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Monday Inspiration - Mats Wilander French Open 1982


Posted by Neil B under Tennis on 28 April 2013 at 11:00 PM

It is a well trodden path - The unseeded, unknown and unfancied entry who knocks out every seeded opponent he comes across, reaches the final and beats the form player in the world to win from seemingly nowhere. It's an age old success story that has been seen on quite a few occasions throughout the years. Just look at Goran Ivanisavic at Wimbledon in 2001, coming from a wildcard entry, to beat Pat Cash in an epic final. However, how many of these have been seventeen years old and competing in only their third grand slam event???

Mats Wilander - French Open 1982

That was the case in the 1982 French Open, where relatively unknown 17 year Swedish Tennis player, Mats Wilander, emphatically burst onto the world tennis scene at Roland Garros. It was the beginning of a very successful career, in which he would win 7 Grand Slam titles, including becoming one of only 5 men in the history of tennis to have won at least two grand slams on each of the surfaces: Grass Court, Clay Court, Hard Court, became world number 1 and was accepted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2002.

Bjorn BorgHowever, it is his achievements at the age of 17 at the 1982 French Open that are the most remarkable. With his fellow swede Bjorn Borg, who had won 6 of the previous 8 French Open titles opting not to compete in 1982, the competition was flung wide-open. Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Guillermo Vilas were considered the favourites to claim the title. Hardly anyone had ever even heard of Mats Wilander, let alone tipping him for glory. However, the 1982 French Open would prove to be a time where he would move out of the shadow of fellow Swede Bjorn Borg, and take the tennis world by storm.

His first defining moment came in the fourth round, against the much fancied second seed Ivan Lendl, one of the favourites for the French Open title. Amazingly, this match against Lendl was the first time in his career that Wilander had ever gone to 5 sets in a match. Wilander showed remarkable courage, determination and fitness levels to overcome Lendl in 5 sets. Next up was the number 5 seed Vitas Gerulaitis from America, one of the most consistent clay court players of the time. Wilander made quick work of dispatching Gerulaitis in 4 sets and marched onto the semi-fianl where he would face number 4 seed Jose Luis Clerc.

It was in this semi-final that Wilander really set himself apart as not only an outstanding sportsperson, but also an outstanding person. The fact that Wilander beat Clerc relatively easily in 4 sets is remarkable enough. However, it was his actions at the end of the 4th set that grabbed the most attention. With Wilander serving on match point, Clerc hit a winner down the line, that appeared to be in. However, the line judge saw it differently and called it out, handing the match to Wilander. The umpire called "Game, Set and Match" and awarded the match to Wilander. With both Wilander and Clerc convinced the ball was good, Wilander approached the umpire and said "The ball was good, that's not the way I want to win". The umpire, sensing the atmosphere climbed back up into his chair and ordered the point to be replayed. Wilander won the next point and thus the match, but it was still an iconic moment that really made people stand up and notice Mats Wilander. 

In the final he faced third seed Francisco Vilar, who had not lost a single set en route to the final that year and was in terrific form. Vilas had dominated every opponent he came up against in the tournament so far, and after the first set, it looked like he was going to continue this trend, taking it 6-1 and looking like he was going to stop Wilander's one man wrecking ball on the top seeded players at the final hurdle. However, Wilander found some inspiration from somewhere and took the second set 8-6 in a tie break, inlficting the first set loss of the tournament on Vilas. He then incredibly won the third set 6-0 and eventually defeated Vilas 6-4 in the fourth set to be crowned 1982 French Open Champion, at the tender age of 17, making him the youngest ever winner of any of the grand slams at the time; A record that lasted until 1989 when another 17 year old, Michael Chang won the French Open against Ivan Lendl.

The fact that Wilander was able to win such a prestigious and difficult tournament at such a young age, knocking out seeded opponents in every round was an incredible achievement. The fact that he showed the mental strength, determination and hard work to convert this into one of the most succesful ever tennis careers, all the while displaying exceptional levels of sportsmanship is testament to his character and really makes his story one to inspire and emulate.

Will there be an underdog story at next months French Open?