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U.S. OPEN : Wilander Back on Course With a Dramatic Victory


NEW YORK — An older fellow created a sensation at the U.S. Open Wednesday, and his name wasn't Jimmy Connors.

Mats Wilander, in the tournament as a wild-card entry and playing for no apparent reason, dashed around the court like a young pup for 3 hours 13 minutes and eventually won his first-round match over Jaime Oncins of Brazil, 7-5, 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (18-16).

Wilander actually isn't that old. He just turned 29 and is nowhere near the wrinkled and crinkled condition of his former tour rival Connors, who will be 41 today. It was Connors, the Ponce de Leon of tennis, who turned this prestigious tournament into a search for the Fountain of Youth two years ago with his run to the semifinals.

Wilander is not exactly searching for the Fountain of Youth. More like the perfect two-iron.

Since he wandered away from the pro tennis tour in the spring of 1989, only months after climbing the tennis mountain all the way to No. 1 after a dramatic five-set victory over Ivan Lendl in the 1988 U.S. Open final, he drifted away. He has said repeatedly, and again Wednesday, that once he got to No. 1 and won the U.S. Open title--his seventh Grand Slam tournament title--there was no motivation to go on, no desire to take the chances needed to remain at the top.

So now, after about three years of life mostly off the tour, tennis has become secondary to family and to simple relaxation at his home in Greenwich, Conn., down the street from Lendl and about an hour from New York City.

When asked what he does with his time now, Wilander replied, "I'm playing golf and producing a baby, and that is all really. I just stay home."

Staying home, easily financed by the $7.5 million he earned as a tennis player, reportedly has produced a five-handicap golf game. But staying home hasn't totally eroded the tennis skills that made him one of the great players of all time, a player who came out of Sweden in his mid-teens, won the French Open at 17 and kept on going to play in 35 Grand Slam events before Wednesday, and win 33 singles and five doubles titles.

Wilander won three Australian titles, three French titles and the one U.S. Open title, and had he used similar aggressive tactics to those he employed against Oncins, he might have added the one that eluded him, Wimbledon. Against the 23-year-old Brazilian, Wilander had more volley winners than either forehand or backhand winners. In the past, Wilander at the net was like McEnroe being polite.

"I don't want to get into the same kind of rallies that I used to," Wilander said, "because I know I am not going to outlast these guys anymore."

Actually, that is exactly what Wilander did to Oncins in the dramatic third-set tiebreaker.

Just to get to that point, Wilander had to climb back from 0-3, 1-4 and 3-5 deficits in the third set against Oncins, who, clearly wanted to keep this old guy out there for five sets. Oncins, it should be noted, became a national hero in Brazil in recent years with two Davis Cup victories in matches approaching six hours. The lanky 6-foot-4 right-hander is a classic, South American clay-court specialist who feels most comfortable when it is about 85 degrees, 80% humidity, is five hours into the match, and his socks are caked brown with dirt and dust.

So when Wilander got it into a tiebreaker, and rallied from 1-4 and 2-5 deficits, Oncins was just getting started. Perhaps 20 minutes later--and 10 match points for Wilander, one set point for Oncins and one major-league temper tantrum over a line call by the Brazilian--Wilander served and popped a forehand volley cross-court, giving the greatly partisan crowd of about 3,500 on Court No. 16 what it had come to see: Wilander win his first Grand Slam match since the second round of the 1991 French Open.

Oncins' tantrum occurred at 15-all. Wilander hit a forehand just beyond the baseline and the linesmen and chair umpire froze. The call stood as good, and Wilander had his ninth match point. But before he could attempt to get it, Oncins swiped at everything he could find in his path with his racket, destroying a few water bottles and scratching up lots of tarp.

"It was such an important point," Oncins said. "I really got crazy. It is hard to tell what is in your mind at a time like that." Later, he added, "My mother can make a call like that." And, "The chair umpire just didn't have the guts to reverse the call."

As Oncins left the court after the match, he turned toward the chair umpire and made a gesture with his hand around his throat.

Since Oncins drew Connors in the first round of last year's U.S. Open, and lost to him in the Stadium, on Connors' 40th birthday, in front of 20,000 fansall screaming their lungs out for Connors, his gesture could have meant one of two things: (1) He felt the umpire choked; (2) He'd like to choke himself to death over the the draws he gets in this tournament.

"Maybe next year, I get (former champion Guillermo) Vilas," he said. "No more comebacks. If I see (that kind of) draw, I go back home."

Home is where Wilander headed after his match. Sadly for him, it was a little late to play 18.

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