Stefan Edberg’s creativity, elegance and craftsmanship on grass courts have never been taken for granted by tennis cognoscenti. The elegant Swedish game was perfect for the Wimbledon meadows. He was the servant and volleyball par excellence. Nobody could get close to the net for the first volley that the agile Edberg. His backhand volley was perhaps the best of all time. Across the board, Edberg was exemplary on the lawns.
When the taciturn Swede approached Wimbledon in 1988, he had already obtained two Australian Open titles, prevalent in 1985 and 1987 Down Under. But despite appearing in the semi-finals the year before, he still hadn’t ruled the All England Club in five previous attempts.
Recently, when I spoke to Edberg on the phone, he said, “I always knew from the beginning that I had a good game for grass. But the grass is different in Wimbledon than the Kooyong grass in Melbourne. The court in Australia was almost like an oval, inclined from one end to the other and from one side to the other. In England it can be more humid and there is more humidity. It is heavier there. “
Edberg says of his early years at the shrine: “I put a little too much pressure on myself. At some point I probably should have tried at least to win Wimbledon. In 1988 I had my chance. “
The draw was not easy for third-seed Edberg. He played French left-handed Guy Forget and played four sets in the first round. American Richey Reneberg returned well enough to take one set out of Edberg in the next round, and then another American, Ken Flach, used his attack skills to push Edberg into another four-set battle in the third round.
After a triumph on the direct set in the group of 16, Edberg conceded another set against Patrick Kuhnen in the quarterfinals, but was not unduly threatened in that game.
“It helps to do those tests, especially in the first week of Slam,” says Edberg, speaking of that series of difficult races. “It was a real test playing Dimentica in the first round, a lefty on a green grass field. Reneberg played well and Flach, who was a good grass suit but above all a double player, was a difficult game. It was good to get out of that in the first week. “
Edberg took his first Wimbledon trophy in 1988. (Getty Images)
As he approached the homestretch of that tournament, Edberg was almost shot down by Miloslav Mecir, an invented inventor known as “The Cat”. Mecir took the first two sets from Edberg in the semifinals and was making every hit in the book. “I was practically down and out,” says Edberg.
But Edberg hasn’t lost his heart. Remember: “What’s really behind that comeback is that three months before Wimbledon, I played Mecir in the fifth Davis Cup tire in Sweden. I was down 4-1 in the fifth set and managed to reverse that game and win. It was a great return. This was really one of the keys to reversing the game at Wimbledon ’88. It was a big enough game for me. If I hadn’t beaten him in the Davis Cup I would probably have lost to him in Wimbledon. “
Edberg passed Mecir, 4-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. He then clashed with the 1985-86 champion Boris Becker in the final.
“It was great to be in the Wimbledon final,” recalls Edberg. “It had always been my dream since I saw Borg win his five titles in a row while growing up. Boris had already won Wimbledon twice. I knew it was going to be difficult, but when you’re in the final you always feel like you have a chance. “
The two fighters only played five games in the first set when the rain stopped play all afternoon and had to return the following day to finish the skirmish. When Becker got together to save that starter set, he seemed well on his way to a third title in his favorite setting.
But Edberg was undisturbed.
“Losing in the first set isn’t great, but the second set came in a tie,” he says. “I went 4-0 or 5-0. I was hitting good shots and suddenly you’re ready. From that moment on, I have always improved. I have never looked back and maybe it has lost momentum. “
Edberg was stellar in all aspects of his game and was returning beautifully in the last two sets, winning the match, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-2.
He reflects: “Our final was completed on Monday. I won the Australian Open on a Monday and I think I played another last year in Tokyo, so Monday’s finals always seemed like a hit from my point of view. “
Capturing that crown has left Edberg immensely gratified.
“It was definitely one of the highlights of my career. It’s indescribable, but something you’ve worked hard to achieve for a long time, “he says. “I was lucky that tennis was an interest in me which has turned into a profession. If you think about it, he passed so quickly that he turned professional, suddenly winning tournaments, going up in the rankings. I had this good opportunity in Wimbledon in ’88 and took it. “
The Swede coached Roger Federer during the 2014 championships. (Getty Images)
A year later, Edberg returned to another final against Becker, but on a dark afternoon Becker was too good, making it a 6-0, 7-6 (1), 6-4 victory. Again, the second draw was crucial, but this time Becker was the best man under pressure.
“Boris fled to the semifinal in five sets against Lendl,” recalls Edberg. “It would probably have been easier for me to play Ivan in the final, but it was Becker again. I thought I’d win it again, but I had such a bad start. Doing it in a Grand Slam final wasn’t one of my best performances. A couple of weeks earlier I had lost to Michael Chang in a five-set final at the French Open. Losing two Grand Slam finals in a month seemed pretty bad to me. “
Still, the resilient Edberg had the right temperament to leave his disappointments in the past and pursue new goals. A year later, in the first Wimbledon of the 1990s, Edberg and Becker made a third consecutive appointment for the final round on the fabulous Center Court. Edberg, however, had been tremendously pushed to the maximum by Israel’s ability Amon Mansdorf in the third round. The Swedish third seed passed 9-7 in the fifth set.
“I was playing Court One in that game,” he says. “Center Court is a better place to play. Mansdorf is a good budding player. It was a great match for him. Maybe I didn’t play great, but I wasn’t playing badly. It was just one of those difficult days that you had to wait for your chances. I was relieved to come out of it with a good idea, that meeting with Mansdorf was crucial. “
Subsequently, Edberg was much more acute as he marched into the final. As per design, the formidable Becker stayed on the other side of the net for the third round of their exciting last round series at the most important tournament in the world.
“It’s amazing that Boris and I have only played four times in the Grand Slams in our careers,” says Edberg. “And those three of those games were the Wimbledon finals along with a semi-final at the French Open which I won in five sets . Our 90’s Wimbledon final was a fascinating game in many ways. I was confident enough to enter the final because I played a really solid game against Ivan Lendl in the semifinal. I felt that if I played in a place close to that level I would have a really good chance of beating Boris. “
Edberg was solid and spectacular in putting Becker 6-2, 6-2 aside in the first two sets. Could he have dreamed of taking two sets in a row so firmly against a power plant on the grass like Becker?
“Never”, he replies. “You could win a 6-2 set, but not two. If you are lucky enough, you break it once and if you are really lucky it happens twice. But I was playing very, very well and maybe Boris wasn’t playing his best tennis. “
Two years after his first Wimbledon triumph, Edberg raised his second trophy at the All England Club. (Getty Images)
Becker roared backwards to take the third and fourth sets. And then the dynamic German came out 3-1 in the fifth set. This was an insidious territory for Edberg, to say the least.
“Suddenly there are two sets all down a break in the fifth,” he says. “But we all know that if you work hard enough you may have another chance. You have to remember it, keep serving and wait for the opportunity to break. I had this opportunity. Boris missed an easy volley to get me back. This can happen with tension. We were both a little tired and it was windy too. “
Becker was serving 3-1, 30-40 when he mumbled that first volley. As Edberg explains, “This really changed the game. Suddenly you feel more energy. Since then I have played really well. I still remember the winner of the lob on the backhand that I hit to break it at 4-4 in the fifth set. It’s a good feeling to see that shot come in. And I knew I would serve for the game. “
Edberg closed it with some stellar bursts to win 6-2, 6-2, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4. Was it your most memorable victory in an important final?
“Getting out of that game in the 90th minute was satisfying, but winning my first Wimbledon was also very special,” says Edberg. “I will always remember my first US Open final in ’91, when I played one of the best games of my career against Jim Courier. But winning that Wimbledon title over Boris in five sets in the 90s was one of the greatest, if not the greatest moment for me. “
Surprisingly, Edberg overthrew Becker in two of his three Wimbledon finals despite a 10-25 career record against his stout rival. Why wasn’t it a closer series?
“Maybe he could raise his game more than I do,” Edberg replies. “We played several finals, and it was difficult to play against that service, especially on an indoor rug. Many times he was not as vulnerable towards the end of the tournaments as he would have been at the beginning. That’s one of the reasons he beat me so many times, but it’s a shame that we didn’t end up playing a fourth final in a row at Wimbledon in 91. “
That year Becker reached the final again, but Edberg lost for a moment. As he says: “I was probably playing my best grass tennis court that year. I won at Queen’s Club and I hit the ball very well. But Michael Stich somehow managed to win our semifinal in four sets, although I never lost the serve. It has never happened to me before. “
Despite that 1991 disappointment, Edberg is happy with his glittering Wimbledon career record.
“The most important thing,” he reflects, “is to win Wimbledon once, if you can. I’ve done it twice. This is something that seems incredible. It’s nice to be a member of the club. All Grand Slams are special but, at least for me, Wimbledon is a little more special. “