Djokovic and Nadal still have the advantage in long matches, but it should be the other way around! – Mats Wilander discusses tennis
When you sit down with Mats Wilander to talk tennis, there’s one thing you can be sure of: whether he gets it right or wrong, his predictions and analysis will be sharp, interesting and entertaining.
“He’s starving! After what happened in Australia last year, you will never see in your life a player as hungry as Djokovic”, Wilander tells CLAY in the run-up to an spicy Australian Open.
The Swede chose to pursue a career as a tennis commentator and communicate all the knowledge he accumulated as the tennis player who won seven Grand Slams and three Davis Cups. Nowadays is considered as one of the most authoritative voices in the sport.
He achieved the number one in his successful 1988, a year in which he won three of the four majors. Thirty five years on from one of the most successful sseasons in history, he is seen at every major as just another communicator: he eats in the press dinning room, walks the halls from where he broadcasts tennis to the world.
Kyrgios? “Brilliant 2022. He’s shown that tennis has taken him on a healthy path and he’s giving himself a chance to get the best out of himself. He can win a Grand Slam”.
Barty? “She dominated tennis by doing horrible things with her backhand.”
Wilander is also very upset with the way Davis Cup has gone: “It’s psycho what they’ve done. Davis Cup is history, culture. Gotta go back to the countries.”
In this interview during the Diriyah Cup in Riyadh, Wilander spoke in-depth with his particular stamp on the protagonists of the tour.
– Does it seem to you that Djokovic is, by scandal, the favorite to win Australia?
– I would put Novak as the favourite over the rest of the field. Maybe the only one who has a chance to do something against him is Rafa. Of course, Matteo Berrettini can hit 50 aces in one match and nobody would stop him, or Zverev. But if it’s a normal day, Novak in that court after what happened… Rafa could maybe get into his head, but also Rafa could probably lose against 15 or 20 players.
– Do you see any other player with options?
– You can never forget about Zverev, Rublev and Tsitsipas. But if you have a bad day you will lose. Doesn’t matter if you are Rafa or Medvedev. Novak? I’m not sure. In terms of athletisism, Djokovic is insane. He is 36 and he looks exactly the same than he looked 15 years ago. Time does not affect him. He’s got even the same hair! Unbelievable.
– This new and unknown pressure that Djokovic will face, precisely in the tournament where he will seek the biggest revenge of his career, could it not end up affecting him?
– The only thing I see as a pressure that Novak might deal with, is that the Grand Slam race is back on. And maybe he could feel ‘I have to win the Australian Open, because if I don’t, Rafa might. And then is the French Open where Rafa is the favourite’. In the middle of 2022 I felt the race was dead. Now is back on a little bit.
– Are you saying these guys are playing for the Slam record?
– No, no. They play because they don’t want to lose to you. And, in consequence, they are able to chase the record. Because they see you over there either unfit or with a bad second serve and they are not going to lose to you. They just hate to lose.
Wilander during the interview with CLAY in Riyadh – SV
– Everyone will want to beat Carlos Alcaraz this year.
– Yes, of course. Carlos is very strong mentally and he is 19 years old. I didn’t expect a teenager to become number one in this era. Carlos and Holger Rune, their game is so good and big at times. And I think they can maybe (win in Australia)*. The way Rune played in Paris is like ‘wooow, Novak looks a little bit afraid’. So you know, these guys are not only young, they are strong and fast, they hit the ball hard, they take the ball early and their style is a little bit more modern than even Tsitsipas’ and Zverev’s, but they will have more ups and downs, I think.
– What do you expect from the new generation? What kind of new stuff are they showing?
– I think they can reach their absolute maximum level in terms of playing great, in the next year or two. To break through the ceiling, the only way for that to happen, is that you learn how play defence, and you have to watch what’s coming behind you. On the next year, both of them are going to have weeks like: ‘wow we are watching the next superstar’. And then you realize might be not like that… You have to be able to consistently be in the semis, in the semis. Like Novak, Rafa, semis, semis, semis. Every year, three or four semi-finals of Grand Slam. I think we don’t know about the younger generation yet. We know that Zverev, Tsitsipas, Fritz, Rublev – Medvedev is different– are amazing players, but when you watch Novak and Rafa you realize the others are missing a lot of qualities those two guys have. If they don’t get that, they will have to wait for Rafa and Novak to quit before they start winning three or four majors.
– How much does Nadal and Djokovic’s consistency keeps impressing you?
– If you were a tennis player you know how tough is to be in the second week of a Slam and these guys are doing it for breakfast. Every tournament, every surface, every Grand Slam. Even Rafa in Wimbledon. And winning the quarterfinals playing injured. Get out of here!
– They are still dominating the younger ones.
– It is incredible the fact that the youngsters have more chances to beat Djokovic and Nadal at best of three. That says it all! That’s the biggest advantages they have, is to play the longer matches at 37 years old? Are you kidding? It has to be the other way around, but is not! And it’s not because they are stronger physically, it is because they understand the balances of letting go and trying hard. Look at Rafa. He does not try to win every single point. He is wise enough to go for the points that he has to win. He plays strategically. Experience makes such a big difference.
– Medvedev says that Nadal and Djokovic still play good on a bad day.
– And for me Medvedev would be the one that would be there with them, to me I would say I don’t care how bad you play, Daniil, you would still beat most players in the world. If it’s a big match.
– How do you rate Nick Kyrgios’ year?
– Brilliant to me. He is the most surprising and the most encouraging for me to watch. I don’t know if he will win a grand slam, he might. You know what? He could win a grand slam and he has sort of decided that he is going to give himself a shot to reach his potential. To me it’s just encouraging that our game is helping athletes and people on a path that becomes healthier along the way. To have John McEnroe as the announcer on the celebration of the 100 years of Wimbledon’s Centre Court when he wasn’t allowed to become a member after he wins the first time, just shows that tennis helped John on a path where he is now reviewed as one of the most interesting, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and valuable person in professional tennis. And I believe the game is taking Nick in a similar path and as a result he is going to be probably a happier person. He is gonna be more encouraged by his own improvements to work harder, be more disciplined, whatever. So for me it’s a Cinderella story that I was hoping is going to happen and it’s happening.
– What do you think about this era’s Davis Cup? It has changed a little bit…
– What makes me the most proud, is that the players that showed up are so into it. So the team concept for them is working… but for the fans? If you are a Canadian and Canada is playing at home whether is curling, darts, ice hockey, or tennis, or golf, you are gonna put the TV on because Canada is playing at home against another country…When Canada is playing in Malaga? We all must probably started playing tennis because of Davis Cup. When David Goffin is playing the Davis Cup final in Belgium, every living room there is going to have Davis Cup in their TV. Davis Cup needs to go back to every country. That’s where the roots of the sport are.
– You played one of the longest matches in history back in the days. Those kinds of battles are now part of the past.
– That match against McEnroe, people in Sweden went to bed and when they woke up, we were still playing. Imagine the inspiration for those parents before going to work, thinking about the future of their children. That’s not gonna happen when you play in Malaga. Kids get inspired by the team concept.
– As an historic Davis Cup player, how do you feel when a character from football like Gerard Pique changes such an iconic tennis competition?
– I guess you turned it into a product. Pro tennis is a product at times, Davis Cup is not a product. Davis Cup is culture, is history. Big difference. Is like taking the Olympic Games and trying to move them around putting skiing in Austria, cross-country in Sweden, ice hockey in Canada. Ok, is not the Olympic Games anymore. I’m not sure the product was dead. It wasn’t dead in France, and it wasn’t dead in Australia. For me it’s psycho. Very dangerous what they are doing, I think.
– Ash Barty will show up in the Australian Open.
– Ash Barty was doing things that were absolutely horrifically bad on the backhand, and she still managed to become world number one and dominate. So, do you then focus on the fact that she couldn’t really hit a two-handed backhand? No. You focus on the fact that she got really good at a shot that is not used in women’s tennis. And the eyes of the coaches and the world of women tennis was like ‘oooh we have to learn how to hit a slice backhand because look what you can do with a slice backhand’. You don’t have to just hit it hard all the time. And then Iga comes in playing so free when she is aggressive because she knows how to defend.
– Barty and Swiatek, the big rivalry that female tennis missed.
– Would have been great to have Ash and Iga together, because they have two different styles that we didn’t really see against each other at their best. Is like (Steffi) Graff and Monica Seles. Two opposite styles but two different ways of staying at the top. And without Ash suddenly it looks to most people that the only chance to be up there is to play aggressive. Not true.
– What are your thoughts about Barty’s lasts years?
– For me the warning flag is, ok, hold on…Ash Barty quit? Wooow. Whats going on here? Why would she not feel like Roger, wanting to play until she is 35? We have to look at the reasons for players not wanting to continue with such a profitable occupation that should be so much fun. And somebody doesn’t want to do it longer? I think we have to evaluate if it’s the game, is it the calendar? Are we protecting the women too much? When you see Rafa and Djokovic…ok, they are still firkin’ playing? You know how long Medvedev or Tsitsipas are going to play? Till their 40! And in the women side, you need to worry when Ash Barty says ‘naah you know, number one’…Justine Henin, Martina Hingis.
– Naomi Osaka.
Osaka. You have to wonder what’s going on here, what are we asking these women to do or to be. It is an open forum of discussion to me.
– You’ve got an opposite case in Caroline García, for example.
– For me to see Caroline Garcia at her best after 12 years on tour, having been one the most talented youngsters, keeping the spirit alive, to me is the most admirable thing I’ve seen in tennis for a long time. She is such an inspiration to me.
– Emma Raducanu?
– There you go. What are we asking these players to be. Do they have to be in social media? Do they have to be a model? Do they have to win the us open? Do they have to defend the points? Wowowow, let her be, slow down. I hope she keeps playing tennis.
photo credit: SEBASTIAN FEST
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