Stefan Edberg

By Bill Simons, Inside Tennis, July 2004

From Laver and the good ol’ Aussies to Sampras and Henman, tennis has been blessed with many a fine sporting lad. But none had better timing than Stefan Edberg. In fact, the Swede emerged just as the scowl-and-stare era of men’s tennis was raging. At a mean and macho time when implosions were expected and ferocity was a given, elegant Edberg entered the game with a minimalist, (be joyous within and walk lightly upon this Earth) sensibility.

Never mind that Connors, McEnroe, and Lendl were setting a mean-spirited snipe-and-run tone. Never mind that critics claimed tennis was free-falling out of control and was in danger of becoming a kind of World Wrestling Federation wannabe. As it happened — don’t worry, be happy — Edberg was there to save the day.

After all, no matter how bad his luck, no matter how outrageous the call, the Gentleman Champion never complained. For Stefan, a raised eyebrow was the equivalent of a full-blown Connors convulsion. A simple Edbergian inquiry to the chair umpire — “Are you sure?” — was his version of a McEnroe meltdown. There was no Becker-like gamesmanship, or anything like Lendl’s intimidating, icy stare.

It’s little wonder that Becker once told him, “You’re the greatest tennis ambassador I’ve ever known.”

Commentator Mary Carillo raved, “I’m such a big Eddy fan. He’s been the classiest, most elegant No. 1 that men’s tennis has had. He leads a very balanced life. He understands fame, fortune and celebrity better than just about any superstar I’ve ever met.” In a “narcissists gone wild” world, where a sense of entitlement was a given and it was just presumed that he who had the biggest toys (or private jets) won, Edberg was down to earth and solid — a freak of nature who was so normal he was abnormal.

Not surprisingly, the ATP honored him with its Sportsmanship Award five times and then threw in the towel and just named the award after him.
Edberg’s appeal was the sheer beauty of his strokes and the rhythmic fluidity of his movement. Sure, his pushy forehand was a foible never quite fixed, but his looping backhand was a shot apart, and his easy, balletic grace was a sublime delight. He brilliantly executed tennis’ most important and complex sequence, the serve-and-volley, and was a master of the perfectly timed chip-and-charge. Only McEnroe matched his skills at capturing control of the net. Once there, Edberg prowled with razor-sharp reflexes and merciless instinct, dishing out unforgiving volleys, particularly on the backhand side.

There was always something different about Stefan. He not only was a bizarre kind of throwback: a thrifty, conservative introvert in a self-indulgent, me-first modernist universe, on-court he was a true mutant: a serve-and-volleyer who emerged from Sweden’s homogeneous, stuck-at-the-baseline, gene pool.
Despite his mild appearance, Edberg was a fighter. His coach, Tony Pickard, famously informed us that he had “fire in his belly.” Plus, he was a true triple threat. He won six Grand Slam singles titles (two Wimbledons, two U.S. Opens and two Australians), 41 singles crowns, was ranked No. 1 in ‘90 and ‘91, was a top-five player for nine years in a row, he won 18 doubles titles and, after McEnroe, was the most heroic Davis Cup player of our era, a patriot who willed little Sweden to four Davis Cup titles. He was the only player ever to have won the Junior Grand Slam, won the ‘84 Olympics and played in 53 straight Grand Slam tournaments.

He knew how to come from behind, as he did when he was down 3-1 to Becker in the fifth set of their ‘90 Wimbledon final. He could outlast his foes, like when he beat Michael Chang in five hours, 26 minutes in ‘92 in the longest U.S. Open match ever. Or he could dominate. Just ask Jim Courier, whom he crushed 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 in the most inspired match of his career — the ‘91 U.S. Open final.

It was easy to dismiss Edberg as a too-good-to-be-true, squeaky-clean Eagle Scout who was not exactly the life of the party. When the London tabloids set out to discover his dirty laundry, they found out only that Edberg washed his own clothes. For years, his wife cut his hair. Still, his career has been filled with a mix of sad or bizarre happenings. When he played the U.S. Open Juniors, one of his kick serves smashed a linesman in the groin. The linesman then toppled over, hit his head on the court and suffered a fatal heart attack. In mid-career Edberg courted and, in ‘92, married Mats Wilander’s former girlfriend, Annette Olson. Throughout his years his Nordic appeal didn’t go unnoticed. “What a body,” said one Wimbledon observer, “he’s so cute, and those legs…”

Early in his career, when things got rough, he would drop his shoulders and mope, projecting “woe-is-me” body language. And, of course, even the mighty Edberg had his share of setbacks. He failed miserably on clay at the French Open, just once reaching beyond the fourth round. And he failed to convert his golden opportunity when he was up, two sets to one, to Michael Chang in the ‘89 final. (Later he would wryly quip that Michael won because he “had God on his side.”) Then there was the highly forgettable, mercifully brief “Norwegian Joke” phase of his career when, with a series of insufferable quips, Edberg tried to convince journalists that he was some kind of wild and crazy guy. Not!

Still, he was the co-ringleader of the Great Potty Protest of ‘87, when two of the game’s most mild-mannered, compliant soldiers — Edberg and Wilander — stepped way out of character and hid in the U.S. Open locker room for 15 minutes before their semi to protest that they were being forced to play at 11 a.m. in a virtually vacant stadium.

The incident was so remarkable because, as McEnroe said,

“He was seemingly immune to getting upset. I never heard anyone say anything bad about him and he never said anything bad about anyone.”

Sampras suggested, “When parents are looking for a role model, Stefan is the player to look to.”

A man of grace, blessed with quick stutter steps, deep-angled volleys and flowing backhand — now has seamlessly embraced all-court domesticity with a vengeance. Happily married and living in rural Sweden near his seaside birthplace, Vastervik, he now rises early to make sure his two kids get to school. He manages his investments and oversees his tennis foundation, which helps Swedish teens excel.

Of course, all this white picket fence/Ozzie and Harriet normalcy is hardly a shock. After all, never has there been a more balanced, “aw-shucks,” tennis champion, and a No.1 who so easily dismissed the siren song of fame and indulgent consumerism than this policeman’s son who played with the blissful ease of a dancer lost in an unending moment.

Photo: Tennis Buzz, Lagardere Trophy 2010

Connors and Ashe, 1984 Davis Cup final

From John McEnroe’s autobiography, Serious:

You know that line in the Beach Boys song, ‘Sloop John B’ – “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on”? That’s what it was like to fly to Sweden and play Davis Cup that December. As it would turn out, it was my last Cup match for three years. I really went out with a bang.

My heart sank as the plane took off from Kennedy. Tatum was back at my apartment. Connors and I still weren’t speaking. My mind was a million miles from tennis. I sighed and sank into my seat, hoping the week would pass quickly.

I arrived in Gothenburg Tuesday morning to find a debacle already in progress. Jimmy had come over despite the fact that his wife was just about to give birth to their second child, so he was totally on edge, and acting like it. To give just one instance, the car that had been supposed to pick him up for practice on Monday hadn’t come, so he was furious, and – if you can believe it – wrote a nasty message to Arthur (Ashe) in the snow.

Things felt frosty between Peter Fleming and me. And Jimmy Arias was our fourth player, and he’s always been a personality I don’t quite get – I just don’t understand his sense of humor. Add to this the fact that I was in love and wishing I wasn’t there in the first place…

What’s the opposite of team spirit? That’s what we had in Gothenburg.

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2014 Davis Cup final in Lille

2014 Davis Cup final

At 1-1 after the first day (see my recap here), I was pretty sure the pair of Tsonga and Gasquet would beat the Swiss, and then Federer would win over Tsonga on Sunday, and the winner of the deciding rubber between Monfils and Wawrinka would offer the Davis Cup to his country. How wrong I was…

French number one Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was in fact injured, and Benneteau teamed up with Gasquet to face Federer and Wawrinka.

Guy Forget and Henri Leconte

Guy Forget and Henri Leconte, the heroes of the 1991 Davis Cup final and one of the best Davis Cup doubles pair ever, were honored on court ahead of the match:

Federer/Wawrinka vs Benneteau/Gasquet

As a French supporter this doubles match was a nightmare: Gasquet was totally lost on court, Julien Benneteau did all he could to help Gasquet, and Arnaud Clément was completely useless.
Straight sets victory for the Swiss, with a monster performance by Stan Wawrinka.

Second set Switzerland:

Game, set, match Switzerland:

At 2-1 for the Swiss, I knew it was already over and I would watch Federer’s win over Gasquet on TV. What a disappointment.

2014 Davis Cup final

2014 Davis Cup final

I usually travel hundreds of kilometers to watch live tennis, so it was a strange feeling to leave home, take the metro, walk about 10 minutes and be there in front of the Stade Pierre Mauroy, ready to attend the much expected Davis Cup final between France and Switzerland.

It’s kinda ironic that’s the only times I’ve been to a football stadium were to attend rugby matches (when I was a volunteer for the rugby World Cup in 2007) and tennis matches.

2014 Davis Cup final

Despite the queue, it took only a few minutes to enter the stadium.

2014 Davis Cup final

The road to the Davis Cup final has been quite a rollercoaster for me: the excitement when I learned Lille (my hometown) would stage the final, the disappointment when I wasn’t able to buy tickets, the relief when I managed to buy tickets (thank you Twitter), the doubts about the visibility from the category 4 seat. But here I am. The court, the crowd, the flags, the atmosphere, as soon as I sat in my place I knew it would be something like I never seen or lived before.

2014 Davis Cup final

Skip the use

But first, a mini-concert by local band Skip the use. I honestly couldn’t care less.

2014 Davis Cup final

Teams’ presentation

First big moment of this historic Davis Cup weekend, the teams presentation. And no surprise, Federer is the most applauded player.

2014 Davis Cup final

I look at the giant screen and I have a bad feeling: I see Tsonga’s face, he looks scared, exactly the same face he had just before his semifinal disaster against Ferrer at Roland Garros last year.
Unfortunately, I was right…

Tsonga vs Wawrinka

2014 Davis Cup final

3 meters behind the baseline, the French number one can’t do anything to counter Wawrinka‘s powerful groundstrokes. He just can’t pull a ball in the court and keeps making errors after errors after errors. A really bad start for Tsonga. Wawrinka wins five straight games to clinch the first set 6-1:

2014 Davis Cup final

27,432 spectators! The previous record for a tennis match (27,200) had been set in Seville in 2004 for the Davis Cup final between Spain and the USA.

2014 Davis Cup final

Things look a bit better for Tsonga in the second set, he is more aggressive and Wawrinka starts making a few errors here and there. Second set for Tsonga 6-3, a little hope for the French fans:

2014 Davis Cup final

Wawrinka breaks in the sixth game of the third set and leads 4-2. Tsonga then saves two set points at 2-5. Tsonga and the French crowd are on fire..

But it only lasts two minutes, the Swiss wins the third set and leads 2 sets to one. An early break for Stan in the fourth set, Tsonga looks resigned and nobody believes in a win from behind. Game, set, match Wawrinka 6-1 3-6 6-3 6-2. Switzerland leads 1-0.

Tsonga’s game was bad but his attitude was worst, he kept complaining for nothing, looked at times completely lost, and the only excuse he found for his non-match was that the crowd didn’t support him enough. Seriously…
Too much pressure on his shoulders? Too much expectations? Visibly still bothered by his right arm injury (he kept saying “J’y arrive pas” to Clément during the changeovers), he perhaps should have been preserved for Sunday’s reverse singles or perhaps Tsonga wanted to play this final at all costs because he missed the Belgrade final in 2010? In any case it is too late to change the course of the final now.

Monfils vs Federer

30 minutes later it’s time for Federer and Monfils to enter the court.

2014 Davis Cup final

2014 Davis Cup final

There had been much talk about Federer’s back injury during the week, his first serve is at 207km/h, the case is closed. A completely different match from the first rubber and a completely different atmosphere: Monfils is on fire from first point on and so is the crowd! First set Monfils 6-1:

He keeps the pressure on Federer in the second set: solid serve, powerful forehands, and 6-4 for Monfils:

Monfils leads two sets to none and I start thinking: please Gael, don’t go nuts!, because the last time both players met, at the US Open this year, Monfils led by two sets to none, wasted 2 match points in the fourth set, only to lose in five sets. This time, no regret for the Frenchman who is rock solid on serve: 6-1 6-4 6-3 in less than two hours.

When you watch Monfils playing like that, so focused, you can only ask yourself: what if? What if he had a coach? What if he had a more professional attitude? What if he had taken time to improve his technique. He probably would have been a top 5 and a perennial Grand Slam contender. I guess we’ll never know…

It’s now time to go home:

Swiss win the Davis Cup

Bothered by a right arm injury, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga withdraws from the first reverse single. He is replaced by Richard Gasquet who can’t do anything to prevent Federer from winning his first Davis Cup.

The match was broadcasted on a giant screen in the center of Lille. Here are a few pictures and videos (thanks to Miroslav).

2014 Davis Cup final

2014 Davis Cup final

2014 Davis Cup final

2014 Davis Cup final

A Tennis Village had been installed Place de la République in Lille, with a mini tennis court, a speed of serve game and a padel court:

2014 Davis Cup final

More Davis Cup coverage: