`Sweden pioneered modern tennis'

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

HE WAS the last player to win three Grand Slam singles titles in the same year (1988) before Roger Federer accomplished the task last year. Mats Wilander continued from where another Swedish legend, Bjorn Borg, had left, and won seven Grand Slam singles titles besides the Wimbledon doubles pennant.

Ranked No.1 in the world in singles and No.3 in doubles, Wilander's brilliant career is highlighted by his 33 singles titles from 59 finals. He also won seven doubles titles from 18 finals.

The Swede dominated world tennis along with countryman Stefan Edberg against whom he enjoyed an 11-9 win-loss record.

The 41-year-old non-playing captain of the Swedish Davis Cup team was at his best with his sense of humour and sharp wit while speaking to The Sportstar after wrapping up the World Group play-off tie against India 3-1 in New Delhi.

The excerpts:

Question: You are fresh from a successful Davis Cup campaign in tough conditions. How much do you enjoy being the captain of the Swedish team?

Answer: I love it. I would say that it is the closest that you can feel like you are playing. I still play on the ATP Seniors tour and I play exhibition matches. I love playing tennis but my heart is not in winning. I am not competing even. So, this is the closest you are going to get sitting there, helping in the changeover, and also being part of the practice and helping in running the practice drills. I love being part of the thinking process and the tactics. Obviously, in Sweden we have great players and they are very professional. They want to hear what I have to say. They are willing to listen and willing to try things.

A bunch of Swedish players dominated world tennis over the years. Now that line has nearly dried up, though Thomas Johansson kindled some hope by winning the Australian Open in 2002 besides reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon this year.

The reason why we dominated world tennis in my time was Bjorn Borg. Sweden always had good athletes in ice hockey, in soccer, in skiing and many other sports. For some reason, when Bjorn Borg came along and became world champion, all the kids wanted to play tennis, especially the talented ones. I was the best hockey player in my team in my age. I was also one of the best soccer players, but I chose tennis. The same is the case with Stefan Edberg. Today, they don't attract the most talented kids to tennis in Sweden. Period.

Perhaps it is because the players in other countries are playing better than the Swedes these days.

Maybe yes. But I don't think that the best talented kids are coming to tennis in other countries as well. Maybe, they do in Spain.

But the other thing that happened to us was that we were the first country in the world to play modern tennis. I don't know if you remember when we played Ramesh (Krishnan) and Vijay (Amritraj) in Sweden on clay courts in Gothenburg. We knew, long before anybody realised, that no way Sweden would lose on clay. Why? Was it because we were better players? Not really. It was because their style was outdated. We played with topspin. They didn't play topspin. Obviously, if you play like that there is a better chance for the ball to go in. I was up against players who still had continental grips! Sweden was the first country to play like they do today.

Do you regret not winning the Wimbledon singles title?

Wimbledon? I couldn't care less, really! My quest as a player was to become as good as I could on different surfaces. It was to have weapons against everybody on any surface. I was supposed to be a baseliner or a clay court specialist, but I never really was one. My game suited clay better and I was able to adapt to other courts.

I won in Australia twice on grass. I beat McEnroe and Edberg. It was nothing to do with the grass. I lost a lot of close matches at Wimbledon. I never lost that many close matches at the French. It has a lot to do with luck. And my mindset at Wimbledon was such that I could not win. I never came there thinking that I am the favourite. I pushed myself. You should take into consideration that I always did well in the clay court season. And I played two weeks at the French every year for my whole career pretty much. Five finals, a semifinal, and a quarterfinal. So I never had the time to spend on grass. In Australia we went a month before. So, I got a good preparation. A lot of different things went into me not winning Wimbledon.

You made the quarterfinals three years on the trot at Wimbledon. Was Pat Cash too much of a hurdle for you (4-5). Thrice you lost to him at Wimbledon though you had beaten him on grass the first time in Davis Cup?

Pat Cash was a great grass court player. He would have won Wimbledon a couple of more times had he been healthy. He was tough. My problem was not the big servers, but the classic grass court players like Edberg and Cash. My practice was not strong enough. I needed to play a couple of times and they never missed at the net. Actually, they had the advantage.

Was the doubles title at Wimbledon in 1986 a consolation for not winning the singles? Or couldn't you care less?

No, I care for it. Of course, I can say I won Wimbledon. Winning Wimbledon doubles with my best friend Joakim Nystrom was great. I would trade two of my singles Slams for that. I mean that was not the most special week in my life, but it was definitely one of the seven most special tournaments in my life, including all the Davis Cups. It was more special than winning the French Open at one time. It was more special than winning the Australian Open. Thank God!

What do you have to say about the current crop of top players?

Andy Roddick has the big weapons that really help him win. He needs to use that better and he needs to play a lot more aggressively. When you watch Roddick play Federer at Wimbledon, you wonder how much knowledge he has about the game. He is doing the same thing every time and always getting beaten. It is so predictable. He needs to be unpredictable. He is strong enough and has a good game, but not good enough to beat Federer.

Lleyton Hewitt needs to change his style. He needs to serve and volley, take his chances and come in a lot. It is very disappointing to see these guys play against Federer. I understand Federer is better, but give yourself a chance to do something different. If you lose, you lose. What is the problem at this point? Lose 1, 1 and 1 you look stupid anyway. So, do something different. That is my hope with these two guys. They will be able to compete with Federer if they change their game. They are strong enough and confident enough to do that.

About Marat Safin, first of all I am not happy with the way he has been in and out. He goes in and actually believes that he is going to win. He might sometimes be a little crazy. He actually believes that he is a better player than Federer. You know what, he most probably is, when he plays well. When he doesn't play well he is not going to beat him. But he has the highest game. When he plays well, Roger Federer will not be able to beat him.

With Safin, when the mind is there he plays well, and obviously if it is not there, he is not there.

Rafael Nadal will live up to his reputation that he has built at the French Open only because he will improve by one percent every year for the next ten years. He would not go down. He is working hard. He wants to win Wimbledon. He is never going to get worse. Basically, if Roger Federer is 100 percent, Nadal is 90 now. Five years later, Nadal will be 95 percent or so and Federer might come down a little.

Nadal will definitely live up to his reputation. He is not a fluke. In fact, he might not win three Grand Slams in the next two years, but he will win the French a couple of times in the next four years. Win the Australian or US Open once or twice in the next five years and suddenly he would have got five Slams. Slow, long building career.

Where do you slot Federer in the all-time great list?

I cannot do it. If you talk about records and the standard of the game in their own time, you can never say, whether I was better than Rod Laver. Of course, I was. I was better because of equipment, training but he has dominated his time. You have to compare the times. I can say that since I have played, level wise, it has to be Sampras first, Borg second, Agassi third, Federer fourth and then you have McEnroe, Connors and Lendl. McEnroe won only seven Slams, and so did I! But clearly I put him much ahead of me.

Agassi is ahead of the others, McEnroe, Connors and Lendl because he has won all the four Slams. Borg and Sampras were in their own league. Roger Federer, I think, will belong to them, not to McEnroe, Connors and Agassi. I think Federer has the game to be more close to Sampras and Borg than the other guys. I hope so.

What do you have to say about Indian players?

I don't have anything to say about the old Indian players. I like what you guys have now. Prakash is a good solid player. His attitude is really good. Rohan obviously has got a huge game. There is no question about the level of knowledge and technique of the Indian players. Technique has always been apparent in Indian tennis players. To me, it is a little more about fitness. They need to turn their attention towards fitness, because they have everything else. They are good enough players. What separates them from the best is often strength, quickness and fitness. Once you improve these qualities, your game becomes better too. You can't rely only on tennis skills. You have to rely on body skills as well.