In the players’ box, in the Royal Box, in the commentary box or on the courts, former champions were everywhere!
2-time Wimbledon champion Stefan Edberg, Roger Federer’s coach:
3-time champion Boris Becker, now Novak Djokovic coach:
Amélie Mauresmo, Andy Murray’s new coach and winner in 2006:
Big difference with the Federer-Edberg duo, Becker doesn’t hit with Djokovic, he just stands there, doing… not a lot.
Article by Barry Lorge, June 1990
At the Baden Tennis Center in the Heidelberg suburb of Leimen, the most productive of 13 regional training facilities operated by the West German Tennis Federation, coach Boris Breskvar finishes hitting with three youngsters and invites a visitor into his office. The wall behind his office is covered with photos, a couple of which he points with particular pride. There he is with Steffi Graf and Boris Becker at the European junior championships in 1981. And five years earlier, a group photo of the Baden kids, when Steffi had just turned 7 and Becker was a lad of 8. Surely another picture is destined for this gallery. Graf and Becker, at 20 and 21, posing together last July, after she won the women’s singles title at Wimbledon for the second straight year and he captured the men’s crown he held in 1985 and ’86. If you perused newstands in Germany the week after this extraordinary “Deutschland Doppel,” they dominated the covers. One magazine even had them dressed in full regalia like king and queen.
Before last Wimbledon, Becker and his girlfriend, Karen Schultz, went out for dinner with Graf and her coach, Pavel Slozil. Becker and Graf also met a couple of times during the tournament and talked.
“In other tournaments, we saw each other and said hello and that was it,” Graf says. “This was the first time we communicated more than before, and we both came out as the winner. Afterward, we hugged. It was a great moment for both of us because we have known each other quite a while.”
A fairytale come true, Becker says, “I used to be the worst in the boys and she used to be the best in the girls, so when I was almost 9 and she was 7, I all the time had to hit with her. From then on we more or less went through the same tournament and matches and we all the time kept a relationship… It’s impossible to think something like this can happen.”
GRATIFYING: It was particularly gratifying for Breskvar, who worked with Graf occassionally, and coached Becker daily, from the time they were barely out of kindergarten until they were teenagers. He had them hit against each other – not only because Graf was the top girl in Baden and Becker the runt of the region’s promising boys, but also because he saw in them similar stuff of champions.
“Steffi was (an) exceptional talent, and also mentally very, very strong,” he says. “She was never afraid. You know when it’s 5-all in the final set, they are all afraid a bit. They push the ball a little. Not Steffi and Boris. They were never afraid. They also lost matches, 5-7 in the third set, but they never pushed their shots. Also, they liked to compete.”
Breskvar, 47, who played internationally for his native Yugoslavia and has been employed by the German and Baden federations for 18 years, was at Wimbledon the second week of last year’s tournament with a team of German juniors. He watched the men’s final at Centre Court, guest of Becker’s Romanian manager – Svengali, Ion Tiriac, an old friend from their touring days.
An outgoing, expressive man with burning brown eyes, Breskvar saw Graf and Becker hold their trophies aloft and thought back to the kids on his wall. “For a coach,” he says, “this is a super feeling, something really special.” Becker grew up in Leimen, a town of 20,000 previously best known for producing cement. His home was less than a mile from the Blau-Weiss (blue-white) Tennis Club, whose indoor courts are now called Boris Becker Halle. Becker started hitting against a wall at the age of 5. After the Baden centre was built across the street in 1976, he practised there almost exclusively. Boris’ father, architect Karl Heinz Becker, designed both the tennis centre and Breskvar’s house. The coach discovered young Boris at a talent search at Heidelberg Schwarz and Geld (Black and Gold) Club in 1974, and worked with him for 10 years.
When Becker was 16, Breskvar turned him over to Gunther Bosch, a Romanian born friend of Tiriac; it was a year before Becker became the youngest man ever to win Wimbledon.
“His father told me, ‘Take care of my boy, and I don’t interfere. You must do everything,” Breskvar says. “Before he went to Bosch, he asked me three times to travel and coach Boris. I told him I prefer to stay in Leimen. I don’t want my boss to be one young guy. Nothing against Boris, who is a very good friend, but I prefer to work with a lot of juniors.” Breskvar’s relationship with Graf is decidedly cooler. She is from Bruhl, a town of 14,000 a few miles northwest of Leimen, closer to industrial Mannheim. In his instructional book – Boris Becker’s Tennis : The Making of a Champion, which has been published in Germany, Yugoslavia, Japan, England and Holland- Breskvar recalled his introduction.
“She was only 6 when she first came to us, but she already had a fairly reasonable technique. She had learned the basics from her father, who was a tennis coach . I can clearly recall the first time we met. Peter Graf came up to me and said, ‘I’ve found out as much as I can about you, and I think you’re the right man to train Steffi – because one day she’s going to be No.1 in the world.
“I don’t think I can be blamed for assuming that I was talking to yet another of these ambitious fathers who think the whole world is just waiting to see their child play. By the time we (had) completed the half-hour training session, I was greatly impressed, and inwardly asked Peter Graf to forgive me for thinking ill of him, for Steffi really did have talent.”
Her father groomed Graf’s game and is still her principal advisor, although former Czechoslovakian Davis Cup player Slozil also travels and hits with her. Breskvar believes that the Baden centre played more of a part in Graf’s ascent than the family is willing to admit. Steffi says: “My coach was my father. When he didn’t have so much time because he was giving lessons himself, I went to the centre. I played there until I was 12 or 13 – maybe 15 or 20 times a year.”
ENERGETIC: Breskvar is an energetic lefthander who puts an intriguing variety of spins on tennis balls and converses in 6 languages (German, English, French, Italian, Serbo-Croatian and his native Slovenian). He does not dwell in the past, which in his case includes being the third man on Yugoslav Davis Cup teams that featured two players ranked in the world’s top 10, Nikki Pilic (now the German Davis Cup captain) and Zeljko Franulovic. At the Baden centre, he has a number of promising prospects, including Anke Huber, 13, already the best junior girl in Germany and Romanian defector Mirela Vadulescu, 12, who has moved to Leimen with her family and was signed to a contract by Tiriac last year. Breskvar smilingly predicts, “they will be playing each other in the Wimbledon final in five years.” These days, however, the coach happily obliges frequent requests to reminisce about Graf and Becker. They were both exposed early to a sophisticated programme that incorporates not only traditional training in technique and tactics, but also physical and psychological conditioning. Breskvar works closely with Prof. Hermann Reider, director of the Sports Science Institute at Heidelberg’s celebrated university.
“For five years he helped me with Boris and Steffi, making psychological tests, motivational tests, studies,” Breskvar says. “He agrees with me that it is very important to train children not only in tennis, but in other ball sports.” Breskvar points to basketball hoops and goals for football and field hockey on an area paved in asphalt, adjacent to the four red clay courts at his centre. Here players develop their sense of space, movement and what is possible to do with a ball and bodies. “We play these sports a lot, as well as sprints and jumps and other athletic drills for conditioning,” Breskvar says. “I think this is very important when children are 9,10,11, because you must play a lot of combinations in your head. How to beat the opponent, move, set up a score. If you can transfer this to tennis, you can improve a lot. Steffi is a wonderful basketball player. Boris is good in basketball and very, very strong in football.”
Breskvar encourages an all court game, with particular emphasis on the style for which a given player is suited by physique and personality. “We take all the children to a medical centre and make an X-ray here,” he says, pointing to the wrist, “so we can see how tall they will be when they grow up. We can tell within two centimeters. We did this also with Steffi and Boris. This is very important because Boris was very small when he was 9 years old, but since I know he is going to be 190 centimeters, I must practise a lot of serve and net with him. If I know someone is going to be 166 or 168, we must practise a lot of topspin and ground strokes.”
AGGRESSIVE: Despite his diminutive size, Becker was already aggressive the first time Breskvar saw him, lunging and diving and making the horizontal leaps at the net that have become his trademark from the grass of Wimbledon to less forgiving hard courts. “Boris tried for everything, but his technique was not so good – tennis of jumping,” Breskvar recalls. “He didn’t know how to roll. Knees and elbows scraped, blood everywhere. I said,’Hey, stop, don’t do this. You hurt yourself.’ He said,’No no,it’s ok and again he does it. I liked him from the first moment, but I stopped the session because I was afraid he would break some bones. I told him,’O.K. in two days you can come to the centre and begin training with me,’ but I thought to myself first I must teach him to jump properly.”
Breskvar ordered gym mats, which still hang on the walls alongside the centre’s three indoor courts, and tought Becker to land like an acrobat. “After, I encouraged him to jump,” Breskvar says. “This is his personality and an important part of his game, for three reasons. First, he can reach more balls. More important is the psychological effect. When Boris jumps and gets the ball, the next time the opponent thinks, ‘I must play exactly on the line.’ He tries to hit into an area half as small, and that is very difficult, and often he is hitting out. The other advantage is this jumping is very attractive for the spectators, and pretty soon they are all on Boris’s side. This is a great plus.”
Graf has improved her volley, but favours playing from the back court, winning with a lethal topspin forehand and quickness and concentration that are almost as intimidating. Graf has outstanding hand-eye coordination, reflexes and racquet control to go with her speed afoot. Breskvar remembers the first time she picked up a plastic hockey stick and joined in one of his post-practice scrimmages: “The others looked on in astonishment as she stopped, dribbled and hit the ball as if she had practiced the game for years.” Graf also loves basketball, but says she was disappointed that Breskvar wouldn’t let her play soccer “because I could easily get injured.” Breskvar says that tests showed Graf had weak ankles, for which trainer Erko Prull designed a special exercise programme. She still works on conditioning with Prull, who she calls “a very good friend of our family.” It was in large part because their drive to succeed was so similar that Breskvar had Becker hit with Graf. “They practiced together sometimes, but not a lot,” Breskvar says. “This was better training for Steffi than Boris. I like him to play with older, stronger boys. It is important to find the right sparring partner- somebody who is a little bit better, but not too much.”
Graf realises now that she and Becker had some similarities. “Temperamentally, yes,” she says. “I have always been somebody who criticised myself a lot. When I didn’t play well, I was getting mad. Boris was the same.”
At the time, though, she didn’t sense how much alike they were. “Anyway, we were kids,” she says. “At that age, nobody really expected Boris would become the player he is. They thought I had much more chance.” What gave Breskvar a vision of the future was that Becker shared Graf’s uncompromising determination. One of the coach’s friends manufactured Capri-Sonne, a fruit-juice made in Heidelberg, which became the unofficial currency of training wagers. “Boris would ask all the time, how many will you give me if I win?” Breskvar recalls. “He was already a real professional. It was incredible. The more drinks at stake the better he was playing. When he was 14 or 15, I was still stronger than he was, but we had good matches- 6-3 or 6-4 every set. One day he asked, ‘How many drinks will you give me if I beat you?’ I said ‘The whole box.’ He was trying like a madman, and he beat me, first time. Boris is a born competitor.” This begs the question that is widely debated, within Germany and abroad. Was the emergence of Graf and Becker from the same corner of the country without much tennis tradition a quirk of history or the result of a programme capable of producing more like them?
FAIRY TALES: Becker said at Wimbledon that his and Graf’s success was so improbable that they will be grandfather and grandmother before their countrymen realise what they have accomplished. Graf also says it was the stuff of fairy tales: “What else can you call it? I mean, you can’t build up two players like that. I don’t see it happening again. It’s just luck, coincidence.”
Breskvar disagrees. “They are great talents,” he says. “Without talent you cannot work. But I also think that we have done a lot with those players. You ask Mr. Graf it is only him. This is difficult. But I think this centre was very important. It was the first in Germany, and without the opportunity to practice every day without paying one Deutschmark, over eight years, it would be very, very difficult.” The chief coach of the German Tennis Federation calculated that Becker’s court time, coaching and travel as a junior had been subsidised to the tune of $500,000.
“It is too much money for most families,” Breskvar says. “We pay everything. We pay everything. This is very important. A champion must be born with talent, but he must also have the environment. You can have a great natural talent for skiing, but if you live in the Sahara, you cannot win an Olmypic gold medal in skiing.”
Good genes and God-given gifts need to be nurtured. Raw potential needs to be recognised, moulded, motivated. “Boris was not the best in Germany when he was 12, 13, 14″ Breskvar says. “He was about No.10. But when our federation was deciding where to put the money, I told our President, ‘I think Boris will be the best. We try with him,’ I don’t think it would happen without our help. There are so many players now, a champion must be something special, and he must be very well managed. The times are over when talent alone will rise to the top.”
Says Tiriac: “Boris Breskvar is a guy who had, and has, very good kids, so the results prove that he knows what he is doing…..Boris and Steffi emerging from the same area at the same time? That is an accident with ingredients that helped. Like tennis courts to play (on). Like parents connected with tennis. Like Breskvar to discover and develop the talent. If there are no courts and coaches, it is impossible to recognise a gift for tennis.”
The Baden tennis centre where Becker and Graf hit against each other as kids – must be recognised either as the setting, of an extraordinary fairy tale, or as a contemporary cradle of champions.
Another disappointing performance by Tsonga who keeps telling his goal is to win a Grand Slam title, but fails to defeat top players tournament after tournament.
Djokovic’s coach, Boris Becker.
Photo credit: Steve Blair
From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990
Becker, like Edberg has been around for a long time but is still young. It was not until 1989 that each emerged as a player obviously capable of winning major championships on any surface: to be explicit, on the extremes of grass and clay. In 1989 either could have become the first serve-and-volley specialist to win the French title for more than 20 years. Neither will be content with what he has already achieved, impressive though that is. Their form during the next few years will depend partly on fitness (each has had problems, largely arising from the physical stress the ‘big’ game imposes) and partly on their hunger for success. Ambition is not a constant condition of the human spirit. The flow of even the strongest river is subject to variations of rainfall on the watershed.
So far, Becker’s record has been the more spectacular and has also had wider repercussions? Like Bjorn Borg in Sweden and Guillermo Vilas in Argentina, he became a national hero whose example fired his compatriots and caused an enomous expansion in tennis interest: among players, public, court and equipment manufacturers, sponsors, and a variety of entrepreneurs.
Becker’s triumphs, swiftly followed by those of Steffi Graf, were almost as exciting for television viewers in East Germany, where tennis has been an undeveloped minor sport. Given Becker, Graf and the game’s restoration to Olympic status in 1988, we may assume that what is at present East Germany will be a productive area of growth for tennis in the 1990s.
Becker’s influence has also been considerable – and benefical – in a more senitive area. Germany needed a heroic figure commanding world-wide respect and he took on that role as if born to it. His first Wimbledon championship came 40 years after the end of the Second World War and 45 years after a German bomb had fallen on to a corner of the competitors’ centre court seating area. There was a spice of irony in the fact that Becker’s tennis on that same court dominated television, radio, and newspapers and magazines in his homeland. For most of us the War was only an older genreation’s vague, receding memory, a faint shadow in the mind. But to the German-speaking peoples it remainded a slightly touchy subject. Young though he was, Becker was aware of that: and aware, too that the new Germany needed a paragon? He responded as if all his 17 years had been spent in the diplomatic service. On court, he was an immensely Teutonic sportsman: fair-haired and blue-eyed, big and strong and a fighter to the core. Off court, he was all charm and tact and low-keyed common sense, recognizing the ‘Blond Bomber’ and ‘Blitzkrieg’ headlines as no more than facile metaphors. In short, Becker made Wimbledon history and at the same time did an impressive public relations job for Germany.
Becker’s home is a little more than six miles from Graf’s. They have known each other since childhood, when they often used to hit together and, later, played in the same tournaments. By the age of 12 he was an unusually promising footballer but gave up that game in favor of tennis. At 15 he was West Germany’s junior champion and, in the first round of the boys singles at Wimbledon, was beaten by Edberg – the top seed, who was almost two years older. At 16 Becker left school to play full-time. His potential had been recognized by the national federation’s coach, Gunther Bosch.
Since their childhood at Brasov, which lies at the foot of the transylvanian Alps, Bosch had been associated with Ion Tiriac, an uncommonly smat man with an intimidating presence. Tiriac played Davis Cup tennis for Romania from 1959 to 1977, by which time he knew everybody an all the angles. As coach, then as manager and entrepreneur, he was – and remains – a cute businessman. Tiriac went to Leimen, guaranted Becker’s parents a fat income, and took charge of the lad’s career. Bosch became Becker’s personal coach.
Thus was Becker under new management, so to speak, from 1984 onwards. In April of that year he qualified for Luxembourg’s first grand prix tournament, which was additionally memorable for the fact that there was a dog show in progress and players shared a hotel with thoroughbreds – sometimes audibly restive during the night. On court, Becker’s ferocious hitting raised images of Ivan Lendl. He had two match points against Gene Mayer. Becker qualified for Wimbledon, too, but tore some ankle ligaments when hotly engaged with Bill Scanlon and was carried away on a stretcher. By the end of that year he was already 6ft 2in tall and weighed 12st 8lb (he has since put on about half an inch and half as stone). Just the build, in fact, to take on Wimbledon and the world. Tiriac and Bosch were doing what they could to improve his quickness and agility.
Just before the 1985 Wimbledon, Becker won the Stella Artois tournament at Queen’s Club, suggesting that he could be a future Wimbledon champion. The future was now. Becker beat Hank Pfister in Wimbledon’s first round and observed that he was looking forward to ‘not being a nobody’. Joakim Nystrom and Tim Mayotte in turn took him to five sets and almost beat him. Then Becker got lucky. He did not have to play any of the top three seeds, because Kevin Curen tore through John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors in straight sets and Henri Leconte‘s fireworks display reduced Ivan Lendl to dazzled helplessness. By the time the final came round, Curren, who had already done enough to win most Wimbledons, did not have quite enough left. By contrast Becker was still strong, still dreaming the dreams of the young. He was having the time of his life and let us know about it: by joyously punching the air with his fists and giving his celebrated impression of a man cycling down a cobbled street without a bicycle. He was not only the first German champion, the youngest champion, and the first unseeded champion: he was also four months younger than the winner of the boys’ singles, Leonardo Lavalle. Moreover, Becker did it again in 1986, this time with more ease. His last two victims were Leconte and Lendl. Again, neither McEnroe nor Connors crossed his path.
Becker has often said that, as a tennis player, he was born at Wimbledon, that he feels at home there. The tournament changed his life and made him a celebrated millionaire. True, he had to shoulder a championship’s increased responsabilities to the game and did not always welcome the attention he attracted, the erosion of his privacy. ‘But it’s worth paying the price’, he admitted. It has often been suggested that Wimbledon is the easiest Grand Slam tournament for a man to win, because grass permits violently short rallies that make only limited demands on a player’s experience and tactical versatility. On the other hand a Wimbledon championship is the most coveted prize in the game and carries enormous prestige. It follows that, to some extent, Becker achieved too much too soon. He was like a man standing on the top of the Everest and realizing that he had yet to learn the craft of mountaineering.
Becker learned but it took him three years to win another Grand Slam title. Let us remember that, although twice Wimbledon champion, he was only 18 years old – still growing up in the midst of sudden fame and fortune.
In January of 1987, during the Australian championships, Becker’s natural need for more independance – moe time to go his own way, enjoy the company of his girlfriend, and find out what it was like to live an approximation of a normal life – led to a split with Bosch, who was unwilling to accept the part-time role Becker now demanded of him. But Tiriac was always there and Becker could easily pick him out, beneath clouds of cigarette smoke. And by the end of 1987 Franck Dick, a British athletics coach, was making Becker a better all-round athlete and Bob Brett, an Australian coach from the Harry Hopman school, was beginning to make Becker a better tennis player. gradually, Becker came to terms with manhood – and with the kind of tennis played on surfaces far more prevalent than grass. The Davis Cup competition helped, because Becker knew that he was playing for a team, a nation, and simply had to produce the goods – whatever the surface. And he did produce the goods.
The 1988 Davis Cup triumph was followed by a year in which it all came together. On the slow clay of Paris, Becker was narrowly frustrated but proved that he was ready to pass that most difficult of all tests for any player from the serve-and-volley school. And the Becker who regained the Wimbledon championship was a far more mature player than the the Becker of 1985 and 1986. He made a little more history too. In the first set of the final Edberg was taken by storm and scored only 10 points. It was the first 6-0 set in a men’s singles final for 40 years. Moreover, Steffi Graf won the women’s title the same day. Never before had Germands won both singles championships at Wimbledon – and Becker and Graf were to repeat the feat in the United States championships two months later, though Becker had saved two match points (one with the fortuitous intervention of a net cord) in a second round match with Derrick Rostagno.
It was the first time a German had won the US men’s title. Becker is unning out of firsts but will keep coming back for more: especially if his knees and ankles and the soles of his feet are spared an excess of the pounding they get on courts that are both hot and hard.
Becker is a commanding figure and an awfully powerful player. There is a hint of arrogance in the chin-up, icy glare he gives his opponents in the moments between rallies. Off the same toss, he can win any of three sevices: flat, kick, or slice. His forehand is equally fearsome. Becker flings his racket at the ball as if he never expects to see either again. Often, no volley is needed. A similar blazing speed can be evident when he puts top-spin on his backhand, which he usually hits with underspin. His volleys, whether punched or caressed, are like the cursory last spadefuls of soil on the graves of rallies. The pattern of his assault is varied, but the persistent strength of becker’s hitting keeps his opponents under terrible stress. On top of all that there is the bounding athleticism: the huge leaps for overheads, the spectacular falls as he hurls himself into wide volleys, and the quick ease (remarkable in such a big man) with which he moves in behind his service or an early-ball approach shot. And his unquenchable fighting spirit permeates the court like some electric curent.
At the age of 22 Becker began 1990 as the best player in the world.
From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990
For the obvious reason that he is still a young man, capable of striding along the summits for many more years, ths can be no more than a half-term report on a graceful, classic exponent of the ‘big’ game. Unless memory lies, Mal Anderson has been the only other player of comparable class who, in the past 30 years or so, has served and volleyed with as much elegant facility as Edberg. In 1968, in Hamburg, I spent a long time watching Anderson. The serve and volley routine can be hard to take. It lacks charm. But Anderson’s instinctive ease of movement and racket-contol somehow gave that routine the uncomplicated allure of a Strauss waltz. So it is with Edberg. This is not to suggest that Edberg is the most efficient modern graduate of the serve-and-volley school. One refers only to the natural flair with which he does his thing. Unlike such heavily muscled contemporaries as Becker and Pat Cash, Edberg brings an aesthetic quality to the three-shot rally. His emergence is a striking eminder that Bjorn Borg‘s playing method – that of a baseliner with a two-fisted backhand – inspired no more than a transient trend in Swedish tennis. That method was Borg’s, not Sweden’s.
The main features of Edberg’s game are his mixture of services (many players find the second ball more difficult to handle than the first), his volleying, especially the cross-court backhand, and his backhand service eturns, which often explode down the court like shells. His forehand is a comparatively second-class shot for a first-class player: seldom threatening, and often wayward when his confidence is low. But Edberg’s command of the backhand and the top-spin lob gives him weapons enough for counter-punching from the back of the court. He is happiest in the forecourt, bending like a sapling in a gale as he springs this way and that and tucks away the volleys – whereupon he often gives a little hop of satisfaction at a point well won.
His general demeanour, though, is one of sad, dreamy languor. Often, he looks only half-awake. But this embodiment of a sight is a dangerously deceptive as those tall, quiet gufighters familiar from Western movies. Edberg seems reluctant to hurry but, when he does move, the action tends to be swift and short and terminal. One can picture Edberg casually blowing the smoke out of the barrel and instantly going most of the way back to sleep.
He is that kind of man: by no means the aggressive, pushy type, but stubbornly resistant to being pushed. Edberg likes a peaceful, comfortably stable life. Gentle and unassuming, reserved and laconic, he is a private man who enjoys company as long as it is not too demanding. No fuss, if you please. He is among those who apply to themselves the principle that everybody is important but nobody is very important.
Physically, Edberg is a long-limbed, willowy 6ft 2in (which Rod Laver considers may be the ideal height for a tennis player) and weighs around 11st 7lb. He has an arresting and attractive court presence and when that handsomely composed but gloomy mien is enlivened by one of his slow smiles, the mothering instinct wells up in ladies of all ages.
Edberg has a London apartment, in Kensington, but his home is the industrial home of Vastervik on the Baltic coast. He played tennis from the age of seven, took up the game full time at 16, and in the following year, 1983, won the junior Grand Slam. This invited less attention than the 17-yea-old’s form in the now defunct Bournemouth tournament. He had to qualify but then reached the semi-finals by beating the cerebral and charming Balazs Taroczy, a specialist on such slow surfaces. Edberg told us that he was a policeman’s son and took up tennis because his mothe wanted him to. His Bournemouth form, plus the comment about his mother, was the first hint we had that he was something special but needed help in fuelling the fires of ambition.
For a few years he was none too sure of himself, none too sure what he wanted out of tennis, and none too sue if the ultimate prizes were worth the effort. He was lucky in that the European representative for Wilson’s, the company who made Edberg’s rackets, turned out to be a congenial friend and, before long, assumed the more constructive roles of manager, coach, and – most important of all – motivator. Tony Pickard had, in fact, turned up in Sweden almost five years before Edberg did. That was in 1961, at Bastad, where Pickard made his Davis Cup debut for Britain. As a player Pickard did not have quite enough talent to match his self-assurance. He soon discovered that it was the other way round for Edberg.
The biggest problem, was to get him to believe in himself. It took nearly three years.
Pickard, almost 32 years older than Edberg was exactly what the young man needed: a wise, witty, avuncular extrovert who knew when to nag Edberg and when to leave him alone.
At 18 Edberg made his Davis Cup debut, playing a spectacular role as Anders Jarryd‘s partner in two remarkable doubles wins. At 19 he confirmed his growing eputation as a tough, resilient competitor by winning the Australian championship. He saved two match points against Wally Masur and beat Ivan Lendl 9-7 in the fifth set. A week after his 21st birthday Edberg produced further evidence of his guts and his belief in himself when he retained the Australian title by beating Melbourne’s local hero, Pat Cash, in a five-set final contested in fierce heat. Between them, Edberg and Mats Wilander won that Australian title for Sweden five years in a row. No other overseas nation has done that.
The next big triumph for Edberg came at Wimbledon in 1988, when he recovered from two sets down to beat Miloslav Mecir in a semi-final that provided an enthralling contrast in playing methods – and then played a glorious match to beat Boris Becker in the fist men’s singles final to begin one day and end the next. That year, too, Edberg came from behind to beat Mecir 9-7 in the fifth set of a decisive Davis Cup match.
In 1989 Edberg played the finest clay-court tennis of his career to each – and almost win – the French final. Becker was too strong for him in the Wimbledon final. But it takes a player of exceptional talent and competitive maturity to advance to the French and Wimbledon finals in the same summer. During the era of open competition (1968 onwards) the only other men to manage it were Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe – formidably distinguished company for a player who, for a time, had seemed to be vulnerably diffident. With Pickard’s help, Edberg learned the truth of a couple of lines in Shakespeare:
Our doubts are traitors, And make us lose the good we oft might win