Even with the Hurly-Burly on the outlying courts, even during a tiebreak that seemed to go on longer than a Swedish winter, Mats Wilander remained relaxed—so relaxed that he found time to chat up a courtside journalist.
"What's the record?" he wanted to know, after he and Jaime Oncins of Brazil had just contested the 30th point of the tiebreaker.
"Twenty-eighteen," came the answer back. "Set about an hour ago."
Moments later the 29-year-old Wilander finished off Oncins 18-16 to complete a 7-5, 7-6, 7-6 first-round victory, but he showed no disappointment at falling short of the mark for the longest tiebreak in Open singles history. Nowadays Wilander, the winner of seven Grand Slam tournaments and more than $7 million in career earnings, leaves the standard-setting to others. After competing in only three tournaments all season and winning just one match, he got a spot in this year's Open only because Jimmy Connors turned down a wild-card entry at the last minute. Wilander's four-hour, 7-6, 3-6, 1-6, 7-6, 6-4 second-round Stadium Court win over fellow Swede Mikael Pernfors, which ended at 2:26 last Saturday morning, made it quite a couple of days at the office for a commuter from Greenwich, Conn.
Wilander was only 24 when his victory in the 1988 Open vaulted him to No. 1 in the rankings. Suddenly atop the tennis world, he searched vainly for some further upside. All he could see was a ceiling. "It was a very long road for me," says Wilander, who had won the 1982 French Open at age 17. "When I got there, the balloon exploded. I didn't feel I was playing for the right reasons anymore. I was just playing and traveling because I was ranked Number One and making money."
The malaise exacted a toll. There were injuries, including one to his knee that required surgery. He lost his father to cancer. As his ranking went into a free fall, he took refuge in golf and his beloved electric guitar, touring Sweden with his band, Wilander. He even considered becoming a sound engineer. "Nothing seemed more boring to me then than playing tennis," he says. Today tennis still isn't top-ranked in his world. He's happy being at home with his wife, Sonya, and their six-month-old daughter, Emma. When he does play, he's more inclined to charge the net, knowing he has neither the stamina nor the concentration to plot out a point during long rallies from the baseline. Now he says, "It's a thrill every time I hit a good shot. I've never been happier." Wilander seemed just as content after Cedric Pioline of France eliminated him in Sunday's third round 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. His insouciance suggested that his week in New York was more lark than earnest comeback. Asked earlier whether this was the case, the suburbanite had twisted his mouth into a faint, phlegmatic smile. "I just like to play these local events," he said.
The former No. 1 player now believes it's not whether you win or lose, but where you play the game.