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Wilander Hasn't Stopped Holding Court

Tennis: Former top-ranked pro lends his name, game to tournament next week in Orange County.

September 06, 1997|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

These days, Mats Wilander swings a nine-iron more than a tennis racket, and he spends as much time in his recording studio as he does on his private tennis court.

Wilander, once the world's No. 1 player and a seven-time Grand Slam champion, quit tennis at 26 because he wasn't enjoying it. Going cold turkey, though, hasn't been easy.

"I've retired so many times I don't want to say I'm retiring any more," Wilander said from his home in Greenwich, Conn.

Only 33, Wilander is too young to play the fledgling Nuveen Tour for over-35 players and he's not old enough to take himself too seriously.

"I'm not a big fan of planning my future," Wilander said.

So while he contemplates what to do with the rest of his life, Wilander will come to Orange County next week to promote the sport that gave him fame, fortune and self-gratification and to which he added class and intelligence.

He is lending his name and time to the inaugural Mats Wilander Battle of the Beaches tennis tournament, which begins Monday at courts throughout the county and concludes Thursday through Sunday at the Palisades Tennis Club in Newport Beach. Wilander's friend, Mark Kaplan, a three-time All-American at UC Irvine who played six years on the ATP tour, is putting the tournament together with Parry O'Keefe, a local tennis pro and promoter.

The event, which is free to the public, will include some juniors, some pros--most notably Jeff Tarango--and some former pros such as Wilander, Karol Novacek, Ronald Agenor and Piet Aldrich.

"We wanted to create some interest for the juniors and give them a chance to play some professional players," Wilander said. "In Sweden, we used to play these kind of tournaments all the time. They seem to bring everybody in tennis together."

If nothing else, it brought Wilander back to the sport he had essentially given up on twice.

"We all think we're going to do something else after tennis because we're sick of it after playing it for so long," he said. "But then we realize after we leave it for a while, that it's a pretty good game and that we can teach others how to play it pretty well."

It has been nearly 10 years since Wilander played it better than anyone. In 1988, he won three Grand Slam tournaments--the Australian, the French and the U.S. Open. From 1982--when he won his first Grand Slam event--the French Open--to 1988, Wilander was ranked among the top five players on the men's tour. He retired in 1990 and returned to the tour in 1995 for about a year, but never was ranked above 45.

Wilander never possessed a weapon like Andre Agassi's forehand, Pete Sampras' serve, Michael Chang's quickness or Stefan Edberg's volleys. He persevered because of dogged determination.

"It was always very mental for me," Wilander said. "I'm a little like [Jim] Courier. Sampras might have a bad day with other parts of his game, but he always has that serve and forehand, and those two things never leave him. I was a good all-around player who was very steady. I played at a similar pace from the first to the last point. And I played the big points well, that's what separated me."

After playing against Wilander on his backyard court and occasionally taking some sets from him, Kaplan, who reached 100 in the ATP singles rankings, wondered how Wilander was ever that good.

"It made me think I should be better than I was," Kaplan said. "I just took a set from the former No. 1 player. I'd think, 'Obviously there's a lot more to it than that.' The difference was that he had such an unbelievable mental game and unbelievable footwork. Add that with playing the big points well and that's what took him all the way to No. 1."

Now Kaplan and Wilander match strokes on the golf course. Wilander took up golf more than 10 years ago and it didn't take him long before he was breaking 80.

"A lot of tennis players are good golfers," Wilander said. "The hand-eye coordination is about the same. It was pretty easy in the beginning. Now, I'm hooked. It's a great game, a relaxing game. I suppose it's not the greatest exercise, but I'm not looking for that anymore."

Wilander had his handicap down to four, but family obligations cut into his time on the driving range.

"One more [stroke] showed up every time I had a kid," said Wilander, who with his wife, Sonya, has three children, Emma, Karl and Erik.

Although his second tennis career was winding down, Wilander might have delayed his golfing life a couple more years but for an incident at the 1995 French Open. Wilander and Novacek tested positive for cocaine during a random drug test.

They appealed the three-month suspension handed down by the International Tennis Federation, contending test procedures were flawed. But in May of this year, Wilander and Novacek withdrew their appeals after they were unable show the drug testing procedure was flawed.

Wilander was ordered to return all prize money earned since the 1995 French Open--$289,005--and forfeit ATP computer ranking points. Wilander still vehemently denies taking the drug.

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