New York — A couple of years ago John McEnroe, the mighty mouth of tennis, accused a quiet young Mats Wilander of ducking the No. 1 ranking. Wilander was too comfortable being a top contender - and a newly wealthy one - to go for the top rung on the ladder, said Mac. Well, today Wilander is the game's preeminent player, in the rankings and in the minds of his peers, and maybe McEnroe's chiding had something to do with it. Then again maybe Wilander simply matured on a sensible schedule, at his own pace.
``I didn't want to have a career crisis at an early age,'' says the reflective 24-year-old Swede. ``I was afraid of being No. 1 before I was ready for it. I felt I had to go through all the steps, the way you do grades in school, and be ready. I didn't want to go through what I think Boris Becker is going through.''
The wavy-haired Wilander's game and personality both have developed magnificently. He is more outgoing on both fronts.
Sunday he won the US Open with an attack that was too diverse and daring for Ivan Lendl, who had been ranked No. 1 for three years, by scores of 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4. The match was tenaciously contested for nearly five hours, and kept getting better. Imagine a 30-round heavyweight championship fight in which neither man concedes a punch and you have this Lendl-Wilander showdown. Only five points separated the two superstars at the end.
It was Wilander's third major championship of the year. Earlier he won the Australian and French Opens. He now has won seven Grand Slam titles in all.
Call his 1988 heroics the Three-Quarter Slam. Or call the men's majors the Swedish Slam, since countrymate Stefan Edberg won Wimbledon, the one Wilander missed (he lost to his nemesis Miloslav Mecir in the quarterfinals).
If Wilander needed extra incentive here, he could have derived it from the fact no Swede ever had won the clamorous US Open. It was the large blemish on Bjorn Borg's record.
``For that reason and others, this was the biggest match I ever played,'' an uncharacteristically excited Wilander said after beating Lendl. ``It was for the No. 1 ranking and it was a rematch of the close final we played a year ago. This should be a breakthrough for me mentally.''
Wilander (pronounced ``Vee-lander'') made the press corps laugh late Sunday evening when he quipped with a grin, ``Nobody beats me seven times in a row.'' Lendl had beaten him the last six times they had met, though they had not faced each other this year.
The match was for the city championship of Greenwich, Conn., as well as the Open trophy and its $275,000 winner's check. Both men live in the affluent suburban melting pot less than an hour's drive from the Flushing Meadow stadium.
After their tedious 1987 Open final, critics suggested that sitting through it was like watching two Greenwich residents mow their lawns on a weekend. This year was engagingly different.
Wilander in particular displayed fresh variety in his shotmaking. He spared no potential weapon. ``My game plan is to mix it up and try to keep him guessing,'' he said. ``I chipped his big first serve back. On his second serve I came in sometimes and sometimes I didn't. I worked on his backhand and came in.
``My thinking has changed from being so conservative. I've decided I'd rather get beaten by a guy making a good passing shot on a tough point instead of staying back and relying on my best shots, my ground strokes. I know now I can beat the top players - I don't have to wait for them to make mistakes.''
Wilander approached the net 131 times during the marathon match and made 76 winners, against Lendl's 77 approach trips and 49 winners. Mats never double-faulted on his serve; Lendl double-faulted only once, but got in only 43 percent of his first serves compared to twice that high a percentage by Wilander.
``That didn't bother me, because my serve usually isn't a high-precentage factor, but when I get it in I win points,'' said Lendl. ``The difference was that I wasted too many chances at the beginnings of sets. I missed an overhead and a passing shot when I had break points. My passing shots let me down when I really needed them, and let him be more agressive and come to the net a lot.''
Ivan the Powerful had reached his seventh straight US Open final by thumping America's bright young hope Andre Agassi 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 in the semifinals. Agassi was curiously uncompetitive-looking in the middle of the match, as even Lendl pointed out.
Wilander trounced unseeded Darren Cahill of Australia in straight sets in his semi. Oddly, Lendl was Wilander's first seeded opponent in the upset-marked tounament.
So Wilander is the first man to win three majors in a year since Jimmy Connors in 1974, having thwarted Lendl's bid to become the first to win four straight Opens since Bill Tilden in the 1920s. And he is No. 1 in the world as of Monday's revised rankings.
``There might be more pressure, but I have more confidence,'' he says. ``Everyone will be out to beat me, I know. I think I'm ready for that now.''
The new Mats Wilander - or rather the refined, more mature version - is ducking nothing.