BOUNCING BACK : Wilander Hopes to Salvage a Miserable 1989 Season With a Memorable U.S. Open

Times Staff Writer

On a gray, breezy Monday afternoon, Mats Wilander returned to the scene of his greatest triumph, the U.S. Open, which oddly enough doesn't seem particularly glad to have him back.

Unlike last year, the sun may not have shone on Wilander this time in his first-round match against Horst Skoff, but it didn't matter. Wilander defeated the Austrian clay-court specialist, 6-1, 6-3, 6-1, in 1 hour 25 minutes.

Wilander is rated no better than an 8-1 choice to win the Open, but after what has happened to him since the last time he played here, when he was King for a day in Queens, those aren't bad odds.

He said he wouldn't really have preferred a tougher match.

"I think I'd rather win," Wilander said.

Wilander is fifth-seeded, the worst seeding for a defending champion in 13 years, since Manuel Orantes was sixth-seeded. And even though this is where Wilander beat Ivan Lendl in a five-set final to claim the No. 1 ranking, this is also where Wilander began sliding.

In the past year, Wilander has won only one tournament, a minor Nabisco Grand Prix event in Palermo, Italy, last October.

Wilander is 0-for-1989, as far as winning tournaments. He made it to only one final and lost to Andres Gomez at Boston. Losing matches cost Wilander the No. 1 ranking, which he held about four months.

There is not much difference between the Wilander of this Open and the last, he said, except for one critical area: "Mentally, I don't have the same kind of confidence because I haven't won tournaments."

Against Skoff, Wilander seemed to establish himself as a challenger to those favored to take his title--Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, John McEnroe. Wilander won 81% of the points on his first serve and won 19 points on 21 approaches to the net.

"I get a little confidence when I play on that court and I think that is from playing well last year."

His performances elsewhere this year are a different story. Wilander's match record is 27-15 and he has gotten no further than the quarterfinals in the three previous Grand Slam events. Last year, Wilander won three Grand Slams.

"I don't think I really struggled, I really didn't feel like playing," Wilander said. "I just wanted to enjoy the fact that I became No. 1. Then I lost a few matches, maybe one too many, and my confidence was down.

"I was No. 1 for such a short time that I really didn't feel any pressure. In a way, I've proved my point. Right now, I would love to be No. 1, but I think I enjoyed my three or four months more than some players enjoy it even though they are No. 1 their whole life."

Wilander said playing well in the Open is the one way he can salvage an otherwise disappointing year.

"Basically, if you win it, then 1989 was not such a bad year after all," he said. "On the other hand, you can get to the final and play a great match and lose a tough match and that would make it a pretty good year as well.

"I'm not obsessed at all."

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