They always said that Sweden's Mats Wilander wanted to reach the forefront of men's tennis by sneaking in the back door.
Sunday, the door swung wide open at the U.S. Open - and Wilander walked in slowly . . . how about 4 hours and 54 minutes? - and he emerged through the door at the very front of men's tennis.For three years, Ivan Lendl ruled men's tennis as the undisputed No. 1. Sunday, with Wilander's dramatic, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, victory over Lendl in the Open final there is no dispute that the 24-year-old Wilander is the worthy successor to Lendl.
Here's how worthy:
In 1988, Wilander won three of the four Grand Slam tournaments. He beat Pat Cash in five tense sets to win the Australian Open in January. At Paris, Wilander dispatched Henri Leconte with relative ease. Now, at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, the No. 2-seeded Wilander defeated the three-time defending champion. His only shortcoming in Grand Slams this year came against the elusive Miloslav Mecir at Wimbledon in the quarterfinals.
Also, the victory here gives the Swedes a new distinction, actually two more firsts. Wilander is the first Swedish player to win the U.S. Open. Yes, somewhere, Bjorn Borg must be smiling. The championship also kept all of the Grand Slams in the country as Stefan Edberg won the other jewel, at Wimbledon.
Now Monday, when the Association of Tennis Professionals computer spits out the new numbers, Wilander will sit alone at the top, thus ending Lendl's run of 156 consecutive weeks as the best player in men's tennis.
"It feels, for sure, the best victory I've ever had," Wilander said. "I think it's even better than the first Paris title that I won. To me, this match meant so much, because Ivan has won this so many times, and I was close last year.
"I'm going to be No. 1 on the ATP rankings. Summing that all up, I think that this is the biggest match that I ever played."
For Lendl, 1988 has to be considered one of his biggest disappointments, looking at it as a whole. He began the year openly talking about winning a Grand Slam. What happened was that Lendl didn't win a single Grand Slam title and only reached the final in one of the four.
"It's tough, it was a tough year for me," said Lendl. "I just have to accept it and go on to the next one. That's the only thing I can do. If I cry over spilled milk, I won't achieve anything."
To Lendl, losing the No. 1 spot paled in comparison to his performances in Grand Slam events in 1988.
"It's not the most important thing right now," he said. "The most important thing is to be mentally and physically ready for next year, and to worry about the Australian Open."
Wilander said that if Lendl had won Sunday it would have been one of the greatest efforts because of Lendl's injury-plagued year. Nevertheless, Lendl never goes down quickly and the Open final was no exception.
For the first three sets, Lendl-Wilander looked like a repeat of the worst of their 1987 Open final. Lendl, mercifully, won that one in four sets but it took 4 hours and 47 minutes.
"My career was shorter than this match," said CBS's Mary Carillo in the third set on Sunday.
In all, this one took seven whole minutes longer than last year but the quality in the final two sets was on a much higher level. The Wilander of 1987 let Lendl dictate the pace and control the match tempo. Sunday, Wilander mixed it up more effectively, occasionally playing serve-and-volley on a handful of points to keep Lendl guessing.