New York City, a megalopolis of about 9 million people, has given us John McEnroe, the premier tennis player in the world. Not so surprising. Sweden, a country of about 9 million, has given us four of the top 12 players. Most surprising.
McEnroe solidified his top ranking over the weekend with a convincing straight-set victory over Ivan Lendl in the finals of the rich Volvo Masters Tournament at Madison Square Garden. But the young Swedes, who became the talk of the tennis community while compiling 13 victories among them in 1984, were also right in there adding to their fast-growing reputation.
Mats Wilander, their leader, reached the semifinals before losing to McEnroe. Joakim Nystrom knocked out Vitas Gerulaitis and advanced to the quarterfinals. Anders Jarryd, the ``old man'' of the contingent at 23, nearly upset the mighty McEnroe in the quarterfinals. Henrik Sundstrom also qualified for the exclusive field comprised of those who had the best 1984 Grand Prix seasons only to get paired against his coutryman Jarryd in the first round. That made it impossible for all four Swedes to advance, and he turned out to be the one who was eliminated when Jarryd won their match.
The sweet-stroking Swedes ended the year, of course, by trouncing probably the strongest US team in history to win the Davis Cup. The rangy Sundstrom stunned McEnroe, Wilander beat Jimmy Connors, and the Swedes closed out the Yanks by inflicting the first-ever Davis Cup loss on the ``unbeatable'' doubles team of McEnroe and Peter Fleming, which had won all 14 of its previous matches in such competition over the years.
Only a week earlier, Wilander had won the Australian Open for the second year in a row. If the slow clay court in Sweden favored the home team in the Davis Cup, the grass in Australia afforded Wilander the chance to display the smorgasbord diversity of his game.
``He's just 20 years old and he's going to be tough for a long time,'' McEnroe says of Wilander.
For his part, Wilander faces a difficult assignment trying to remain No. 1 in Sweden. Sundstrom, particularly, is blessed with expansive potential. He beat Wilander twice in three weeks last spring.
``Why are there so many of us doing well?'' Wilander asked, repeating a reporter's question. ``It started with Bjorn Borg. We saw him on television and were inspired to pick up a racket. Now that he's retired, we feel the desire to carry the banner.''
Wilander replaced Borg as the youngest man to win a major championship, snaring the 1982 French Open at 17.
Said Borg, a visiting dignitary at the Volvo Masters (even the sponsors are Swedish!), ``I am proud of their success. They play somewhat the way I did, using a lot of topspin and mostly a two-handed backhand. They are good from the backcourt. But they're developing a more varied style. Stefan Edberg, another fine Swedish player, is aggressive. He likes to serve and volley.''
Borg, Wilander, and the other swivel-hipped Swedes, credit the Swedish Tennis Federation with developing young talent through a free national junior program that reaches down to the shortest grass roots. The teaching is done by enthusiastic amateurs who volunteer their time and are trained by the Federation, in sharp contrast to the high-pressure American Tennis Academy that attracts our better young prospects.
Sweden is known for its love of sport, and evinces a special modern passion for tennis. Adults routinely put something back into the game by helping juniors.
Most of the world-class players come from working-class homes and have been encouraged to play tennis rather than soccer, the predominant European sport, or ice hockey. They retain a keen sense of national loyalty even after they become worldly touring pros, and frequently return home to play in local events for fun rather than profit. The Swedes' sense of team play, so evident in the Davis Cup, is charmingly conspicuous even at a blatantly commercial event like the Masters. When one is playing, the others in the stands are rooting him on.
They go to dinner and the movies in a convivial group, not at all resembling the mercenary individualists winning tennis players are supposed to be and usually are.
``The team situation has always helped me,'' says Wilander, whose near superstardom now pulls him off in individual directions that do not always please him. ``I don't think I would have come along as fast without it, and it made success easier to handle. We have been doing things and traveling together since we were 13 or 14, and it has just stayed that way. It's comfortable.''
The Swedes are known for their sporting attitude on court, too. They virtually never quarrel with officials, and Wilander once convinced an umpire to replay a match point after a bad call went in his favor.
To say the Swedes are good for tennis today is to understate the case.