NEW YORK — Joakim Nystrom came to the big city, to the Masters, to edge his way into territory long dominated by McEnroe, Lendl and Connors.
The tennis career of the 21-year-old Swede had reached its zenith. For Nystrom, this is supposed to be chills-down-the-spine time.
But given his druthers, Nystrom might trade his spot on the Madison Square Garden court for a seat in the stands, with the New York Rangers on the ice, checking bodies and firing pucks.
Nystrom, it should be noted, is a hockey fanatic.
Ask him about his hometown, Skelleftea, and he'll proudly tell you of its No. 1 natural resource--a hockey team called, simply, Skelleftea. "It's so famous," Nystrom says, "it doesn't need a nickname."
He has the same surname as, but is not related to, the New York Islanders' Bobby Nystrom, which he considers a major disappointment. "I wish I was," Nystrom said, "because he's a very good hockey player. When I was young, I wanted to do what he's doing."
It didn't work out that way, however. Tennis became a better way to pay the bills, a way to see the world.
In Nystrom's mind, the Masters may not pack the sheer thrills of, say, the Stanley Cup finals, but he's here, so why not enjoy what he can? Hit a few groundstrokes, drill a few passing shots and see what happens.
What happened Wednesday night was a 6-3, 6-4 victory over Vitas Gerulaitis, a Masters veteran, before 9,235 fans, giving him a berth in the quarterfinals Friday against Ivan Lendl. In Wednesday's other preliminary match, Eliot Teltscher defeated Tomas Smid, 6-3, 6-4, to set up a Friday confrontation with Jimmy Connors.
Nystrom is part of the Swedish new wave that pounded the shores of men's tennis in 1984, but he is perhaps the least-recognized of the top exponents. Mats Wilander has won three Grand Slam titles, Henrik Sundstrom and Anders Jarryd own victories over McEnroe, and Stefan Edberg won the Olympics last summer.
Nystrom? He's best known as the Swede who didn't make the 1984 Davis Cup championship team. "I expected not to be on the team," Nystrom said. "Mats and Henrik are better on clay, and Jarryd and Edberg were the best doubles team. I just stayed in my hometown and watched the matches on television."
This week, Nystrom is a participant, and he's getting a chance to leave the ranks of Top-10 Anonymous. He beat one of New York's favorites, if no longer finest, in Gerulaitis, sticking to the baseline and staying away from mistakes.
Nystrom let Gerulaitis take the gambles, waiting for him to finally bust. Sure enough, it happened.
"He was steady; I made all the mistakes," Gerulaitis said. "I won all the points and made all the mistakes. He played a couple of good, offensive forehands, but that was about it. He really didn't do anything flashy."
That's the way most of these new Swedes play, which led to the inevitable question: How does this one, Nystrom, compare with the patron saint of Scandinavian tennis, Bjorn Borg?
"None of the Swedes are in Borg's class," Gerulaitis said. "Nobody is as quick, nobody has the same physique, nobody has the same mental approach, nobody played the big points better. Borg hit through the ball better, he served better. . . . I think you get the point." Teltscher, who has been dominated by Connors in their previous matches, said he plans to try something different this time.
He did something different against Smid. Teltscher is hard to pry from the baseline, but he rushed the net repeatedly Wednesday, hitting volleys with precision and running Smid into frustration.
Maybe that won't work against Connors. But then again, it might be worth a try.
"I like to stay back and hit groundstrokes, and so does he," Teltscher said, "but he hits the ball a little harder. Everything I can do, he can do a little bit better.
"I think I have to try to do something a little unusual . . . maybe a little strange."