As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the US Open, we look back at the 50 champions who have left an indelible mark on this inimitable event.
A seven-time Grand Slam singles champion, Mats Wilander saved perhaps his best major performance, at the 1988 US Open, for last.
His final Slam trophy came with the greatest reward, as it gave the Swede the world No. 1 ranking for the first time in his career at the age of 24. He would maintain that position for the remainder of the calendar year, becoming the year-end No. 1 for the only time in his career.
His US Open title capped a stellar 1988 at the majors, a year in which he also won the Australian Open and the French Open, each for a third time in his career.
As a Swedish tennis legend, Wilander is inevitably compared to his countryman, Bjorn Borg. But the 11-time Slam winner Borg cannot count the US Open among his career trophy haul.
With his 1988 championship run, the No. 2-seeded Wilander became the first Swede to win the US Open, edging Ivan Lendl in a rematch of the previous year’s final won by the Czech.
The two legends slugged it out across five sets and four hours, 54 minutes in the 1988 contest, one set and seven minutes longer than their 1987 final.
This time, Wilander won the marathon, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4. In a battle of wills, the two baseliners traded breaks early in the fifth set, before the Swede won a decisive game seven with a down-the-line forehand winner to break Lendl’s serve for the sixth and final time.
Two service holds later, Wilander had his revenge, ending Lendl’s six-match winning streak against him. It was their fifth and final meeting in a Grand Slam final – at the time, the most between any two players – with Wilander taking three of the five matches.
''I realized tonight why it was hard for Borg to win [the US Open],'' Wilander was quoted in a 1988 article in The New York Times. ''It is so tough, mentally and physically. Because it's a tournament that I've never won, or a Swede has never won, and because I'm going to be No. 1, it's the biggest match I ever played. It meant so much.''
Just to make the final, Wilander had to survive a second-round five-setter against South African-born American Kevin Curren and a four-set quarterfinal against Spaniard Emilio Sanchez. In both matches, the Swede recovered after dropping the opening set. In the semifinals, there was no such drama, as he stormed past player-turned-commentator Darren Cahill in straight sets.
Long before his US Open triumph, Wilander first made a name for himself in Paris at the French Open. In 1982, the Swede won his first Slam title at Roland Garros as an unseeded 17-year-old, just one year after winning the junior crown on the famous red clay. At the time, he was the youngest-ever male Grand Slam winner.
Wilander would go on to win 33 career singles trophies, as well as three Davis Cup titles for his native Sweden (coming in the midst of a run of seven consecutive finals from 1983-89). He later rejoined the Swedish team as captain from 2003-09.
Though he prioritized singles, Wilander also enjoyed a fine doubles career, highlighted by his 1986 Wimbledon title with compatriot Joakim Nystrom. He was ranked as high as No. 3 on the ATP doubles tour and reached the semifinals or better in all four Grand Slams between 1984 and 1986.
He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2002.
In recent years, Wilander's MW Foundation has worked to raise awareness for Epidermal Bulluyosa, a genetic disease that his son, Erik, inherited at birth.
50 Fact: Wilander’s 1988 US Open title capped a Swedish Grand Slam in men’s tennis. Wilander did the heavy lifting, winning the Australian Open and French Open in addition to his New York title, while Stefan Edberg was victorious at Wimbledon. It was a golden age for Swedish tennis, even beyond that duo. Wilander and Edberg were just two of four seeded Swedes at the 1988 US Open, along with No. 13 Jonas Svensson and No. 15 Anders Jarryd.