Tennis: Wilander on way back to old routine: Two former world leaders ride the ups and downs of the comeback trail in the Australian Open

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The Independent Online
WHEN the Australian Open was first held at Flinders Park here in 1988, Mats Wilander defeated Pat Cash 8-6 in the fifth set of the men's singles final. Yesterday, as the Swedish former world No 1 continued to revive memories by advancing to the third round, it was not certain that Cash would ever play again.

The 28-year-old Australian, whose career has been frustrated by injuries, underwent surgery to a herniated disc after the recurrence of a condition which first troubled him in 1985. Initial reports indicate that the operation has been successful, but the 1987 Wimbledon champion must wait three months before he can decide whether it is worth risking another comeback.

Cash, who had been offered a wild card for the championships, declined after losing in the first round of warm-up tournaments in Adelaide and Sydney. Those were his first tour events since losing to John McEnroe in five sets in the second round at the All England Club two summers ago.

The 29-year-old Wilander, who took a wild card, defeated Olivier Delaitre, of France, 6-1, 2-6, 7-5, 6-4, in the second round. He also reached the third round when he made his return to Grand Slams at the United States Open last year, losing to Cedric Pioline, the runner-up.

Events have conspired to give Wilander reason to believe he can make further progress. He was due to play the 16th seed, Arnaud Boetsch, in the third round, but sinusitis caused the dangerous Frenchman to withdraw. Alexander Mronz, of Germany, ranked No 143, advanced to the next round in consequence. In addition, Michael Stich, the No 2 seed, is no longer a potential fourth-round opponent.

After defeating Cash here six years ago, Wilander went on to complete his stellar year by winning the French and US titles. He then began to find the game a chore and decided to quit shortly after the 1991 US Open.

Wilander once cracked a joke during the course of a television interview at Flushing Meadow: 'If a Swedish tennis player and a Czech tennis player jumped off the Empire State Building, who would land first? Who cares]'

This alluded to his rivalry with Ivan Lendl in the days when Wilander was prepared to 'play boring tennis all day' in order to win. 'It's impossible for me to keep concentration for three hours now,' he said yesterday. 'I get a little bit more emotional. I think I was much more level-headed before. Now I lose concentration for a few games, or for a few minutes, and then I pump myself up for a little while.'

The Swede contended that the game has changed more in the past three years than in the five or six years prior to that. 'I think it's maybe a little extreme now,' he said. 'You hit a couple of winners in and then you hit a few out, and it's quite erratic.

'It's very new and different for me. Suddenly I'm hitting a few more winners and a few more aces, because I know that you've got to go for a big first serve sometimes and you can't just hit an approach shot very deep and then close in. I think a little faster, or stop thinking, whichever way you want to put it.'

Stefan Edberg, a possible semi-final opponent in the lower half of the draw, agreed with Wilander. 'The game is played faster and everybody is hitting the ball quite hard, almost a little bit careless at times,' the fourth seed said. 'You cannot just go out there and hit balls back, that is impossible. Even if you are playing from the back of the court you have to look for openings.'

Unlike many in the sport, Edberg does not consider that racket technology is entirely responsible for the change. 'If you look at the racket I'm using and Pete (Sampras) is using they are 10 years old, and we still hit the ball pretty hard. You cannot just say it is the racket. It is just the game, maybe because of the ranking system. It makes your attitude a little different. Whereas before you may have played the ball safe, now you go for the shots.'

Tracy Austin, who, in common with Wilander, is having to adjust to changes in the game while making a comeback, bristled when her tennis was described as 'old style' by Sabine Hack after the 24-year-old German had beaten the former world No 1 in the second round, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2. 'That's just a stupid comment,' Austin said. 'I hit the ball on the rise. I didn't let the ball drop when I played before, and I don't let it drop now. If I had let it drop, every ball was six feet over my head.'

Gabriela Sabatini, of Argentina, was thankful to hit the ball any which way but loose in the concluding phase of her second-round match against Natalia Medvedeva, which was played under the Centre Court roof because of rain. The erratic fourth seed, who lead 4-0 in the final set, required six match points to clinch victory, 6-1, 3-6, 7-5.

(Photograph omitted)