Enoksen ambassador Mikael Pernfors has had an interesting run at the slams over the years, both as a full-on tennis professional, and as a legend taking part in the invitational side of the slams. We sat down for a talk about the years from 1984-1994 where Mikael played in a total of 21 grand slam events. As a late bloomer, he turned pro in July 1985 after some hugely successful years as a college player representing University of Georgia in the United States, becoming the second player in history to win back-to-back NCAA singles titles in 1984 and 1985.
Mikael’s participation in grand slam events is steeped in great stories and anecdotes. We recently sat down with him to hear some of the best, and probably untold, stories from the glory years. Mikael brings a unique perspective being one of the very few players in the world to experience centre court play at all four of the slams. In his own words:
“Getting into the tournaments is hard work, getting to play on centre court is even harder. Unless you run into a top 4 seeded player, your matches are almost always played on the secondary courts”.
For Mikael, the sunshine slam ranks as one of the best and most enjoyable events in the calendar. There is a long standing love affair between the Swedish players and the Australians, and playing in Melbourne ranks among his top memories. It was also there he beat John McEnroe in the round of 16 at the 1990 tournament.
In a match that was played in the midday heat - his first and only clash with the fiery American, Mikael remembers feeling uncomfortable on court, not just because of the heat and a lingering foot injury, but also because of the way that McEnroe played. In the end, McEnroe defeated himself and Mikael was through to the quarter finals. McEnroe and Pernfors never clashed again on the ATP tour, and Mikael is one of the few players to own a positive head-to-head record against the American.
It was 1986 and Mikael had been a professional tennis player for less than a year when he landed in Paris for his first French Open. Unseeded and unknown, he quietly won his first match and ran into fellow Swede Stefan Edberg. Although clay was never Edberg’s favourite surface he was still the favourite to win. After three sets, the rain came and the match had to be continued the following day. Mikael prevailed and after that he felt he couldn’t lose. After two more wins against Robert Seguso and Martin Jaite, none other than Boris Becker was waiting in the quarter finals.
The world suddenly started to pay attention to the rise of the Swedish newcomer, especially Nike with whom he signed a contract mid-tournament. So for the match against Becker, he was apparelled in Nike gear from top to toe. That turned out to be a near-catastrophic decision as the new shoes gave him terrible pain during the first set, which he lost in no time at all. In the second set he had settled in and never looked back. A four-set victory against the German superstar meant that he was in his first ever grand slam semi final, facing off against the popular home boy Henri Leconte. So there he was, heading out to play against the fan favourite, whose biggest dream was to lift the trophy on home soil. Reflecting on the pressure of being up against 15,000 French fans, everyone against you, Mikael reminisces over his years playing college tennis in America in front of extremely hostile crowds, and how it hardened him. On that semi finals day, he was ready and although Leconte took the first set quickly, he bounced back and won the next three sets and was heading for the final.
Remember Mikael was unseeded and playing in his first French Open, checking in to a cheap players hotel when he first arrived. As he progressed, he moved to a better establishment and from quarter finals he kept upgrading himself until he got to the biggest suite.
Finals day came and the opponent was World No. 1 Ivan Lendl. A solid baseline player with very powerful ground strokes and in no shape or form an opponent that fitted Mikael’s flamboyant style. Although he battled bravely, the Czech was too much of a handful. But he had arrived on the big stage and had established himself as a force to be reckoned with.
The most special tournament of them all. Looking back on his debut at the holiest of tennis courts, Mikael get’s emotional reminiscing. He arrived as the new face of Swedish tennis, the newcomer who had just made the final at Roland Garros. But at Wimbledon that doesn’t count. First one has to prove oneself on the sacred lawns. Mikael and his first round opponent, Mike de Palmer, were scheduled to play at one of the secondary courts, one far away from the glamour of Centre Court. Or so they thought. Centre Court freed up earlier than expected and somehow the organisers must have had a wish to introduce its savvy Centre Court audience to the Swede, the French Open runner up. So it came to pass that Mikael got to play his first ever Wimbledon match on Centre Court. And it got better. The match had to be stopped as darkness fell on SW19, and the players had to return the following day to finish the match. It literally felt as though two matches were had for the price of one.
The debut went well - Mikael advanced to the round of sixteen where he ran into the defending champion Boris Becker, who had every intention of repeating his feat from the year before, when Boris became the youngest champion in the history of Wimbledon. Becker was unstoppable and won in straight sets. A respectable debut, and Mikael had established himself as a player who could master both the clay and the grass.
Every tennis player knows the feeling of ‘the one that got away’. The match you could and should have won, but you didn’t. In 1987 he returned to Wimbledon, now an established top 10 player who could no longer fly under the radar. Again he found himself in the round of sixteen, after a remarkable comeback win in the round of 32 against Tim Mayotte. This time he was up against the ageing, but totally unpredictable, Jimmy Connors. Mikael was cruising and won the first two sets in record time. Leading 4-1 in the third set, it looked like a foregone conclusion, but never count Connors out until the handshake. Connors battled back, turned the match around and won in five sets.
Looking from the outside in, this must count as the most bitter defeat in a great career. Mikael is very pragmatic about it and he has only fond memories of the evening after the loss. He went across town from Wimbledon to Wembley where Genesis were performing, went backstage with Phil Collins and partied till the early hours with the band. A great way to get over a stinging loss.
The noisy slam and the tournament at which Mikael holds a record which still stands today. In 1993, he and Mats Wilander were both coming back from injury and had to wait for ages to get on court for the last scheduled match that day. While waiting in the player’s lounge, they were following a women’s singles match which lasted forever and delayed their own match. When the ladies finally finished and the two Swedes were allowed onto centre court, they could fully appreciate why the ladies had played a match which looked sub-standard. It was blowing a gale, making for very hard conditions, even for an elite tennis match. Anyway, the match started at 10pm and holds the record for the latest finish at the US Open ever. After five hard contested sets, Wilander pipped his friend and the two men shook hands at 2:26am. To this day no US Open match at the US Open has finished this late.
Mikael’s best result at the US Open came in 1989 when he lost to the later winner Boris Becker in the round of sixteen in four sets.
Mikael has been lucky enough to get invited back to the four majors on numerous occasions. It is a tradition to stage a legends doubles event in connection with the slams. As one of the finest and most artistic ball strikers in the history of the game, he is a sought-after player to experience in the legends events, especially when he is playing with or against his lifelong friend, the great Mansour Bahrami.