Exclusive: Sated Serb a kindred sprit, says wistful Wilander

French Open

By Ossian Shine

PARIS (Reuters) – Triple French Open champion Mats Wilander identified a kindred spirit at Roland Garros on Friday, as Novak Djokovic labored his way into the last 16.

Djokovic looked neither convincing nor happy and Wilander, who scaled the heights of celebrity and tennis superstardom 35 years ago, spotted an all-too familiar malady gnawing at the man on center court.

“It is hard,” Wilander told Reuters in an interview in the Roland Garros stadium.

“It is hard when you have won so much so young, or so unexpectedly. Hard to keep the appetite. With Novak, there seems to be something missing. I think I can see it… I know it happened to me.”

Wilander was cast into the blinding spotlight of celebrity in 1982 when, as a blond 17-year-old Swede, he won the French Open to captivate a tennis-watching public still mourning the premature retirement of tennis icon Bjorn Borg.

Little more than six months later Wilander won the second of his seven grand slam titles, in Melbourne, and that was when cracks began to appear.

“You lose your hunger. It first happened to me after winning the Australian Open in 1983. It happened after I won the 1985 French Open – well, because I met a woman – who I am now married to – so some things are more important.”

On Friday, 12-times grand slam winner Djokovic stumbled unconvincingly into the fourth round with a 5-7 6-3 3-6 6-1 6-1 win over world number 41 Diego Schwartzman of Argentina.

His play was up and down, and Wilander suspects he knows the reason.

“I think he has no problem winning… when he is winning, it is black and white… he knows how to win – he’s better than you. And when he is losing, that’s what seems to spark him.

“But when it is zero-zero, he seems he finds it hard to have the appetite. I understand that, I recognize it.

“You can’t just make it happen, it has to be solved in your heart. It’s like an animalistic feeling… it’s like a sense. It’s something you either have or not.

Djokovic has recently hired American eight-times grand slam champion Andre Agassi as his coach.

“That is the best thing about Novak having Andre Agassi with him. This struggle for appetite, it happened to Bjorn Borg, it happened to Boris Becker, it happened to me, it happened to Andre,” Wilander said.

“And Andre came back and played like a crazy person. He knows how to deal with this. He knows how to fix it.”

(Editing by Ed Osmond)