most difficult test in a Melbourne final, pushing the Swede to five sets in the Aussie heat, but ultimately falling 6-3, 6-7, 3-6, 6-1, 8-6, giving Wilander his third title in Melbourne.
In 1988 Wilander enjoyed his finest year on tour. He won the Australian and French Opens and added the US Open title in his second straight trip to the final. Back to seek revenge against Lendl, Wilander slugged it out with the Czech who beat him the year before, in a five-setter that saw the Swede win his third major of the season, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4. With the win, he closed out the year as the No. 1 ranked player in the world after three previous years finishing as the world No. 3. With victories on three different surfaces (the Australian was played on grass), Wilander equaled Jimmy Connors as the only players in history with that distinction. Wimbledon’s grass was Wilander’s Achilles heel, though, as he never advanced past the quarterfinals (1987, 1988, 1989). Wilander’s run toward a calendar-year Grand Slam in 1988 was thwarted by Miloslav Mecir at Wimbledon, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3.
Wilander won an eighth major title at Wimbledon, capturing the 1986 Gentlemen Doubles championship alongside compatriot Joakim Nystrom over Swede Gary Donnelly and American Peter Fleming, 7-6, 6-3, 6-3.
In his 15-year career, Wilander won 33 singles titles in 220 tournaments and compiled a 571-222 record, among the 30th best records in history. He was a member of Sweden’s Davis Cup team from 1981-90, reaching seven straight finals and winning three Cups (1984-85, 1987), the most impressive coming in 1984 when he defeated Jimmy Connors 6-1, 6-3, 6-3 and leading Sweden to a 4-1 upset championship over the United States. He had a 36-16 singles and 7-2 doubles record in Davis Cup competition.
Australian Open: W 1983, 1984, 1988
French Open: W 1982, 1985, 1988
Wimbledon: QF 1987, 1988, 1989
US Open: W 1988
Australian Open: F 1984
French Open: SF 1985
Wimbledon: W 1986
US Open: F 1986