December 11, 1983: Mats Wilander downs Ivan Lendl in historic AO final


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December 11, 1983: Mats Wilander downs Ivan Lendl in historic AO final

Unlike modern tennis where tennis season is tailored around Grand Slams, the organizers of the four biggest tournaments had difficulties to attract the world's leading competitors into their arenas in the past, and the Australian Open seemed to struggle the most in that quest.

First of all, the tournament was held at the worst possible time around the new year and the players from the top often decided to skip it and prepare themselves for January and indoor season. After John Newcombe beat Jimmy Connors in 1975 final, the next eight editions of the tournament had brought the surprising winners and a weaker field that affected the reputation and the attendance.

Things changed in 1983, though, when John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, and Mats Wilander (he asked for a wild card and probably entered the draw because of the upcoming Davis Cup final between Australia and Sweden on grass) all flew to Melbourne as the main stars at the famous Kooyong Stadium (the event was played at the end of November and in the first 10 days of December), seeking the first Australian Open trophy. McEnroe and Lendl already proved their class many times before despite still being at the young age but it was the Swedish teenager that spoiled their plans and went all the way to lift his second Grand Slam title after Roland Garros in the previous year.

This was only the sixth ATP tournament on grass for Mats who was already one of the finest clay courters in the world, and he gave his best to improve his net game and bring the necessary elements for the success on the fastest surface in the game.

Also, his return was a top-notch during these two weeks, giving him the edge and the opportunity to dictate the points and terminate them on his own terms. It wasn't the best possible start for the Swede who trailed 2-1 against Ben Testerman in the second round (seeds skipped the opening round matches) before he recovered in sets four and five to go through, beating a two-time defending champion Johan Kriek in the quarters to enter the last four.

There, Lendl defeated Tim Mayotte in straight sets to advance into his fourth Grand Slam final, seeking his first Grand Slam crown after ending on the losing side in the previous three title match, including the US Open three months earlier.

In the other semi-final, Wilander produced his finest tennis on this surface to oust McEnroe 4-6 6-3 6-4 6-3 and the stage was set for the first all-European final at the Australian Open since 1912! Also, the Old continent assured to give the winner for the first time since 1934 when Fred Perry lifted the trophy, with a great chance for both players to earn the grass Major, something that was much harder to accomplish at Wimbledon.

On December 11, Mats toppled Ivan 6-1 6-4 6-4 to win the title at the age of 19 years and three months, becoming the youngest Australian Open winner since great Ken Rosewall in 1953 and also the second teenager with multiple Grand Slam crowns after his compatriot Bjorn Borg who stayed away from the Tour in 1983.

So far, we have seen that the European flags stood tall in Melbourne after many decades but that wasn't the only striking fact about this final. The match itself certainly can't find the place among the Grand Slam classics as Lendl once again failed to bring his best tennis when he needed it the most, but the match analysis shows its true nature and exactly what could have been expected from these two players.

Unlike probably all the previous Grand Slam finals on grass (and it had been a lot of them with the US Open being played on that surface until 1974), this one delivered clay-like rallies and exchanges that were reserved for Roland Garros and some epic battles we will see from these two in Paris in the years to come.

Neither Lendl or Wilander were the players who would have rushed to the net on every occasion and their rock solid groundstrokes allowed them to play some extreme long points, in full contrast to the surface underneath their feet.

For example, there were 12 rallies with more than 20 shots, and three exchanges almost reached the 40th stroke, which would have been considered a massive point even at Roland Garros. It has to be said that those longest points mainly came in sets one and two, with faster and more efficient hitting coming from both in the final set, but it was really extraordinary to watch endless backhand to backhand shots without any intention to move from the comfort zone and make an approach shot and rush to the net.

In the end, it was Wilander who was more determined and aggressive, scoring five breaks of serve and facing just four break points, dropping serve once to emerge as a deserved winner. Mats did just about everything better, winning 22 points more than Ivan (98-76) and controlling his service games better, saving three out of four break points to limit the damage and keep the pressure on his rival.

Lendl struggled to find the rhythm on his serve, losing 44% of the points behind his initial shot and facing 10 break points. Wilander converted five to stay in front almost all the time and the Czech also made six double faults, twice on break points, which cost him a lot.

The Swede had 25 service winners, a great number considering the fact the initial shot is not his primary weapon, while Lendl stayed on 21. Wilander also had more winners from the field, 32 to 24, and he managed to tame his shots better, staying on 22 unforced and eight forced mistakes, five less than Lendl who had 25 unforced errors and 10 that were forced by his opponent's shots.

Ivan also had five double faults more than Mats and we saw that some of those had come in the worst possible moments, which also made the difference.

Nothing could separate them in the longest points with nine or more strokes (17-16 for Mats) and the Czech was more effective in the mid-range points from five to eight strokes (19-14). Nonetheless, the match was decided in the most common rallies up to four strokes where Wilander had a huge 67-41 advantage that gave him the victory.

His serve gave him a lot of free points and he was more productive with his first groundstroke and volleys, even though it wasn't the usual pattern how he wins the points, and we can say that he accommodated his game to grass better than Lendl who will never feel comfortable on the green low-bouncing surface.

The teenager was off to a great start and that helped him to gain the necessary confidence and break Lendl's rhythm and momentum. Mats sailed through his service games in the opener and Ivan was unable to follow that pace, dropping the last five games of the set including breaks of serve in games four and six.

Wilander's return worked like a charm and two return winners boosted his chances of scoring the second break in game six, bringing the set home after 27 minutes on own serve in the following game. Ivan held after three deuces in the fifth game of set number two and he scored his first and only break in the next game to open up a 4-2 lead, looking good to grab the set and get back on the scoreboard.

Nonetheless, Wilander immediately pulled the break back in game seven, winning two huge rallies and taking advantage of Lendl's two double faults that would cost him dearly. At that point, the Czech was still in front but his confidence was shaken once again, failing to overcome it and reach a tie break.

He wasted two game points at 4-4 with unforced errors and Mats notched a crucial break with a backhand lob winner that sent him 5-4 in front, giving him a chance to serve for the second set and a huge lead. It wasn't easy, though, as he gave Lendl a break point in that 10th game but he stayed focused to clinch the set with three winners, rattling off four games in a row and moving just a set away from his second Grand Slam crown.

The Swede looked better and better on the court as the match progressed and he saved his best serving display for the final set when he dropped just seven points in five service games, forcing Lendl to try to reach the similar numbers in his games.

Ivan sealed his fate with a double fault in game three that sent Mats 2-1 up and the youngster only had to serve well in the following games to bring the match home and lift the crown. They both held easily in the next five games and Lendl served to stay in the match in game nine, trailing 5-3.

He fends off three match points with three service winners to wrap up the game and reduce the deficit to 5-4 but it was all or nothing for him in the next game, with Mats serving for the championship. Ivan earned his last chance to prolong the match, hitting a forehand volley winner after a 30-stroke rally but Mats repelled it with a service winner on the second serve.

The match was over two points later when Lendl sent a forehand long, smashing his dreams of becoming a Grand Slam champion (it would happen next spring in Paris) and allowing Mats Wilander to write his name in the record books of the Australian Open.

 
Wilander                   Lendl
98       Total points won  76
57/82    Serve points won  51/92
5/10     Break points won  1/4
25       Service winners   21
32       Field winners     24
22       Unforced errors   25
8        Forced errors     10
1        Double faults     6 
Points won by the rallies length:
Wilander             Lendl
67       1-4   (108) 41
14       5-8   (33)  19
4        9-12  (7)   3    
8        13-20 (14)  6       
5        21+   (12)  7