A Sporting Life: Mats Wilander

Mats Wilander Roland Garros 1982

Mats Wilander defeating Guilermo Villas in the 1982 Roland Garros final


A Sporting Life – taking on the challenge to put together sports and style (not exactly natural bedfellows), and making a plea for outdoor sports

My friends (lovingly) call me a tennis freak. It’s clay court season and I am not easy to live with right now. My husband has given up making plans for the evenings, because I can not be bothered while I catch up with the day’s matches from Roland Garros (he does like the sport – after all, we are starting to make a habit of playing early in the morning again, toddler in tow – but he’s not into it the way I have been since as long as I can remember). And as if that wasn’t enough, Mats Wilander’s show, Game, Set and Mats is another must every evening.

It’s Mats Wilander I want to talk about today. It’s not necessarily in regard to his career as tennis player, although my father always mentions his name when we talk former tennis players (maybe my dad should write this column, as he obviously knows much more about everyone I want to feature than me). Yes, he was good. He was World No. 1. He won three of the four Grand Slam singles events in 1988. He won seven Grand Slam titles (including three Roland Garros trophies), and although he never won the Wimbledon, Wilander twice won the Australian Open when that tournament was still played on grass. This makes the Swedish player one of only six men (along with Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic) to have won Grand Slam singles titles on grass courts, hard courts, and clay courts. And he won the French Open at his first attempt in 1982 (Nadal would be the only other player who would achieve that). He was 17 years old. During that tournament, at the end of the semifinal against José Luis Clerc, he requested replay of the match ball as he did not want to win the game due to a questionable referee decision. An extraordinary display of fair play, which garnered him the Pierre de Coubertin World Fair Play Trophy. That, my friends, is the style I like to talk about. And that is what great champions are made of.
A Sporting Life Mats Wilander

Mats Wilander handing Rafa Nadal the Roland Garros trophy


“I would eliminate and prohibit clapping shots for your opponent. Tennis is not about the shot making; it’s about the mental battle. It needs to be more warrior-like to me.” – Mats Wilander, when Tennis magazine asked: “If you could change one thing about the pro game, what would it be?”

But there is something else I admire about Mats just as much as his achievements as tennis player. I like the way he has stayed so present in the tennis world after his career as sportsman was over. I like his tennis comments (one of my dream professions would have been to be a sports commentator if my voice had sounded different than it does – to say I had a shock the first time I heard it recorded would be an understatement), his very honest, pertinent and very on-point insight on today’s tennis scene. And I like how gracefully he has aged. Because, quite frankly, it is sad to see how some former tennis players stop giving importance to their appearance and exercising as they advance in age.

Mats Wilander resembles my father as a matter of fact: thin and fit, with a great charisma and quirky smile, who has stayed very active his entire life, although he’s never been a professional sportsman. My dad was very good at school (good at everything, with a special inclination for mathematics, which he also later used in his career), but he also loved sports, maybe more than anything else. So much so that his mathematics professor in university never gave him the highest grade because he didn’t approve of my father being good at sports (he was in the handball team). “You can’t be good at both,” he used to say, I hear. And, as a parent, I believe that is the most disastrous thinking one can have in regards to the education of a child. And that is one of most important lessons I’ve learned from my father. And I believe that raising your child to love sports should always come before school grades and other accomplishments. That is the way to a physically and mentally healthy child and adult. And this is a matter of style, too.
Related A Sporting Life entries: Guillermo Vilas / Roger Federer / Rafael Nadal / Jean-Claude Killy / Björn Borg

photos: 1-Panoramic / 2-Matthew Stockman/Getty Images Europe

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