Wilander’s First – A Soporific French Open Final


The duo kept hitting top spin lobs from behind the baseline. They seemed content to keep the ball above the net and inside the court. Not much running was involved. It was as if they were feeding each other balls for practice, forehand to backhand, back to forehand, testing the rival’s patience, while making some hay on a bright, hot summer day. Such long and arduous rallies routinely extended beyond 40-strokes exchanges. For someone overfed on a diet of Fedalovic powerplay, this was seriously amateurish and too tedious to watch. Was this knocking around a part of some pre-match practice?

Shockingly, it was the final of the French Open 1982 that I was watching. The score stood at 4-4 in the fourth set, with Mats Wilander leading by two sets to one, and G.Vilas serving.  After a 60 odd stroke exchange, which seemed totally devoid of intensity (to me), the Swede hit a forehand into the net. Neither player betrayed any reaction. Wilander then showed some pluck to force issues by stepping inside towards the net and playing some decisive down- the- line ground strokes to break Vilas, who seemed frozen at the baseline. Finally, Matts Wilander served out the next game and won the match by 1-6, 7-6, 6-0, 6-4 in 4 hours and 47 minutes.

Wilander had won his last Grand Slam before I began watching tennis. I never saw the Argentine, G. Vilas on live TV. Ivan Lendl was past his prime as well. It was out of sheer curiosity that I began watching old videos of the 1982 edition of the French Open. The tournament seemed very interesting from the draw, scorelines and records. It was a snare, I was drawn right into it.

Wilander became the youngest ever Grand Slam champion at 17 years and 293 days. He had won the Boys’ singles the previous year. The Unseeded Champ (world number 18) defeated Seed numbers 2 (Lendl in pre-QF), 3 (Vilas in F), 4 (Clerc in SF) and 5 (Vitas Gerulaitis in the QF) on his way to The Musketeers’ Trophy. Later Becker broke Wilander’s record by winning the Wimbledon at the age of 17years 228 days. Chang holds the current record which he established by winning the French Open in 1989 at the age of 17 years 110 days.

Borg had won the four previous editions, and six out of the last eight. But he had prematurely retired, and in his absence, Lendl was considered the favourite. He was two sets to one up against the Swede, but Wilander dug deep, matched stroke for stroke and found an opening to take the fourth set. He then broke Lendl twice in the fifth to send the second seed packing. In the QF, he overcame Gerulaitis in four sets to set up the semi-final against the big muscled Argentine, Jose-Luis Clerc, the fourth seed.

Wilander’s superior shot selection, better court awareness, tranquil attitude and desire to close points helped him gain a two sets to one lead, and a match point with  Clerc serving at 5-6, 30-40 in the fourth. It was then that an inside-out, cross-court forehand by Clerc was called out by the line judge. The Argentine as well as Swede disagreed with the call. Wilander asked the point to be replayed as argued that he did not want to win that way. This was one of the finest examples of sportsmanship. The point was replayed, and was duly won by Wilander who celebrated his victory. Meanwhile the 1977 Champion, Iron Man Vilas, had entered the final without dropping a single set and conceding just 39 games. He had also been paying some token fine in every round for wearing an illegal headband.  What we got to see instead was a soporific title clash between two very fit baseliners.

Guillermo Vilas is considered the third greatest Clay Court player after Nadal and Borg. He won the French Open in 1977, and lost in the finals in 1975, 78 (both to Borg) and 1982 (to Wilander). Wilander and Lendl dominated the Roland Garros to an extent that either one or both of them played the final every year between 1981 and 1988. Wilander won three French Opens (1982, 85 and 88), and lost two finals ( 1983 to Yannick Noah, and 1987 to Lendl). Lendl also won thrice ( 1984, 86, 87) and lost twice in the finals (1981 to Borg and 1985 to Wilander). Lendl and Wilander played each other four times at the French Open, including  twice in the finals. While Wilander prevailed in the final in 1985 and Round of 16 match in 1982, Lendl won the final in 1987 and the semi-final in 1984. The 1980s at Roland Garros could be described as the WiLendl Era.

I have not yet seen much of the action of 80s (lots of videos are available), but knowing how both Wilander and Lendl went about their business from behind their baselines, I am not very enthused either. Till 1988 then, the only final that seems like a classic is 1984 edition’s, when Lendl had beaten McEnroe after trailing by two sets to nil.

#matswilander #wilander #sweden #FrenchOpen #RolandGarros #1982 #GVilas #guillermovilas #Argentina

#topspin #borg #lendl #clerc

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