NEW YORK — East met West, and cultures clashed at the U.S. Open Saturday, not on the tennis court but in the interview room, where John McEnroe tried his best to embroil Mats Wilander in that old American favorite, controversy.
The topic on the floor was No. 1--the importance of being No. 1 and the proper way to get there.
"He's trying to do the back-door play--sneak in the back door," the top-seeded McEnroe said of Wilander after scoring a 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 third-round victory over Bud Schultz. "There is more to being No. 1 than just sliding in there, play the majors and win a couple here and there.
"It doesn't work that way. You have to go and give 100% every time you are on the court. When you are No. 1, wherever you go, people want to see your best. I feel it my duty to say this to a guy like that, because I saw him go through periods where I thought he was not giving his best effort.
"He might go out and beat me now for saying this. . . . (But) going out and giving it your best is what makes being and staying No. 1 so difficult."
Those may be fighting words, but Wilander, the stoic Swede whose personality is as fiery as an ice floe, was typically cautious in his response.
"I do put out 100%--I think I try as much as I can," Wilander said after eliminating Paul Annacone, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-1. "It's nice for him to say that, because he feels I can be No. 1 and that is satisfying to me. I am doing what I can. It's good he thinks I have the talent, and I hope he's right."
Very polite, very cordial, very Swedish.
Gradually, however, Wilander warmed up a bit. He started talking about McEnroe's insinuation that to be No. 1 you must play every match--right down to that first-rounder in Newark--as if it's a Grand Slam final.
"I don't think he does that, either," Wilander said. "No way. The only one who does is (Jimmy) Connors, sometimes. But McEnroe's first match here (a five-set scare against Israel's Shlomo Glickstein)--he didn't play that like a U.S. Open final."
Wilander admitted that he does place more importance on his matches in Grand Slam events than those on lesser stops on the tour.
"It's not on purpose," he said, "but in the Grand Slams, I tend to have more concentration and I get more excited. I play all the Grand Slams like that. I get pumped up. But, I think it's like that for all the players."
And if that translates into Wilander putting forth a less enthusiastic effort elsewhere, the Swede can only plead guilty.
"Yes, you have less intensity," Wilander said. "You can't play every match the way you play here (the U.S. Open). The matches are more important here."
To McEnroe, such an admission is a display of weakness. McEnroe believes it to be the reason why Wilander, currently ranked No. 3 and the defending champion of both the French and Australian Opens, will have trouble rising to the level of No. 1.
Wilander, though, has no trouble with that. Whereas Connors has spent a career being obsessed with being No. 1, and whereas McEnroe and Ivan Lendl have been locked in mortal combat for years in their quests to be No. 1, Wilander says he isn't sure it's worth all the bother.
"I think I can be No. 1, but I don't expect it," Wilander said. "Maybe when Lendl, Connors and McEnroe retire. But that'll be in 10 years."
To reach No. 1 in 1985, it would behoove Wilander to win this U.S. Open.
But he said: "I think I have a chance to win, but I do not expect to win. I am not American, and we do not go out and expect to win this tournament. There is only one player who can say that--McEnroe, because he is the favorite."
McEnroe is adamant about it. Tiring of questions regarding his potential quarterfinal matchup with Boris Becker, McEnroe snapped: "I don't care about a quarterfinal match. I care about winning the tournament. You think I'm going to be happy if I beat him and lose the semifinals? The idea is to win the tournament."
Another American, the fourth-seeded Connors, feels similarly. Connors turns 33 Monday and hasn't won a tournament since last October, but he describes his chance of winning this Open as "likely."
Wilander would attribute such thinking to the American condition: The best is the only way to be. Where Wilander comes from, you keep your expectations in check.
"Here, two others are ranked higher than I, so I can't expect to win it," Wilander said.
Someone asked him if his was a negative attitude.
"It's a Swedish attitude," Wilander replied. "Americans feel a different way. They go on the court and play just for winning. They never think, 'Maybe I'm not so lucky today and maybe I won't play so well.'
"The American attitude helps you to be more disappointed if you lose. You can't think that way, because then you don't enjoy your tennis. You only enjoy winning, and that's not why I'm playing tennis.