A Swede Success Story Made In Paris
Mats Wilander’s triumph at the 1982 French Open was historic, in more ways than one
He is back in the French capital for the year’s second Grand Slam tournament, in a familiar role, one that he has donned for quite a few years now. As the resident expert of a popular media network he has previewed the tournament per se, analyzed the conditions, interviewed players, assessed their chances and also made his predictions apart from doing commentary during matches.
This present avatar notwithstanding his legacy in the tournament as a player has few parallels. It’s 40 years since he surprised everyone, and possibly himself, on his maiden appearance in Paris, and this makes it probably the most appropriate moment to look back and assess the instant impact and overall success of Mats Wilander at the French Open.
The Swede’s transition from a junior champion to the senior circuit had been gradual. Wilander was ranked 69 at the start of 1982. He won a challenger tour event at Buchholz, Germany, and, at the Donnay Indoor Championships in March the Swede made it all the way to the final. However, despite putting up a better show on the indoor carpet — as compared to the lackluster effort in his maiden tour final in Bangkok on a similar surface in the year before, the youngster failed to secure the title in Brussels.
The Swede albeit continued to improve on his performances during the clay-court season. A last-eight finish in both Madrid and Hamburg was followed by an even better show in Rome, where he made it to the semi-finals. These results ensured the young player’s ranking improved to 18 ahead of the year’s first major tournament (as the Australian Open was played in November/December back in those days).
When he arrived at Roland Garros Wilander was a relatively lesser-known entity. He had won the French Open Boy’s singles title the year before but was yet to make the breakthrough on the professional tour. Besides, it was his first appearance in the men’s draw and as such, not much was expected of the youngster.
There were a couple of notable absentees in the draw. His compatriot, the legendary Björn Borg was the four-time defending champion but chose not to participate after the now-defunct Men’s Tennis Council (MCT) ruled he had not played enough tournaments and would have to qualify. John McEnroe, the top-ranked player of that time and the reigning Wimbledon and US Open champion, had also withdrawn with an ankle injury. That being said, there were many players who were deemed favorites for the title, and the focus was palpably on them.
Few noticed as Wilander made it through to the last 16, losing only one set in his first three matches, and set up a meeting with Ivan Lendl, the tournament’s second seed. From 1980 onwards the Czech was winning tournaments on the canter but was yet to achieve glory at a Grand Slam. He had come up short against Borg at Roland Garros in the previous year. That, along with his overall credentials expectedly made him the favorite against the younger Swede in what was their first meeting.
Lendl led by two sets to one, and even when Wilander won the fourth set to level things few would have put their money on him. The Swede had never played five sets before. Yet instead of showing nerves, it was smooth sailing for the Växjö-born, and he won the deciding set with ease (6–2). Up next was fifth seed Vitas Gerulaitis.
The American had got the better of Wilander in the final at Brussels. However, there was to be no encore. The Swede came through in four sets to book a semi-final showdown with José Luis Clerc, the fourth seed. It was in this match that the 17-year-old proved that he wasn’t only a talented player but also a good sportsman.
After winning the first two sets, and dropping the third, Wilander reached match point with Clerc serving at 5–6, 30–40 in the fourth set. The Argentine’s forehand was called long and the umpire announced the match in favor of the Swede, only with the player not happy to win the match in this manner — with his opponent making his displeasure clear. In what was incredible sportsmanship displayed by a young player, and a gesture that won him many admirers, the point was replayed. The younger player forced an error yet again and booked his place in the decider.
Wilander had surprised all by reaching the final, yet he remained the underdog. His opponent in the title clash was the 1977 champion Guillermo Vilas, who was playing in his fourth final at Roland Garros. The Argentine, seeded third, was yet to lose a match on clay that year — winning titles in his native Buenos Aires, Monte Carlo, and Madrid, where he had eased past the young Swede in the quarter-final in what was their first meeting. In fact he was yet to lose a set en route to the final in Paris. It was no surprise that he won the opening set with a comfortable scoreline (6–1).
However, it was the second set that proved to be decisive. It went on for more than an hour and a half before Wilander sealed it in a tie-break (8–6). The right-hander used the momentum to ease through the third without conceding a game. The match had been a battle of attrition and going into the fourth set the 17-year-old was having an upper hand over his much older opponent as far as the physical superiority was concerned. As regards the mental aspect suffice to say the Swede displayed tremendous composure and held on to win the fourth set (6–4).
Vilas had been at the receiving end one more time. It was the third final at Roland Garros that he had conceded to a Swede, Borg being the other beneficiary both in 1975 and 1978. It was the Argentine’s eighth Grand Slam final. It would also happen to be his last. Wilander’s triumph meant for a fifth straight year Paris had been witness to Swedish success.
That said, history was made at Roland Garros that year, in more ways than one. At 17 years and nine months, Wilander had become not only the youngest French Open champion but also the youngest winner of the men’s singles title at a Grand Slam competition. American Michael Chang has since taken possession of both the records following his equally surprising win in the same tournament in 1989.
It was not only Wilander’s first-ever Grand Slam title but also his very first ATP Tour title. It won’t be until 15 years later (in 1997) that another man, Brazil’s Gustavo Kuerten, would claim a Grand Slam as his maiden ATP title. In fact there have been only three players in the men’s singles category in the Open Era (since 1968) whose first ATP title happened to be a Grand Slam tournament, Mark Edmondson — winner of the Australian Open in 1976, being the other one.
More importantly, it would be another 33 years before Rafael Nadal became only the second player to win at Roland Garros on his debut. It is imperative here to mention that the Spaniard had played in five other Grand Slam tournaments before making his first appearance at the French Open in 2005, while the Swede had featured in just two — thereby becoming the player who needed the fewest attempts to win a major title, a record also equaled by Kuerten in 1997.
Besides, Wilander had won the Boy’s singles and the Men’s singles titles in back-to-back years. It was only in 2015 that Stanislas Wawrinka repeated the feat, the Swiss having won the Boy’s singles crown back in 2003.
Further, when Novak Djokovic, then 34, beat Stefanos Tsitsipas (then 22) in the French Open final last year it marked the largest age gap between the finalists since a 17-year-old Wilander’s win over Vilas — then a couple of months shy of turning 30, in the 1982 final.
That apart, while winning the 2017 Australian Open Roger Federer matched Wilander’s record and became the first men’s player in 35 years to beat four Top 10 players en route to a Grand Slam title. For the record in the Open Era, there have been only four players who have beaten four Top-10 seeds en route to a major title, Vilas (at the 1977 French) and Borg (1978) being the other two.
The 1982 triumph not only marked the beginning of Wilander’s love affair with Roland Garros but was also the beginning of a spectacular career that would see the Swede win a total of 33 titles, with more than half of them being big-ticket tournaments. That haul included seven Grand Slam titles, with three coming at the French Open (also in 1985 and 1988). In fact, the right-hander made it to the decider in Paris on as many as five occasions (1983 and 1987 being the others). The fact that his win-loss record in Paris (47–9) is by far his best among all the four majors hardly comes across as a surprise. It is in fact the most discerning feature in his repertoire of results.
As a matter of fact, Wilander’s path to the top commenced with that surprise success at Roland Garros and culminated with his US Open triumph of 1988, a result that ensured him the top spot in the rankings. The Swede lost his motivation thereafter. Had he quit immediately after his maiden triumph in New York his (win/loss) record at the singles competition at the Grand Slams tournaments would have stood at an impressive115 wins to just 20 defeats. Instead he kept playing for seven more years winning only 29 more matches in major competitions while losing a whopping 17 for an overall record of 144–37.
In the final analysis by winning the French Open on debut in 1982 Mats Wilander made history in every which way. The result not only catapulted him to instant stardom but also laid a solid foundation for what turned out to be an illustrious career. It was Swedish success story alright, but one that was made in Paris.
It’s been four decades since but Wilander’s career as a player in general, and his achievements at Roland Garros in particular, remains a lasting legacy, even though he has taken up another responsibility and added another facet to his professional profile.