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

Kei Nishikori

From Nick Bollettieri‘s book, Changing the game:

I have seen thousands of tennis players over the past 60 years and can identify only three who have had the gift of magic hands. I’ve already mentioned two – Xavier Malisse and Marcelo Rios. The third is Kei Nishikori.
I met and started to work with Kei because in the 1980s Arthur Ashe and I traveled to Japan to conduct a clinic for 500 youngsters. While there we toured many of the local tennis facilities. On the day of the clinic the skies opened with torrential rains, forcing us to move indoors. Arthur was panicked – how to deal with so many children at close quarters – but this wasn’t a challenge for me. We found a huge gymnasium and held two clinics, each for one hour with 250 participants. We had two lines running at the same time and each kid got to hit two balls. They all thanked us profusely.

I learned a few things that day about Japanese children. They were very polite, quiet and patient; but they watched our every movement and took in every word I spoke. They were so eager to learn, you could see their excitement as their eyes darted from me to Arthur to the interpreter and back again.

During our visit I was introduced to a kindly gentleman, Mr Morita, whose family was the largest shareholder in the Sony Corporation. He loved tennis and wanted very much for Japan to develop a steady stream of world-class players; His passion for the sport and confidence in me led to a fruitful relationship that continues to this day. At the time, Japan’s most successful male player, Shuzo Matsuoka, was in a class by himself. His highest ranking ever was No.46 in the world, but both Mr Morita and I believed that with focus, determination and funding, more could be achieved.

So Mr Morita dispatched Sato Nakajima to work at IMG academy and act as a liaison for Japanese players. He also began to send youngsters there, all sponsored by Sony. One of those players was 14-year-old Kei Nishikori. Kei, who didn’t speak one word of english at the time and had never eaten american food, housed in an apartment with seven other boys; not surprisingly, he was scared and took some time to feel comfortable. Not on the tennis court, though. I didn’t take me very long to realize that he had talent. He was extremely quick and had those magic hands of a gifted shot maker. Like Agassi and Rios, he possessed innate skills that can’t be taught, but need only to be channeled.

Mr Morita continued to support him. Today, Kei is not only the highest ranked player from Japan on the ATP tour but one of the most celebrated sports stars in Japanese history.
His able team includes IMG agent Olivier van Lindonk, who sees to his schedule and business affairs, and his personal coach, Dante Bottini, who is quiet and unassuming but understands Kei. They relate well to each other. I continue to participate in the role of team advisor.

I was especially pleased to see Michael Chang coming to town to join Kei’s coaching team. THe last time Michael was at the academy was in 1985 when he was 13 years old and training with his coach. Michael was a champion because of his movement, his recovery and his ability to avoid hitting defensive shots, not to mention an indomitable will. On the way to the 1989 French Open singles title, he had an epic match againt Ivan Lendl, overcoming leg cramps, fatigue and dehydration in a remarkable five-set victory.

Michael Chang

I watched Michael working with Kei and quickly identified what his plans were. He realized that magic hands were not enough but would make a big difference in combination with the right leg work. He showed Kei exactly how to load from the ground up which, in turn, got his racquet below the ball. This allowed Kei to aplly more height, depth and spin, especially when he was out of position and behind the baseline. In the past, Kei’s shots would land on the service line and get him in trouble. I applauded Kei’s decision to add Michael Chang to his coaching team, alongside his regular coach.

Can Kei really compete with the best in the world? I know he can! But, he must learn to truly believe in himself – exactly what Michael Chang yelled to him in his first round, five-set match at the 2014 Australian Open – and to know with every fiber of his being that he deserves to be on the court with the big boys. And he must deliver that as a potent message when he competes against top 10 players? I believe he will do it! Mr Morita and I will continue to cheer for Kei.

Photos by Tennis Buzz

Chris Evert

By Steve Fink, World Tennis magazine, December 1989:

I met Chris Evert on the day she reached her first Grand Slam final in Paris 16 years ago, when I interviewed her for this magazine. We became good friends, and I found myself immersed in her career.
She soon realized that I was regarded by the sport’s inner circle as her Boswell, as the primary source of information about her record, and she knew that my recollection of her matches was invariably sharper than her own. Throughout her career she would defer to me at press conferences from Palm Beach to Wimbledon whenever she could not answer a question about herself.

But my involvement with her went much deeper than that. I attended both of her weddings, sat with her family at many of her critical contests in the major championships, and spoke with her frequently before, during and after tournaments to offer council.
Given those circumstances, and the highly unusual of our alliance, I made it a practice, with few exceptions, not to write about he. The conflict would be clear-cut, and I saw no reason to abuse proximity of my position. But this is the time to relax journalistic binds a bit and offer my intimate assessment. Hers was a unique journey through the seventies and across the eighties, and to understand how Evert impacted her era, there is only one place to begin.

In September 1970, at the age of 15, Evert planted the first true seed of her greatness by toppling the world’s No.1 player Margaret Court 7-6 7-6 in the semifinals at Charlotte, North Carolina. Only weeks earlier, Court had completed the Grand Slam by winning the US Open at Forest Hills on grass, but on the clay of Charlotte the Fort Lauderdale prodigy erased the rangy Australian. It was unmistakably a sign of what was to come.
Read More

Extract from The Rivals by Johnette Howard:

“The last time Evert and Navratilova played was similar to their first encounter in Akron. There was no fanfare, no fuss. On a cold night in Chicago – Jimmy Evert’s childhood hometown – Navratilova defeated Evert 6-2 6-2, and they shook hands afterward, same as always.
The date was November 14, 1988. They had no way of knowing that by the luck of the draw, they’d never oppose each other the entire last year of Evert’s career.

The ledger on their rivalry froze at eighty matches, sixty of them finals, with Navratilova leading forty three victories to Evert’s thirty seven.

“For sixteen years we were left alone on Sundays in that locker room. All in all, I think we handled it pretty damn well. ” Chris Evert

Berlin Wall

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Read Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova and Manuela Maleeva reactions at that time.

By Michael Janofsky “New York Times” November 14, 1989

For three days last week, Steffi Graf tried to telephone a friend in West Berlin, only to be greeted by his answering machine and its ebullient message.

“Sorry, I’m not here,” she recalled his voice saying. “I’m out partying and won’t be home for a while.”

Graf laughed in the retelling and sounded almost jealous, as if there could be better places to be this week and more important things to do than playing for the Virginia Slims championship at Madison Square Garden. Partying with her friend at the Berlin Wall, for example.

“For everyone, I think it’s something to do,” she said almost wistfully. “I would love to have done it, just to be a part of the moment.”

Like millions of other people around the world, Graf has watched the recent changes in East Germany with joyous and stunned amazement. The best player in women’s tennis and the No. 1 seeded player in the Slims Championships, she has found the scenes of East Berliners exploring West Berlin that much more poignant because of her connection to fans in both republics.

More than a third of the mail to her home in Bruehl, West Germany, she said, is from East Germans. Once in a while the message inside has been more pointed, reflecting the harsher realities of life where many restrictions apply.

One letter, she remembered, came from a teen-age player who wanted badly to compete in West Germany.

“She asked me if I could help her in any way,” Graf said. “She also said that once in her life, she would like to be able to see me play somewhere.”

East Germany’s absence from international tennis may account, to some degree, for Graf’s wide popularity there. Unlike the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries that routinely produce world-class players, East Germany has chosen not to compete at an elite level. None of the major professional tours this year included an East German player. Nor did one compete in the Seoul Olympics last year, when tennis returned as a medal sport for the first time in 64 years.

Graf recalled one player, an Eastern European champion of another generation, who retired in frustration, never having tested his skills against players of non-Warsaw pact nations.

“Playing 20 years in the same country,” Graf said, “he had no more motivation.”

Martina Navratilova, a native of Czechoslovakia who became an American citizen in 1981 after defecting, remebered that player, Thomas Emmrich, even better.

“He was my boyfriend in 1971 or ’72,” she said. “He beat all the junior players in Czechoslovakia. He beat people who beat Bjorn Borg at that age. But he never had a chance to play on the outside. They were not allowed, period.”

Navratilova, who is seeded second this week, said she expected that to change, and not just because of the sudden political developmentsin East Germany. She predicted that because tennis has won a permanent place on the Olympic program, East Germans sports officials would begin to emphasize it and develop top players as they have in other sports.

“It’s that simple,” she said. “I think the world will now see a wave of East German tennis players.”

Navratilova described herself as “euphoric” over recent events in Eastern Europe, saying, “the winds of change are here.” They have blown less vigorously in other Eastern European countries but still with enough power to create hope.

Manuela Maleeva, a 21-year-old Bulgarian who is seeded eighth in the championships, said that the developments in East Germany were only slightly more exhilarating than changes in her own country, where Todor I. Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s president since 1954, resigned on Friday.

“That was unexpected,” Maleeva said, adding that she could not be sure how it would affect Bulgarian citizens.

“I think it will take quite a few years until things really start to change,” she said. “But I’m happy something is moving. When the same person is in power for 35 years, it felt like things would stay the same forever.”

Like Graf and Navratilova, she has watched in amazement as East and West Berliners celebrated at the Wall.

“They were all so happy,” she said. “it was unthinkable even a month ago that someone could walk on the Berlin Wall, and now they’re destroying it. It’s really something.”