Two towers of tennis power for Paris. French Open winners Wilander, Graf halfway to Grand Slams
Paris — Just how good are Mats Willander and Steffi Graf? Are they spectacular? Or simply solid? In the wake of their victories in this year's French Tennis Championships, it's hard to pick the right adjectives. Both champions now have captured the Grand Slam's first two legs (in Australia and France). It will take more than they showed in Paris, however, for either or both to round off the Slam by capturing the Wimbledon and United States Open titles.
Wilander finished off Henri Leconte in three straight sets, 7-5, 6-2, 6-1. The Swede hit soft second serves and simple ground strokes as his French foe fell apart, making mistake after mistake. One incredible statistic summed up the one-sided affair. Mats didn't have to hit a single volley in the entire final. He came to net a few times, only to have his opponent make yet another error.
``It's hard to know with Henri,'' Mats commented. ``He can be very good - or very bad.''
Graf crushed Soviet surprise finalist Natalia Zvereva, 6-0, 6-0. As if the score didn't say it all, the match took only 32 minutes, meaning that Steffi earned about $7,500 for each minute she was on the court.
``I'm very sorry it was so fast,'' the West German champion said afterwards. ``I never can recall winning such an important match so easily.''
Stronger opponents were eliminated early in the tournament. Chris Evert, the ``Grande Dame'' of the Roland Garros courts here, went out in the third round to 16-year old Spaniard Arantxa Sanchez, while the once-dominant Martina Navritalova was caught flat in the fourth round by the 17-year-old Zvereva.
For both Chris and Martina it was their worst showings ever in Paris, the first time either had failed to reach the semifinals. Some aficionados concluded that it was time to bid farewell to the over-30 generation and say welcome to the new wave of teen-agers.
One hopes not. The two ``elder stateswomen'' vowed to play better at Wimbledon, where in particular a revigorated Navratilova should be a serious challenger. Grass, where she can best use her serve-and-volley game, is Martina's favorite surface. And it's hard to overlook the fact that she has won the tournament the last six years in a row.
The challenge from the younger set gets tougher every year, though. And for the men, too, the generational gap is emerging as a major theme. The French Open was the latest opportunity for the new American sensation, 17-year-old Andre Agassi, to display his considerable talent. He stormed into the semifinals behind a blistering forehand, while managing another, perhaps an even more impressive feat: winning over the fickle French crowd with his joie de vivre.
Andre enjoys the game. He grunts and groans after each shot. He shouts like Tarzan. It's all good fun, including the unexpected clowning. Once during a burst of rain, he borrowed a spectator's umbrella.
But on the court, if not off it, he still must mature. His stamina is suspect, and in the fifth set of his semifinal match with Wilander, his legs gave way and the steady Swede swamped him, 6-0. His strokes also are suspect. Until now, he has relied too much on his backcourt game, particularly his forehand.
Other teen-age Americans have burst on the scene before with similar games, only soon to fade afterwards. Remember Jimmy Arias? Or Aaron Krickstein? In short, Andre has to prove he can go the distance.
The other important American in Paris was the oldest man in the tournament, 29-year-old father John McEnroe. Trying to work his way back into shape after a six-month layoff, John breezed into the fourth round, where he met defending champion Ivan Lendl. It was a titanic match, by far the best of the tournament, stopped because of darkness and finished the next morning.
As in his glory days, John once again was taking the ball on the rise and following his drives to the net for brilliantly angled, volley winners. Ivan never gave up. He hit harder and harder, and as the match wore on, he became stronger, touching line after line.
``I've never seen a guy hit so many lines - and on a lot of different shots,'' McEnroe said. ``He must have hit 12 that I remember in one set.''
The effort took a lot out of the No. 1 seed. In the next round, Lendl stumbled against an unknown Swede, Jonas B. Svensson. Swedes were all over Paris. Seventeen products of the Bjorn Borg generation entered the men's singles, and when they weren't knocking each other out of the tournament, they were causing problems for the other seeds.
Wilander is the best of them. He doesn't have the most talent; that honor must go to the gifted Stefan Edberg, with his spectacular serve and sharp net play. Mats has no great strokes. Although he has improved his serve and volley in recent years, he remains a defensive player.
His greatest advantage is his sharp sense of tactics and his steel-like character. In the finals, he slowed down the pace of his serves on purpose, depriving his French opponent of velocity, and then pounded ground strokes deep and high to Leconte's vulnerable backhand until it collapsed.
On clay, such strategy has given Mats a formidable record. He first won in Paris as a 17-year-old. Now 24, he has reached the finals five of the last six years, and has won the tournament three times. But Wilander has never won on Wimbledon's fast grass, and he himself admits it will be hard for him to capture the fabled English trophy, let alone the legendary Grand Slam.
``To win two tournaments in a row would be nice,'' he said in one reflective moment here before his triumph. ``To win the Grand Slam hasn't been a serious thing.''