The more one explores the rivalries at the top of the men’s game in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, the more the state of the current men’s game makes sense. It was in those earlier years that the seed corn was sown for the current dominance of the men’s game by players from Europe. Borg, Lendl, Wilander, Becker, Edberg, Noah and Leconte were the most illustrious examples of those who laid the foundations for the current dominance of Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Murray (with Ferrer and Tsonga both knocking on the door). With the exception of a few Europeans (Borg, Nastase, Kodes), the 1970’s was a decade marked by American and Australian dominance. The new generation of Europeans at the time had an alternative vision for the future.
One of the rivalries of the 1980’s worth recounting in this context is that between Ivan Lendl (Player Profile) and Mats Wilander (Player Profile). After the retirement of Borg in the early 1980’s, the opportunity presented itself to Wilander to come out from under the shadow of his illustrious fellow Swede. This he seized with both hands.
Lendl, a number of years Wilander’s senior, had by 1981 already established his presence on the world stage both on the tour and in the Davis Cup. He thus had a head start over Wilander, a lead, despite losing to Wilander in their first tour encounter in 1982, he was to assert further over the years.
Having come into the professional tour in 1980 at the age of 16, Wilander slowly made a name for himself, particularly on those slow clay surfaces so suited to his game. It was on that surface at the French Open in 1982 that he totally upset the form book as an unseeded player by toppling the best names in the game to win the final against Guillermo Vilas. His opponent in the fourth round on the way to the final was Ivan Lendl, another European also destined for great things. For Wilander, this had an element of ‘déjà vu’ as he had won the French juniors some years previously. It was a relationship with France that was to prove highly productive throughout his career.
Lendl was also a winner of the French juniors (in 1978) and a winner of the Wimbledon juniors in the same year – the latter win an interesting one given Lendl’s renowned antipathy to grass. Grass was also mot Wilander’s favourite surface, but in an edge over Lendl, he managed to win a Grand Slam on the surface by winning the Australian Open when that event was played on grass.
Over the course of their careers, they played one another on 22 occasions. Lendl won 15 and Wilander 7. By this measure, Lendl was the clear victor. Indeed, Lendl’s head-to-head encounters with those at the top of the game show that he dominated all-comers: Connors, McEnroe and Wilander. Using other metrics of success (e.g. Grand Slam final wins, ATP final wins etc.) may argue in others’ favour, but in head-to-heads, Lendl was the master. By most metrics, furthermore, he would also come out on top over Wilander: only McEnroe, Borg and perhaps, Connors could realistically challenge Lendl using alternative metrics of success.
In encounters between the two in Grand Slam events, Lendl leads by 5-4. One metric in Wilander’s favour, however, is his having beaten Lendl three times in Grand Slam finals, while Lendl beat him only twice – a telling measure given the status and pressure associated with Grand Slam finals. In their only Davis Cup contest (in 1984), Wilander also came out victor. Interestingly, Wilander with seven Grand Slam final wins (3 Australian, 3 French and one US) is not too far behind Lendl’s eight Grand Slams (3 US, 3 French and 2 Australian). Both players’ respective stats also demonstrate that neither player managed to win tennis’s Holy Grail of a Wimbledon singles win – a notable gap in their careers.
Probably their greatest encounter was at the US Open final of 1988. It was won by Wilander 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 and lasting over four hours, is considered one of the greatest Grand Slam matches of all time. Following this victory, Wilander took the No. 1 spot in the world rankings. Ironically, not long after aspiring to this position, Wilander went into a slump which he was never able to fully recover from.
Given Lendl’s stoic demeanour and Wilander’s mellow, relaxed approach to the game, their rivalry had none of the fireworks of a Connors/McEnroe or McEnroe/Lendl encounter. Both were essentially groundstroke players, content to hug the baseline and trade shot after shot until the opening emerged for them to pounce. Lendl, by contrast, revelled in the power game from the baseline, while Wilander was more inventive, deft and patient, but equally effective. Wilander’s serve was average but safe, while Lendl added more heft to his serve, reflecting his relative strength and height.
The type of rivalry between Lendl and Wilander simply wouldn’t be possible at the top level in today’s game. Lendl had the power game that would have enabled him to transition to the modern game and he would have adapted easily to new tennis technology. Wilander, on the other hand, whose game was more touch and guile than power-based would have found the transition more challenging. One would almost fear for Wilander at the baseline facing a barrage of groundstrokes from a Federer or a Djokovic.
All that said, the Lendl/Wilander rivalry was a feature of its era: competitive and inspiring in its own time. Animosity played no part between them and their contests were conducted in a sportsmanlike manner. Both have put something back into the game: Wilander brings his Winnebago round the US coaching young players on his travels and Lendl is now coach and mentor to Andy Murray. Both also helped develop a tradition for the highest standards of play in the European game, of which today’s top players have been beneficiaries.