Swede is the King, but do they care?
Who didn’t think that the worst was going to happen again? When Stefan Edberg was one set and a break up in the Kings of Tennis final against John McEnroe and started to walk with a limp, repeatedly touching his left thigh and asking for the physio, we all went back to the 2012 Zurich final against Carlos Moya, when the same kind of injury prevented him from winning the title with the match that seemed already over.
The fact that this time he went all the way in front of his home crowd, against an opponent 6 years his senior (that had struggled himself with a neck injury in the match before against Henri Leconte) can’t make us forget that almost twenty years have gone by since Stefan’s professional days and, inevitably, playing serve & volley tennis for entire matches in consecutive days on fast surfaces (stressing out articulations and muscles) is getting increasingly demanding for his body.
Yet it remains a show! Watching the final, all the lovers of vintage tennis can’t help noticing and appreciating the variety that Stefan can give his shots. When you see him use three different spins on three consecutive serves, you immediately think that, even though racquets and strings have developed becoming a technological weapon today, an alternative to exclusively power tennis would still be possible if the player’s arm and hand are educated and know the game’s history and secrets.
When you see two monsters like Stefan Edberg and John McEnroe apply today the same kind of strategies they played twenty years and more ago, you think that, it’s true, surfaces have been slowed down, but no way this is a factor to completely erase net play from the game.
At every interview Stefan keeps repeating that, had he played tennis today, he wouldn’t have served and volleyed at 90 per cent, but only half of the times. Still, when he enters the court, it’s so evident that the net remains an irresistible attraction for him. His touch is unchanged and the decreased speed makes it even more enjoyable to watch. His right side seems even improved and lower speeds this time can’t be the reason, because Stefan’s forehand has always been a counterpunching shot that gave him more troubles right when it was him who had to generate the power.
In the Stockholm final, instead, he looked unusually sharp on this shot, while he unexpectedly missed several backhand crosscourt passings.
For a good hour the final was top-level tennis. Since Stefan’s injury, I would say from the fourth game of the second set on, it went down. The two thousand spectators of the Stockholm Waterfront Congress Centre didn’t notice it. They were delighted, because the loss of quality was balanced by an enthralling fight in the second half of the match.
At the end the audience were all on their feet. But the real question is: how can an Edberg vs McEnroe final, even today, be watched by just two thousand spectators? An event that, I’m sure, would have filled the Royal Albert Hall in London (5.500 seats) or the Stade de Coubertin in Paris (5.000)… And, remember, last June there were 10.000 persons in Halle (which is not a capital city) to watch four tennis glories, right in the Sunday of the French Open final…
The Waterfront Congress Centre may surely be the tennis facility that Stockholm was waiting for. It is central, modern and multifunctional. But at the same time, it is the clear evidence of the downsizing of tennis in Sweden. In the ’80s and early ’90s the Stockholm Open was played at the Globe Arena (14.000), then, from 1996, it moved to the Kungliga Tennishallen (5.000). Now, a senior event that puts together two former Swedish world number ones (and Borg was in the stands) plus two more Swedish top ten players and a world sports star like John McEnroe is hosted in a much smaller stadium. And it’s not sold-out…
The news of the winner has barely found some space on the Swedish most important online media, where the sport pages are now almost completely filled with ice hockey. It looks like the Kings of Tennis, more than revitalizing tennis in Sweden, reminds the Vikings of a past that can no longer be.
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Photo by Tim Edwards