Becker and Edberg, Wimbledon 1990

By Andrew Longmore, London Times, July 7, 1990

Rarely can the ball have been hit as hard for as long as it was in the men’s semi-finals on centre court yesterday. At the end of the bombardment, Ivan Lendl‘s odyssey had ended, Goran Ivanisevic‘s had just begun and Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg were left to contest their third consecutive Wimbledon final. Fearful of an unhealthy sense of continuity, the centre court crowd were mostly sympathetic to the two Ivans, one out of sympathy, the other novelty. But Lendl, by his own admission, was never in the match, losing in straight sets, and Becker survived the loss of the first set and an edgy second set tie-break before beating the explosive young Yugoslav 4-6, 7-6, 6-0, 7-6. He even won the battle of the aces, 15 to 14.

“It was the best grass-court match I have played. Goran went out there and played very strongly for a set and three-quarters. I’m glad it’s all over,” Becker said.

After their varying adventures over the past fortnight, Becker and Edberg will meet in the final like a pair of long-lost school friends.

“I know his game blind and he knows me,” Becker said. “It’s going to be a matter of who wakes up in the better frame of mind on the day.”

Two years ago, it was Edberg who won in four sets; last year, it was Becker in three. Neither match quite lived up to pre-match billing, so they owe us a classic.

Lendl, the No.1 seed, was unlucky again, not in the way that he played, but in the way that Edberg played. In an hour and 48 minutes, the No.3 seed gave an almost flawless exhibition of grass-court tennis, winning 6-1, 7-6, 6-3. So complete was the Swede’s superiority that, even after all his painful preparations, Lendl did not feel too distraught in defeat nor too downcast to go through the same agonies again next year.

“Last year was more disappointing because I had a real chance against Becker. Today Stefan outplayed me and I really could not get into the match,” Lendl said.

There is a touch of the Stan Laurel about Edberg. At any moment, you expect him to scratch the top of his head. He looks perplexed whether he is playing like a drain or a dream and as he can do both with equal facility, he lives life in a permanent state of puzzlement.

Yesterday, was one of the dreamy days when his volleys are controlled as if by radar, his serve hums off the grass and even the usually wayward forehand comes to heel. On such days, Edberg explores areas of grass-court play forbidden to less instinctive players. Lendl might have been blindfolded for all the chance he had of finding that promised land.

The Czechoslovak had only one chance to break Edberg’s service in the whole match. The moment came in the second set, the game after Lendl had saved five break points to lead 4-3. Lendl drove a cross-court forehand, which threatened to leave a hole in Edberg’s frail torso, but the Swede, almost standing on the net, parried the pass and the ball dropped sadly into the acres of vacant green grass.

If the tie-break was to be Lendl’s last stockade, it proved to be a flimsy barrier against the arrows which shot from Edberg’s racket. The Swede will not hit a more telling series of ground strokes as long as he graces Wimbledon than the passes, three forehand and one backhand, which left Lendl looking forlornly up into the players’ box for inspiration. He found none. Edberg took the tie-break 7-2.

The decisive break came in the sixth game of the third set. In desperation, Lendl lunged to his left to intercept an Edberg forehand on break point and the ball ballooned over the baseline. With it went the world No.1’s hopes and dreams, 12 months’ thought and three months’ preparation.

Becker had to conquer a strange feeling of nostalgia in his match. Five years ago, he was the big-serving unseeded semi-finalist, hurling himself about the centre court with youthful abandon. In his serving, the power of his ground strokes and his utter disdain for his elder and his better (this time), the Yugoslav was the image of Becker. But the one difference is that Ivanisevic looks permanently in need of a square meal; the one problem that his mind sometimes goes off in search of it. Three times, Ivanisevic paid the price for a lack of concentration. Once when, serving for a two-set lead at 6-5, he netted two volleys to give Becker the break back; second, when he let a 3-0 lead slip in the subsequent tie-break and the third time as Becker took the third set in 17 minutes. By the time his mind had returned to base, Becker was rumbling towards victory and the little the Yugoslav did in the way of imitation could not disturb the inevitability.

“During the match, I was thinking about somebody who was 17 years old who played like that,” Becker said. “The way he serves, hits his forehand volley and his ground strokes. He is doing the same things as I did.”

In time, he should win Wimbledon too.