Stefan Edberg, the boring Swede

By Andrew Longmore, The London Times, 1991

For a man who lives so close to the edge on court, Stefan Edberg is one of life’s supreme conservatives. He abhors disorder, is disconcerted and upset by it. Edberg is the sort of man who washes up coffee cups before you have drunk the last mouthful, and he would no more leave the top off the toothpaste as he would be seen on Centre Court with his shirt outside his neatly pressed, neatly tailored shorts.

He dresses modestly, talks and drinks in moderation, still takes the underground to work, and lines up for his meal tickets just as he did when he first came on to the tour nine years ago. He does not own a car and would eat Italian food seven times a week if he could.

Nothing in Edberg’s manner signposts the genius beneath; nothing on the surface illuminates the depths of his soul. The face, fixed in a look of almost permanent wonder, like a child who has seen Father Christmas for the first time, melts the hearts of mothers from Japan to Djibouti, but it discourages curiosity.

Edberg is Edberg. Too good to be true. Boring.

“The boring Swede?” He laughs.” It doesn’t upset me. It makes me think, ‘Can I do anything about it?’ The answer is not a lot. My job is to play my best tennis and I do that when I am controlled and cool. I’ve seen myself on television and I admit I don’t look the happiest person on earth, I know. I can start to fool around, but I don’t think it would help my tennis and, I can tell you, it used to be a lot worse.”

Edberg laughs a lot more these days. Not a guffaw, you understand. Just a chuckle, delivered quickly and nervously as if there were some embarrassment in being caught in the act.

He has also mastered the art of the understatement, possibly the result of living in Britain for the past five years, or just possibly the real Edberg, more familiar with the English language now, emerging from a decade of hibernation.

It is hard to tell. Either way, his conversation is punctuated by gentle self-deprecating asides which come with the confidence of being the best in his profession, the No.1 player in the world.

That too was typical of Edberg. Boris Becker reached No.1 thunderously by beating Ivan Lendl, the defending champion, to win the Australian Open. Edberg fulfilled his ambition five months ago at the GTE Thriftway championships in Cincinnati. It was in the quarter-final and very probably only Edberg and Tony Pickard, his coach, really understood the significance of the win.

He even fluffed his second entrance. Having been briefly deposed by Becker, Edberg resumed the No.1 spot in the semi-finals of a tournament in Brussels. He lost. Hardly a clash of cymbals.

But then, unlike Becker, Edberg is not one of life’s percussionists. The agonizing public confessions that have marked Becker’s growth from child to man have no part in Edberg’s thinking. Or if they do, very few know of them.

And yet Edberg has had to cope with the excesses of stardom from almost the same age as Becker. In 1983, the year he won the junior Grand Slam, Edberg beat Becker in the first round of junior Wimbledon, the first battle in what both vaguely understood would be a long war. Their paths have crossed ever since, including the finals of the last three Wimbledons.

“We are two very different people, Boris and me. It has been much tougher for him. You only have to look at how much goes around tennis in Germany. The pressures on him are unbelievable. I was lucky that I came up with 3,000 other Swedes. Borg was still huge and most of the attention was still on Mats Wilander.”

But there is more to it than that. Cleverly, imperceptibly, naturally, since he first set foot outside the industrial seaside town of Vastervik, Edberg has kept the world at arm’s length. Everyone knows the face, but only Pickard, Annette Olssen, Edberg’s longtime girlfriend, and perhaps a few old school friends fully understand the man.

“I am naturally suspicious. It takes a lot of time before I let people come close. I like to keep my distance. You meet a lot of weird people in this business, so you have to be cautious.”

Caution permeates Edberg’s life, from the investment of his vast wealth to his vision of the future.

“I want to have a stable life. Not too many surprises. Have my things in order, a nice house and good friends around me. Maybe a nice dinner once in a while. But I don’t need a helicopter in the garden to take me there.”

The one exception to this ordered existence is Edberg’s tennis, which, despite his arguments to the contrary, is still beguilingly eccentric. Articulate as he is, only on the tennis court does Edberg express himself fully, and even then you have to watch carefully and wait patiently for the genius to flow. It can take a long time.

The main tension in Edberg’s life comes from his lust for perfection and, because he alone among the top players knows the true meaning of the word, the search can be lonely and frustrating. When you can play tennis as faultlessly as Edberg did in the Wimbledon semi-final against Lendl last year and for the first two sets of the final, mediocrity is very hard to accept.

“I am very determined and sometimes I put too much pressure on myself, expect too much of myself. Semi-finals and finals are no good to me anymore. I have to win tournaments, and if I lose I get edgy and I have to get back to work, I’ve always been disciplined. It comes from childhood.”

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