January 16, 2009 9:44 pm

Wilander spies a wilier Federer set to reclaim Melbourne

What happens to tennis champions when they grow up? Mats Wilander lives in the ski resort of Sun Valley, Idaho, where he shuttles from school run to ski run. “Call at 8am,” says the 1980s icon, “because at nine the ski run opens.” But today Sun Valley is too cold even for skiing, so the Swede has time to talk.

That is a privilege. John McEnroe is tennis’s best-known commentator, but Wilander, expert commentator for Eurosport, may be the best. The man who won seven grand-slam singles titles knows every detail of tennis. He’s the insider’s insider who can explain the game to outsiders, in rapid-fire speech that makes you wonder if he really is Swedish.

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Wilander will be in boiling Melbourne during the next two weeks for the season’s first slam, the Australian Open. Is this the year that Rafael Nadal leaves Roger Federer for dust? Nadal, only 22, has already taken Federer’s number-one ranking. Will Federer, 27, now start fading into the gossip magazines like other ousted number ones before him?

But Wilander suspects the younger man might fade first, while the Swiss renews himself. “It’s uphill, uphill every match Nadal plays, because he is fighting so hard. We’ve never seen anyone as physical as Nadal on the courts. He puts that stress on himself from the first point. So it’s going to be much harder for Nadal to stay number one for three or four years. He’s already had injuries. Over the next five years, which is what I’m hoping he’ll keep playing, he needs to start saving energy in matches. He needs to win more free points on his serve, or at least shorten the rallies.”

Wilander wants both Nadal and Federer to bash more hard, flat forehands so as to finish points fast against lesser players. To do that, Nadal must ration his trademark topspin: “The only way to shorten up points is to take some spin off his forehands, or come into the net.”

Bashing flat winners “is not really the right way to play, but it’s the second round of the Swiss Open and who cares? It’s the only way these guys can hang in there,” says Wilander, who never won a grand-slam crown after the age of 24. 

What excites him this season is the prospect of a new Federer, one with less genius but more brain. “I think Federer learned a lot from the US Open where he played way more aggressively than in the past, coming to the net more. He’s run out of these extraordinary shots that we’ll probably never see again, from any player ever. They’re not enough against Nadal, even on grass. Federer is going to turn into an even smarter player, because he has to.”

If an upstart can upset the two superpowers anywhere, Wilander thinks it might be in Melbourne. Last year Novak Djokovic won his first major there. “What makes Australia different is you don’t know what guys are doing now,” says Wilander. Has Nadal eaten too much Christmas ham? Has Federer hit form? And in this lowest-key major tournament, players can play freely, without the stress of Paris or Wimbledon. Wilander says: “Most guys are coming from winter. It just relaxes them: they see the sun, and the Australian mentality has put an image on the Aussie Open. It’s more festive. It’s kind of the end of the holidays.”

Those baking courts won’t suit Federer or Nadal. In Paris and Wimbledon, explains Wilander, their superior spin wins titles. “Melbourne is not their favourite surface. It’s a surface for the likes of Djokovic, [Jo-Wilfried] Tsonga, who take the ball earlier and hit with no spin. This surface in Australia is dead, and it’s fast because it’s so hot.”

Wilander’s favourites for Melbourne are Federer or Djokovic, “if Novak survives the early rounds”. But he adds: “I think Andy Murray is in there.” Wilander considers the Scot “a craftsman”, and “very very close” to Federer and Nadal’s level.

However, he cautions that a lesser player who just whacks the ball merrily could overpower Murray. “He does not have a huge stroke anywhere, except his serve when it’s working. His backhand is very solid but winning grand slams with your backhand is difficult. I don’t think anyone is very scared of Andy Murray because he’s not a great athlete.”

And Murray has not yet learned how to win majors. “In grand slams it’s not actually about fun,” lectures Wilander. “It’s your appearance that wins you matches, not how you play. At the US Open final Federer told Murray: ‘I’m not changing, huh? I’m just going to keep coming to the net.’ You could see Andy crumble – Federer is not going to give him anything for free. That’s what you need for grand slams, because you are not going to play great for two weeks.”

Wilander talks with the passion of a fan, not a pundit. Is he emotionally involved in today’s tour? “A lot. We in the ’80s were not even close to these guys in terms of brute strength. Tennis then was a marathon race. Now it’s a four-hour sprint. To me they are some of the greatest athletes in any sport. You have to laugh, at the Olympics, seeing guys winning medals in other sports who are out there for 20 seconds, five minutes, whatever.”

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