From Inside Tennis, a season on the pro tour by Peter Bodo:
On the day of the finals, transparent clouds travel through a sky of china blue. The air is crisp and cool, as if the seasons have changed and left a single autumnal day in honor of the past champions.
At the entrance to the Tribune présidentielle, the box reserved for honored guests and dignitaries, Juliet Mills sits at a table examining a complex seating chart, wondering where to put Belmondo, and Princess Caroline and Philippe Junot. Mills, a former film star, is now in charge of the celebrated at Roland Garros. Each day she attends to their needs and works out a seating arrangement as assiduously as a debutante giving her first dinner party.
On the floor of the stadium, a Signal Corps bad in khaki uniform plays brassy music as the galleries slowly fill. Runners of crimson velvet crisscross the court beneath the feet of ball boys who stand at parade rest holding a panoply of flags. A single strip of carpet provides a path from the court to the end of the stadium, up the stairs of the presidential box, and into a portal lined with royal guards in uniforms of black and red with burnished helmets.
The stadium is full now; the band is silent. Some 18,000 spectators await the start of the ceremony.
Suddenly the guardsmen raise their trumpets and sound a brisk fanfare. All eyes are fixed on the portal as the announcer intones the name of Henri Cochet, the seventy-six-year-old Frenchman who was the first champion of Roland Garros, and triggers an avalanche of applause.
Next comes René Lacoste, le crocodile, who turned his inelegant nickname into a trademark known throughout the world. Then Jean Borotra, the bouncing Basque, who smiles and waves casually, hardly pausing as he takes the stairs with the sprightly step that earned him his nickname. As he joins his fellow musketeers before the French standard, the parade of champions continues chronologically, from Peggy Vivian to a beaming Don Budge. There is Hoad, the blond bull wearing a mile-wide smile, looking as robust and invincible as ever; Darlene Hard Wagoner in a blue polyester pantsuit with a loud geometrically patterned top; Manuel Santana, the virtuoso, dapper and compact in a blazer of navy velvet.
The speaker reaches 1973 and the name Bjorn Borg. There is a moment of anticipation and then Borg appears, his hair clean and long and golden in the sun, his body lean and angular in the track suit that fits him like a second skin.
And then 1977 is called. Vilas steps out to a warm welcome. Vilas takes the stairs with his head bowed and proceeds to where Borg and Panatta stand chatting. He realizes his error and looks for the Argentinian flag. When he arrives before it, he exchanges a few words with his neighbour, Santana.
Borg held a long first game to start the match, then broke Vilas when the defending champion made three puzzling errors and double-faulted the love-40 point. Vilas broke back, but Borg won the next four games running to take the first set, 6-1, in a mere thirty-seven minutes.
Vilas is strong and Vilas is steady. Borg is his equal in that, but Borg is also frightening quick, and his consistency is neither defensive nor aimed at prolonging a point; it is merely an aggressive tactic to prepare him for the killing stroke. Errors from Vilas’ backhand begin to come with disturbing frequency. Each time he misses, he throws the racquet from his left hand to his right just as he concludes his follow-through, then snaps his left palm upward in a gesture of despair. It is meant only for the eyes of Tiriac, who sits courtside, just behind Vilas’ chair, sending a multitude of subtle hand signals to his protégé.
Absorbed in the match, Tiriac resembles some prehistoric turtle, with his broad, curved back and the sad, impassive eyes set deep in his head. The eternal cigarette cupped in his right hand is raised every other moment to the mustache that frames his mouth like an inverted horseshoe. When Vilas looks over, Tiriac will nod or just blink, but the blink seems loaded with profound implications.
Tiriac is no help today, for Borg is really on form, and Vilas has not mastered the attacking game well enough to force his opponent out of his rythm. After Borg wins the second set, also by 6-1, Tiriac advises Vilas to attack in the third. In desperation, Vilas begins to hit his flat first serve. He takes the initiative. He attacks, but he is tentative and flounders like a man caught in a bad dream. The dividends are higher now, and after surrendering an early break that gives Borg breathing room, Vilas manages to hold on and take three games. But he cannot stop Borg when the Swede serves for the match at 5-3. When Vilas hits a volley out to give Borg the match, the winner drops his racquet and slowly, almost as if he is yawning, raises his arms high above his head. He turns toward the players’ box, and for the first time in the match, he looks at his coach, Bergelin, and his fiancée, Marianna.
When Vilas sat down to the reporters, the light in his eyes expessed relief. “He gave me no chances to win. He made no mistakes. I think he played much better than me today,” he admitted.
Vilas was aked if so routine a loss to Borg was discouraging, and whether he felt that more work would ultimately give him a better chance against his Swedish rival. “I think I have to improve my play on all surfaces, learn to do more things,” he replied. “He is quicker, but I am stronger. Today, we were not out there so long that I could take advantage of my strength.” He continued, in a voice that was softer and less mechanical, “There are many disadvantages with my kind of thinking, but I have also one big advantage – I am not happy.”
“Why not?” a woman reporter asked kindly.
“It is impossible. When you are happy … you are dead.”
When Borg appeared, his hair hanging in thick, wet strands about his ears and shoulders, he was smiling.
“Well, how will you celebrate your third French title?”
“There will be a big kiss tonight,” Borg quipped.
He was surprised the match went so easily and felt that he won all the important points – the deuce and 30-40 points that support a win. After the first two games, he knew that Vilas did not have the confidence to beat him: “I see it in his shots, you know, and also in his face. He looks to me a little bit afraid. He become very nervous when he makes a mistake, like he cannot believe it, you know? Like somebody is doing something very bad to him.”
Someone suggested that Vilas might have a complex about him, but Borg would not confirm the theory. However, he allowed that his easy wins over Vilas in their last few matches had put him at a distinct advantage.
A late arrival asked Borg if he was doing anything special that evening.
“Yes in one hour I go on plane for Belgrade to play Davis Cup,” said the champion.
“You will have a champagne party, maybe?”
“Yeah.” Borg laughed. “Maybe on the plane.”
On the way out, I asked Borg what he would like to do on the private jet waiting at nearby Charles de Gaulle airport to take him to Belgrade.
“Sleep,” he replied.
By Arthur Brocklebank, Tennis Week, 2008
The fox is becoming extinct in England, but deep in middle England, Nottinghamshire an old silver fox sits alive and well in his armchair reflecting on his days of coaching Stefan Edberg and reviewing the state of the spot today. Tony Pickard coached six-time Grand Slam champion Edberg, who was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2004 and is set to make his senior debut on the Blackrock tour this year. The 42-year-old Swede will compete in Paris, France at The Trophée Jean-Luc Lagardère, September 18-21 and at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England at The BlackRock Masters Tennis, December 2-7.
Pickard still has that energy in his heart to stoke up a burning desire for anyone in the tennis profession who wants to listen and learn. He owns one of the most impressive coaching resumes in the nation, having worked with Edberg, Marat Safin, Petr Korda and a Canadian, oppphhhh I mean an adopted Brit, Greg Rusedski. Edberg amassed 41 singles titles, including two Wimbledon crowns, and 18 doubles championships in his career. Edberg and John McEnroe are the only men in Open Era history to hold the No. 1 ranking in both singles and doubles simultaneously.
It was a turn of circumstances at the beginning that would bring Tony Pickard and Stefan Edberg together. I asked Pickard, when he started playing tennis himself.
“My parents never played tennis. I was nuts on football. It all started by an accident when I was 14 years old. I loved football but one day I jumped into a swimming pool and landed on a broken bottle that cut my foot. I was in a wheelchair for six months. My sister took me to the tennis court where she played and I watched. I thought this is an easy game to play so I took it up,” Pickard says with a bemused smile as he gazed up to the ceiling.
Pickard soon played county tennis and later played several times at Wimbledon. He represented his country in the Davis cup and captained the under 21 and Davis Cup teams for Great Britain.
One incident that stands out in his playing career was in Rome at the 1963 Italian Open. He was playing the big-serving New Zealander Ian Crookenden in the Italian Championships and not only the crowd, but the line judges were losing interest.
Pickard takes up the story: “It was a match point. He served and it was at least nine inches long. The umpire looked to the baseline judge for the call, but he was turned round buying an ice cream over the fence.’ Crookenden won the point and went on to win the match. I felt as sick as a pig,” says Pickard.
Was there any possibility of an appeal I asked?
“In those days you could never appeal or you would have been brought up before a governing body committee and banned. A protest was not possible.”
From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:
As always, the men’s semifinals sandwiched the women’s final, so Becker and Agassi had to be on court at 11 o’clock in the morning. Only at the US Open could a semifinal match start with the stadium half empty.
Those who came late missed a wonderful seventy-one-minute first set. Becker saved four set points and Agassi three. Becker finally won in a 12-10 tiebreak.
Sitting in the stands, neither Brett nor Tiriac felt overjoyed at the end of it. Relieved, yes. Perhaps, they thought, Boris would escape on his will and his guile, because, once again, he was not playing the kind of tennis either man wanted to see him play. Point after point, he stood behind the baseline exchanging ground strokes with Agassi. Only when he had too, it seemed, did he come in.
Brett and Becker had sat and talked at length after Becker’s quarterfinal victory over Aaron Krickstein. Becker had been down a set and a break in that match before he had snapped out of his lethargy to win the match in four sets. “He knows very well,” Brett said afterward, “that he can’t even think about playing that way on Saturday if he wants to win.”
And yet, here it was, Saturday, and Becker was back behind the baseline against a man he had to attack to beat. Maybe the conditions – cold and windy, a complete switch from earlier in the tournament – threw Becker off. Whatever it was, he could not keep up the clay-court style of game he was playing. Agassi’s shots began finding their mark regularly. Becker wasn’t even making him sweat to hold serve. At one point, he won six points in eight games that Agassi served? When Becker didn’t get his serve in, Agassi controlled the points.
Agassi broke Becker nine times in thirteen service games during the last three sets. No doubt, he had returned extremely well. But Becker doesn’t get broken nine times when he is coming in. It can happen only if he plays behind the baseline.
Agassi won in four sets. He ended it with a service winner and promptly knelt in a prayerful pose somewhat akin to The Thinker – remarkable behavior from someone who, a week earlier, on this same court, had spewed profanities and spit on an umpire. Becker said nothing, but he noticed.
Considering the fact a young American had just beaten the defending champion, the crowd was surprisingly quiet. The applause was a little more than polite, but not much. Becker tried too hard to be gracious in his press conference. He claimed that he had played better tennis against Agassi than he had in 1989, in the final against Lendl.
“Andre was just too good,” he said.
Later that night, Becker admitted he had gone too far in praising Agassi.
“I didn’t want to sound like a bad loser,” he said. “He did play well, but I probably went too far, saying what I did. I didn’t want to be one of those guys who just says, ‘I was bad’, as an excuse for losing.”
From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:
When Becker walked on court for the final, on a glistening, postcard-perfect day, there was another problem. Katarina Witt, the glamorous German ice skater, had come to town earlier in the week. She was in the process of making a deal with Tiriac, and he had invited her to Wimbledon. Becker, single again, had spent some time with her.
It didn’t take long for the London tabloids to get cranked up. Now, as Becker walked on court, he looked up toward the friends’ box, expecting to see Brett and Tiriac’s assistant, Heather McLachlan, sitting there. That had been the drill the entire tournament. But now, in addition to Brett and McLachlan, Becker’s sister was there. That was fine. So was Katarina Witt. That wasn’t fine.
From his seat, Brett saw a look pass over Becker’s face. “It was a shock,” Becker said later. “I never expected to see her there. Heather had just given her the ticket to sit there without thinking about what it would me. She told me later she was sorry, that she made a mistake.”
What it meant was tabloid mania. Front page pictures galore, rumors about a Becker-Witt romance everywhere. It wasn’t what Becker needed starting a Wimbledon final.
Those thoughts, his feeling of satisfaction after the semifinal, and Edberg’s brilliance made Becker look helpless the first two sets.
“I just didn’t feel like I was in a Wimbledon final,” he said. “I didn’t even feel nervous going on court. Then I got a little distracted at the start (by Witt), and the next thing I know it’s 6-2 6-2. Then, my only thought was to not make a complete fool of myself.”
Edberg was also as shocked as Becker. How could it be so easy? He had lost three Grand Slam finals in eighteen months. Maybe it was in turn at last.
Or maybe not. Edberg had a break point in the first game of the third set. It was, for all intents and purposes, a match point as far as Becker was concerned. He came in and Edberg teed up another backhand. He ripped it crosscourt. Not this time: Becker read it perfectly and knocked off a sharp backhand volley. From there, he held. Given a glimmer of life, he broke Edberg for the first time in the next game. Maybe, he thought, I can win a set.
He won it. Then he won another. They had played for two hours and fifteen minutes. Now they would play the first fifth set in a Wimbledon final since McEnroe-Connors in 1982. Becker was wound up, stoking. Edberg was reeling.
“I was all the way to fifth gear,” Becker said. “He wasn’t there yet. I needed to take him out before he got there.”
He had his chance. Serving at 1-2, Edberg served two double faults, the second one an ugly balloon that almost went over the baseline. Becker was up 3-1. The match was on his racquet.
“But somehow I could’t keep my mind right there on the match,” he said. “I started to think about holding that trophy again. I knew that if I served the match out, I would be on the same side of the net where I had been the other three times I had won. Those were wrong thoughts at that time. If I win the game at 3-1, he’s finished. But I couldn’t keep my concentration.”
Becker needed to, as Navratilova would put it, stay in the present. Instead, he had let his mind wander into the future. At 30-all, Edberg chipped a backhand and Becker didn’t get down far enough for the volley. He netted it. Break point. Becker came in behind a serve and had an easy forehand volley. He pushed it wide.
Edberg pumped a fist. Becker had let him get into fifth gear. “He was in fifth and I was out of gas,” he said later. With Edberg serving at 4-4, Edberg came up with the shot of the match, a perfect backhand topspin lob that landed on the line, to get one last service break. He skipped to his chair while Becker slumped. Becker tried to talk to himself into it one more time but it as too late. Edberg served it out, finishing with a perfect kick serve that Becker just got to but pushed wide.
As the ball landed, Edberg hurled the ball he had in his hand toward the sky as Pickard leapt from his seat, screaming. Becker, never classier, climbed over the net and hugged Edberg. His eyes were glassy.
“I really couldn’t believe I had lost after coming so far back,” he said. “I went home the next day and wrote for hours and thought and tried to figure it out. In the end, I thought maybe it was his time. He had lost three straight finals. He had been hurt in one that he probably would have won. We’ve played so many times that we both deserve some good things. He’s a good guy. He’s different than me, it doesn’t show his emotion, but he is a great player. I decided he deserved this Wimbledon.”
For Edberg, this second Wimbledon was even better than the first because of the travails of the past two years. He even got to go to the champions’ dinner. In 1988, with the final postponed until Monday, he hadn’t been able to go. This time, he got to go. When he arrived at the dinner, he raced up to Navratilova, panicked.
“What kind of dance do we have to do?” he asked her.
Navratilova laughed. Once, it had been part of Wimbledon tradition for the two champions to dance the first dance together. But in 1978, the dinner had been moved to the Savoy Hotel. There was no room in the ballroom for a dance floor and no more first dance.
Edberg was relieved. The thought of dancing in front of a thousand people was far more terrifying than the thought of being down 3-1 in the fifth. He had survived that and he didn’t have to dance. A perfect day.
“To the Queen,” he said
Everyone in the room stood. “The Queen,” they chorused back. The Championships of 1990 were over.
I stumbled upon those pictures a few months ago, and with Wimbledon kicking off tomorrow, I guess it’s more than time that I share them to you. Those pictures were taken by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt who covered the 1971 tournament for Life Magazine. Enjoy:
From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:
Becker and Edberg had reason to want to do well on the clay this spring. Each believed that he allowed the French Open to slip away the previous year. Becker had come from two sets down to go up a break in the fifth set against Edberg in the semifinals, but had run out of gas. That put Edberg in the final against Michael Chang. He went up two sets to one and had what seemed like a zillion break points in the fourth. But he never could convert, and Chang completed his miracle by winning in five.
Having come so close a year ago, each was pointing to Paris now. Lendl‘s absence from the clay-court circuit provided another bit of incentive. Both Edberg and Becker had a chance, if they played well, to take over the No. 1 ranking.
Edberg didn’t look close to being ready. In his first match, he played Jimmy Arias. For six games, Arias looked like his circa-1983 version, jerking Edberg all over the court. He got to 5-1 40-15, but collapsed. “I blew the two set points at 5-1, and the first thing that flashed through my mind was, Wouldn’t it be something if I ended up blowing the set?” he said later. “Not a great way to think.”
His premonition proved correct. Edberg won the set in a tiebreak and the second set 6-3. Arias knew that Edberg was very vulnerable.
“He plays someone who can return well, he’s going to get beat,” he said. “A good clay-courter will take him.”
The next evening, Edberg came up against a good clay-courter. Juan Aguilera had been ranked seventh in the world late in 1984, at the age of twenty-two. But the next four years had been miserable for him. He had fallen out with his coach Luis Bruguera, and his father had died of cancer. Also, assorted injuries had limited his court time.
But Aguilera, a quiet, sensitive man who played guitar and drums in a Spanish rock group, didn’t give up. He won a small tournament in 1989, his first since the splurge of 1984, and moved back into the top one hundred. The week before Monte Carlo, he moved back into the top forty for the first time in five years, winning the tournament in Nice. In the second round of this tournament, he had won an emotional match from Sergi Bruguera – his old coach’s son. That give him a chance to prove Arias right. And he did just that, beating Edberg in two tiebreaks. Aguilera was too steady for Edberg, who looked impatient and nervous on the big points.
Edberg, who once shrugged off an early-round defeat at Wimbledon by saying, “There’s always another tournament next week,” hardly semed disturbed by this loss.
“I’m just not playing well at the moment,” he said. “I missed too many easy shots, ones I would normally never miss. It’s just a matter of time to get my movement right on clay. This isn’t anything to worry about.”
Ion Tiriac was worried, however, about Boris Becker. In the quarterfinals, Becker looked to be on his way to an easy victory over Emilio Sanchez. he led 6-4 5-3, and had a match point with Sanchez serving. He even got a second serve. Here, though, Becker’s fast-court instincts took over. He went for too much on the return, pushing a forehand deep. Suddenly, Sanchez had life again. He proceeded to win seven of the next eight games – breaking Becker’s serve three times in four tries. On clay, that can happen, even to Becker. To his credit, Becker didn’t quit. He came back to force the final set into a tiebreak but lost it 7-3.
Sitting in the stands watching, Tiriac was not happy. Becker was doing exactly what Tiriac had told him he could not do – playing clay-court tennis. The match had taken nearly three hours. To Tiriac’s way of thinking, that was too long. Becker had to dictate the tone and style of the match, not be dictated to. Already, watching him practice, Tiriac had spoken to Bob Brett about his concern.
“I have told Bob that if Boris keeps playing this way, the entire clay-court season will be a disaster,” Tiriac snorted. “Actually, worse than a disaster. Will Boris listen? Probably not.”
The Sanchez loss seemed to confirm Tiriac’s speech to Brett. Yet Brett knew that trying to convince Becker of that right now would be impossible. He didn’t want to push too hard, too soon. There were still four weeks left before Paris.