1991 US Open: playing to perfection, Edberg grabs first Open
Washington Post, September 9 1991
There is nothing more beautiful or more breathtaking than Stefan Edberg‘s tennis game when he is on. Every stroke is poetic, every movement lyrical. And today, showing unerring form and grace, Edberg confounded and frustrated Jim Courier to win his first U.S. Open title Edberg’s 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 dissection was evidence that the 25-year-old Swede has overcome his Open phobia and found his center of gravity in New York. Overshadowed all week by the hysteria over Jimmy Connors, and almost forgotten amid the publicity about a pack of new young stars, Edberg’s flawless performance in Louis Armstrong Stadium was a jolting reminder of why he is the top-ranked player in the world.
“It was almost like a dream out there,” Edberg said when the 2-hour 2-minute match ended. “I played as well as I think I can.”
The title marked Edberg’s fifth Grand Slam victory and it offset an otherwise disappointing year. Although ranked No. 1 for most of 1991, he lost in the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and the semifinals at the French Open and Wimbledon. He had never made it to the final of the Open and was upset in the first round last year; he compensated today with a brilliance and consistency seldom seen in such high-pressure contests.
With his mellifluous strokes and delicate footwork, Edberg danced around the court as gracefully as Fred Astaire. Even Courier, the winner of the French Open in June, recognized that Edberg was on automatic pilot today. “All you can do is hope he goes off,” Courier said.
Always uncomfortable with the hullabaloo of this event, Edberg strategically changed his environment here this year. He played fewer tournaments this summer because he felt his stunning upset last year was a result of fatigue. With his fiancee, Annette Olson, he rented a house on Long Island instead of staying in a hotel in Manhattan. And he delighted when, day after day, Connors stole the attention.
“Nobody was talking about me. That kept the pressure off me, and that’s the way I like it,” said Edberg, an amiable, mild-mannered sort who is most at ease in the peace and quiet of his adopted home, London.
Despite the changes, Edberg, the No. 2 seed, looked shaky in the early rounds. But his game finally clicked when he defeated spunky Michael Chang in straight sets in the fourth round.
“That was the turning-point match,” Edberg said. “I had this feeling maybe I could do it this year, although you’re never really sure.”
By comparison, fourth-seeded Courier, who had a much tougher draw, looked impressive throughout the two weeks. He had not dropped a set, even against defending champion Pete Sampras, whom he ousted in the quarterfinals. A bulldog on the court whose style is a cross between the gutsy Connors and the power-packed Ivan Lendl, Courier hoped to dominate with his big serve and disrupt Edberg’s serve-and-volley game with his thunderous forehand.
Courier had reason to be hopeful. His first title as a professional came two years ago in Basel, Switzerland, when he beat Edberg in the final. In their last meeting, in the French Open quarterfinals, Courier trounced Edberg in four sets. With new-found powers of concentration and a hard-hitting game to go with it, Courier had never lost in the four times he’d reached a final. But whatever optimism Courier had coming into the match quickly crumbled.
He was broken at 1-1 in the first set, a victim of Edberg’s superb passing shots. And he could not convert two break points when Edberg served at 3-2, thanks to an exquisite topspin lob that Edberg hit after loping to the ball.
In the first game of the second set, Courier had a brief flash of brilliance when he staved off three break points with two aces — clocked at 116 and 114 mph — that momentarily put Edberg on the defensive. But that was just an idle diversion.
Never blinking, Edberg continued to arch his whirling, twisting serve deep to the corners with so much kick that Courier occasionally had to block the ball back from above his head. “I was trying to get out of the way of it sometimes,” Courier said.
Even when Courier managed a sensational return, Edberg, as crisp and cool as ever, plucked the ball from the air and smothered a volley. “I was hitting some great shots and he would come up with shots that made mine look like I don’t know what,” Courier said.
Tugging at his ever-present white baseball cap, and with his sweat-drenched shirt hanging out of his shorts, Courier tried to find the grit he needed to thwart Edberg’s relentless attack. He tried clubbing passing shots at Edberg’s feet. No way, Edberg said. He tried elegantly angled slices. Sorry, Edberg said. He tossed up gorgeous lobs. Forget it, Edberg said.
At one point, Courier turned to a fan in the stands and shrugged his shoulders. He sighed, “Wow! What can you do?” The most that Courier could assemble was an occasional winner on his service return, usually a reflexive punch that simply deflected the ball at an incredible angle. Courier finally resorted to standing his racket on its handle to show the umpire the spot where he thought an Edberg ace had landed out.
Edberg’s serves and volleys were so impeccable that he won a staggering 84 percent of the points when his first serve went in. Courier had three chances but never scored a break in the match.
Toward the end, there was nothing more that Courier could do but watch his own demise with awe. “I’ve been pummeled before,” Courier said, “but this is the worst beating I’ve taken all year.”
Edberg, meanwhile, found new affection for this tournament and for New York.
“It is really something to actually win it here,” he said. “I felt so relaxed out there. It’s hard to describe. I’m just a happy guy right now.”