NEW YORK -- A stranger appeared at the National Tennis Center yesterday. He looked an awful lot like Mats Wilander. But the impersonator who invaded this year's U.S. Open didn't play or act like the man who won here five years ago and rose to No. 1 in the world as a result.
It couldn't have been Wilander, who was known to stay on the baseline as if stuck there with glue. It couldn't have been Wilander, whose emotions ranged from stoic to impassive.
It couldn't have been Wilander, who hadn't played in the Open since 1990 and in a Grand Slam event since the 1991 French Open. But there he was on Court 16, pounding backhand passing shots instead of slicing them and blasting nine aces without double faulting with a new high-tech racket that he picked up last week. He even pumped his fists like the guy whose wild-card invitation he took -- Jimmy Connors.
And there was poor Jaime Oncins, the man who had the unfortunate task of being the booby prize at Connors' 40th birthday party here on the Stadium Court last year. This time it was Wilander surviving a controversial third-set tiebreaker and advancing with a 7-5, 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (18-16) victory.
"I was a little surprised today," said Wilander, 29, who lives in nearby Greenwich, Conn. "I actually didn't feel that tired and it wasn't really worrying me to lose the third set because I didn't think I had a problem. But the matches that I have played before in New Haven and Schenectady, I got a little bit tired quite early. Today, it felt pretty good."
He looked pretty good as well, in some ways better than the player who won the French Open at 17 and then spent the next seven years trying to get to No. 1. When he finally did, by beating Ivan Lendl in a five-set final in 1988, Wilander's life and game began to fall apart. It started when his father passed away shortly after the Open, and bottomed out with a first-round loss at the Open in 1990. By the middle of the next year, Wilander was finished.
"I couldn't think of anything more boring than playing tennis at that time," said Wilander, who became a 5-handicap golfer and, four months ago, a first-time father. "I didn't enjoy traveling. I didn't feel like I was playing for the right reasons anymore. I was just playing because I was ranked No. 1 and just kept traveling because I was making money. But I didn't start playing tennis that way and I didn't want to end up playing like that."
So why did he decide to play in the Open?
"I don't know, I just like to play these local tournaments," he said with his typical deadpan. "As long as you can drive there it is fine with me. I was playing pretty good in team tennis and it is -- actually playing local tournaments -- a joke, but not really as well. I don't know if I would play if the French Open was now. I think here is so convenient."
How long Wilander can hang around is a good question. With the elimination of five men's seeds already -- a record for the first round in the Open era -- Wilander could become to this year's tournament what Connors was to it two years ago and what John McEnroe was here in 1990. With one major exception: don't expect Wilander to play any of those memorable come-from-behind five-set matches that became Connors' trademark.
In fact, that's one of the reasons why Wilander has altered his style.
A product of the Swedish system that produced baseliners in the mold of Bjorn Borg, Wilander was a boring version of Borg.
"I don't want to get into the same kind of rallies that I used to, because I know I'm not going to outlast these guys anymore," said Wilander, who will play another Americanized Swede, Mikael Pernfors, in the second round.
He didn't have to outlast Oncins, 23, a hard-hitting Brazilian ranked 70th in the world. He merely outfoxed him, changing his pace constantly, playing safe one minute and going for a winner the next. Oncins seemed on the verge of losing his concentration several times and was finally sent over the edge when a forehand passing shot by Wilander at 15-15 in the tiebreaker was ruled good. The ball appeared to be long.
Oncins became incensed, swatting his racket near the head of the line judge, then throwing it as he went to argue with the chair umpire.
Wilander finally got the victory on his 10th match point -- a serve and forehand volley past a still distressed Oncins, who gave the line judge a choke sign and had a few choice words for the chair umpire as well.
"He [the umpire] didn't have the guts to change it," Oncins said later. "When you get a mistake like that you really get crazy."
There was some irony to Wilander's victory, since it came shortly after Lendl pulled up lame in the third set of his opening-round match with Neil Borwick of Australia. The players had split the first two sets -- each winning 6-4 -- and Borwick was ahead 3-1 in the third when Lendl had problems pushing off on a knee that he had hurt while practicing for the Open.