In 1982, Mats Wilander won the French Open for his first participation. But it’s mainly his semi-final, during which he asked to replay the match point despite having already won the game, which remains in the history books. A very classy behavior which is still considered to be one of the most fair-play gestures in the history of sports.
Yannick Noah still considers this moment to be « the greatest image seen in tennis in the last thirty years. » The scene took place in Paris, on June 4th, 1982. Up against José Luis Clerc, who had already reached the semi-finals in the previous edition, Mats Wilander is only one point away from qualifying for the final of Roland-Garros. At only 18, the Swede was having an incredible tournament for his first participation in the competition (he notably defeated Ivan Lendl in five sets in the fourth round) and was leading 7-5, 6-2, 1-6, 6-5, 40-30 on his opponent’s serve. Who hit a forehand which surprised Wilander, but was judged out by the linesman. « Faute ! », he screamed. Jacques Dorfmann then announced Wilander’s victory after more than three and a half hours of a hard-fought battle. But not so fast. Convinced that his last shot was in, Clerc, who had already saved three match points before winning his quarter-final, and who had just came back from 5-1 to 5-5, quickly contested the decision. To him, it looked like a « theft », and he didn’t wait long before showing his feelings. Having stayed behind at first, Wilander then approached the empire and whispered a few words. Which seemed to make him change his mind. However, everyone thought that it would be impossible to change the final result. « I usually didn’t change my mind, remembers Jacques Dorfmann. Jean-Paul Loth, who was commentating the match live on television, was even sure that I wouldn’t get back to my chair. In the following second, I was sitting on it again. » « Following Mats Wilander’s request, the point is to be played again », he confirmed, in French, with the microphone.
As incredible as it may sound, Wilander had just asked for a match point he had won, and which in turn had confirmed his spot in a Grand Slam final, to be replayed. « Of course, everyone was astonished. Not just for the gesture in itself, because it wasn’t the first time that it happened. But there, it was an 18 year old-boy, in the semis of Roland-Garros, on a match point…that’s why it made such an impact and why we still talk about it today. » It must be said that the young Mats, who had done the same thing in the junior Roma Open in 1981, is a real character, with an exemplary mindset. « Let me just clarify : Wilander didn’t tell me ‘My opponent’s ball is in’, he just said ‘I don’t want to win on a contested point’. So he hadn’t really seen the ball, the umpire of that day remembers. In any case, Wilander was an extremely fair-play player. One other time, during a final he played against Lendl, I hadn’t stopped the match despite the rain. And he fell flat on his face during the tie-break of the fourth set, and then lost the match. In front of the journalists, he said ‘If I had been in Jacques’ shoes, I would’ve taken the same decision.’ » When he was asked to comment the scene, Wilander even reinforced his perfect behavior : « I couldn’t win on a contentious point ! His ball was clearly in ! And I knew that I would see Clerc again during many years on the circuit, and he was a player which I very much liked : I would have been embarrassed every time if I hadn’t given him an other opportunity. »
And because sport isn’t always cruel, the future world number one finally won without any possible controversy on the following point. And he even lifted the trophy, two days later against Guillermo Vilas, the 1977 winner, who had already won four Grand Slam tournaments. He’s a great champion who deserves the praise. But the umpire also deserves some credit. Because if it had been anyone else than Jacques Dorfmann, we’re not sure that this fair-play gesture could have existed. « I spent my time and my whole career asking the umpires not to intervene when two players agreed. And I think that today, this kind of thing couldn’t happen anymore. At every level, you see matches where the two players know each other by heart, have played against each other an infinity of times, and want to give each other points back when they feel that the umpire got the decision wrong. But the umpire refuses because he feels that once the decision is taken, it’s taken. » Enough to say that it was better before ? No. Just a good reason to share this sentence, pronounced by the commentator of the match : « For all of those who say that tennis has become war, and that there’s too much money at stake…Well, let’s just take our hats off. »