Mats Wilander, former world number 1 and winner of seven Grand Slam tournaments, highlights João Sousa’s role in the development of Portuguese tennis and is confident about the sport’s future.
With the Australian Open just around the corner, Mats Wilander spoke to Jornal de Notícias about the sport’s present and future. From the importance of João Sousa’s success in national tennis to the approach of the end of a golden era globally, the former Swedish tennis player, winner of seven Grand Slam tournaments, sees in the new generation the quality to keep the level high in the near future.
João Sousa, Nuno Borges and Francisco Cabral are the Portuguese in the main frame of the Australian Open. What does that say about the reality of Portuguese tennis?
Portugal is a country with little expression in tennis, compared, for example, with football, in which there is much more. Even so, the effect of having João Sousa win games in Grand Slams or having won the Portuguese Open (in 2018) is already visible. All countries need their João Sousa, especially when he has such a positive attitude and because of the way he plays, how he gives everything. That makes it the perfect example for kids and anyone else who loves tennis. You are always influenced by a great player, especially when he has the attitude that João has. One day, perhaps, Portugal will have a player like Cristiano Ronaldo, in football, who decides to play tennis and could become the next Roger Federer. The first step was taken by João Sousa. Portugal has reached the world tennis map. Once there, it’s easier to stay there. Young people will see players at Grand Slams and will want to play tennis instead of another sport.
Novak Djokovic is back at the Australian Open. How important is this to the tournament?
There is, again, a race (for the top of the Grand Slams winners list), which there was not last year because Novak could not play in two “majors”. Now that you can, the race is back. Rafa (Nadal) will be the one who wants Novak to be able to play the most, because he doesn’t want to continue to win Grand Slams, and the race itself, if Novak is not there. You don’t want to be the greatest player ever on paper, only to be told you were only because Novak wasn’t allowed to play. For the tournament it is very important, because whoever wants to defeat Novak in Australia, a tournament that he has won nine times, will have to play the game of his life. The public will be even more involved, because they will see the two best players ever. The only drawback is Carlos Alcaraz not being able to play. It’s a big disappointment for the sport itself not to have the number 1 in the world in the tournament.
On the female side, can anyone compete with Iga Swiatek?
Many players will be able to compete with her, for what happened at Wimbledon last year and in the United Cup, when she lost 6-2 to Jessica Pegula, who showed how you can defeat Iga. She’s such a complete player that there’s only one way to tackle her: take away her comfort by hitting the ball hard. Her opponents have already noticed. Like it or not, that’s what you have to do. They cannot play like Ons Jabeur, because only she is capable of playing like that. It will be difficult for Iga. She’s the big favorite, but it’s going to be tough.
Last year we saw Roger Federer retire, everything indicates that Serena Williams did too, and Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are not exactly young anymore. Is tennis ready to grow without its greatest figures of the last decade?
Tennis thrived last year even when Federer, even before his retirement, was out and Novak was unable to play in Australia and the United States. In Australia, for example, we had a final like the one between Nadal and Medvedev and we realized that we weren’t going to have any problems. In the United States, we saw Nadal lose to Tiafoe, and Carlos Alcaraz made it clear that tennis will go its way, because it is so much fun and exciting. We realized that the game isn’t just about players who have beaten twenty majors, it’s about having players that people recognize and connect with. Carlos Alcaraz is the perfect new number 1. Right now, Novak and Rafa are still playing and what we don’t want is for the best players in the world to retire while they’re at that level, like Ash Barty did. We now know that she is pregnant and that she wants to start a family, but to retire as world No. 1 is bad for the sport, in my view. That’s why Serena, if she decided to withdraw, chose a good time to do so, as did Roger (Federer), because he was injured. Tennis is ready, but we want to see Alcaraz, Medvedev, Tsitsipas or Holger Rune beat Rafa or Novak before retiring. For me, this is very important.