1991 US Open champion Stefan Edberg

Washington Post, September 9 1991

There is nothing more beautiful or more breathtaking than Stefan Edberg‘s tennis game when he is on. Every stroke is poetic, every movement lyrical. And today, showing unerring form and grace, Edberg confounded and frustrated Jim Courier to win his first U.S. Open title Edberg’s 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 dissection was evidence that the 25-year-old Swede has overcome his Open phobia and found his center of gravity in New York. Overshadowed all week by the hysteria over Jimmy Connors, and almost forgotten amid the publicity about a pack of new young stars, Edberg’s flawless performance in Louis Armstrong Stadium was a jolting reminder of why he is the top-ranked player in the world.

“It was almost like a dream out there,” Edberg said when the 2-hour 2-minute match ended. “I played as well as I think I can.”

The title marked Edberg’s fifth Grand Slam victory and it offset an otherwise disappointing year. Although ranked No. 1 for most of 1991, he lost in the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and the semifinals at the French Open and Wimbledon. He had never made it to the final of the Open and was upset in the first round last year; he compensated today with a brilliance and consistency seldom seen in such high-pressure contests.
With his mellifluous strokes and delicate footwork, Edberg danced around the court as gracefully as Fred Astaire. Even Courier, the winner of the French Open in June, recognized that Edberg was on automatic pilot today. “All you can do is hope he goes off,” Courier said.

Always uncomfortable with the hullabaloo of this event, Edberg strategically changed his environment here this year. He played fewer tournaments this summer because he felt his stunning upset last year was a result of fatigue. With his fiancee, Annette Olson, he rented a house on Long Island instead of staying in a hotel in Manhattan. And he delighted when, day after day, Connors stole the attention.
“Nobody was talking about me. That kept the pressure off me, and that’s the way I like it,” said Edberg, an amiable, mild-mannered sort who is most at ease in the peace and quiet of his adopted home, London.
Despite the changes, Edberg, the No. 2 seed, looked shaky in the early rounds. But his game finally clicked when he defeated spunky Michael Chang in straight sets in the fourth round.
“That was the turning-point match,” Edberg said. “I had this feeling maybe I could do it this year, although you’re never really sure.”

By comparison, fourth-seeded Courier, who had a much tougher draw, looked impressive throughout the two weeks. He had not dropped a set, even against defending champion Pete Sampras, whom he ousted in the quarterfinals. A bulldog on the court whose style is a cross between the gutsy Connors and the power-packed Ivan Lendl, Courier hoped to dominate with his big serve and disrupt Edberg’s serve-and-volley game with his thunderous forehand.
Courier had reason to be hopeful. His first title as a professional came two years ago in Basel, Switzerland, when he beat Edberg in the final. In their last meeting, in the French Open quarterfinals, Courier trounced Edberg in four sets. With new-found powers of concentration and a hard-hitting game to go with it, Courier had never lost in the four times he’d reached a final. But whatever optimism Courier had coming into the match quickly crumbled.
He was broken at 1-1 in the first set, a victim of Edberg’s superb passing shots. And he could not convert two break points when Edberg served at 3-2, thanks to an exquisite topspin lob that Edberg hit after loping to the ball.

In the first game of the second set, Courier had a brief flash of brilliance when he staved off three break points with two aces — clocked at 116 and 114 mph — that momentarily put Edberg on the defensive. But that was just an idle diversion.
Never blinking, Edberg continued to arch his whirling, twisting serve deep to the corners with so much kick that Courier occasionally had to block the ball back from above his head. “I was trying to get out of the way of it sometimes,” Courier said.
Even when Courier managed a sensational return, Edberg, as crisp and cool as ever, plucked the ball from the air and smothered a volley. “I was hitting some great shots and he would come up with shots that made mine look like I don’t know what,” Courier said.
Tugging at his ever-present white baseball cap, and with his sweat-drenched shirt hanging out of his shorts, Courier tried to find the grit he needed to thwart Edberg’s relentless attack. He tried clubbing passing shots at Edberg’s feet. No way, Edberg said. He tried elegantly angled slices. Sorry, Edberg said. He tossed up gorgeous lobs. Forget it, Edberg said.
At one point, Courier turned to a fan in the stands and shrugged his shoulders. He sighed, “Wow! What can you do?” The most that Courier could assemble was an occasional winner on his service return, usually a reflexive punch that simply deflected the ball at an incredible angle. Courier finally resorted to standing his racket on its handle to show the umpire the spot where he thought an Edberg ace had landed out.
Edberg’s serves and volleys were so impeccable that he won a staggering 84 percent of the points when his first serve went in. Courier had three chances but never scored a break in the match.

Toward the end, there was nothing more that Courier could do but watch his own demise with awe. “I’ve been pummeled before,” Courier said, “but this is the worst beating I’ve taken all year.”
Edberg, meanwhile, found new affection for this tournament and for New York.

“It is really something to actually win it here,” he said. “I felt so relaxed out there. It’s hard to describe. I’m just a happy guy right now.”

Excerpt of John McEnroe‘s autobiography Serious:

“In the second round at the US Open, I destroyed a young Swedish upstart named Stefan Edberg, 6-1 6-0 6-2, then burned a swath through to the semifinals without dropping a set. On what came to be known as Super Saturday, after the three-set men’s 35 year olds division final, after the LendlCash semi (which ran quite long, Lendl winning a fifth-set tiebreaker), after Martina Navratilova beat Chris Evert Lloyd in a three-set women’s final – Connors and I finally walked onto the court at close to 7 pm!
Here was Jimmy’s chance for revenge. In the press conference after the Wimbledon final, I’d said that I now felt all I had to do was play well and I should beat everybody out there. Connors had taken grave exception. ‘That’s an awfully big statement to back up for the next four or five years’, he said.

Now, at Flushing Meadows, it was put-or-shut-up time. Jimmy had won the tournament the last two years in a row; he could work the New York crowd like nobody’s business. He was angry, and hungry.
But so was I. I really didn’t want Connors to open my three-Opens-in-a-row record, and I really wanted to get through to the final and get revenge on Lendl for the French.

The match with Jimmy was a slugfest from the start, an exciting five-setter that wound up running until 11.15 PM. The Flushing Meadows crowd, exhausted with over twelve hours of tennis, started filing out of the stadium when we went to a fifth set. It killed me that we were playing such a great match, but that the stands were only a quarter-full by the time we finished.
But by the time we finished, I was the winner, 6-3 in the fifth – 51 games, 3 hours and 45 minutes later.

I got home very late, still so jazzed up (yet exhausted) from the match that it was past two AM by the time I finally got to sleep. I could barely imagine having to play a final against Lendl. I woke up at noon on Sunday and staggered out of bed. By the time I got to the locker room at Flushing Meadows, I was so stiff I could barely walk. I was very worried – until I crossed the room and saw Lendl (whose match against Cash had gone 3 hours and 39 minutes) attempting to touch his hands to his toes. He could barely get past his knees!
He’s worst than I am I thought. A jolt of adrenaline shot through my body.

I felt that if I could just get in a good two hours of tennis, I could beat him. My body was saying That’s enough, but in some weirs way, the fatigue worked for me that afternoon. The fact that I was tired made me concentrate better, the more tired I felt, the better I seemed to hit the ball. It was a purely mental thing – push, push – and I didn’t get angry at anything because I needed every ounce of energy I had.

I won the first set 6-3. At one juncture, after I double-faulted in the second game of the second set, he had a break point. I came to net on a first serve at 30-40, hit the volley, and Lendl uncorked a huge forehand to try to pass me on my backhand side. The ball hit the tape and cannoned up at a weird angle, and I swung around in a full circle and hit the forehand volley for a winner. Sometimes it helps to be unconscious!

Second set 6-4. That was when visions of the French final flickered through my head. However, I knew I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – choke this one away. I gave the third set everything I had: when I broke his serve once, that wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to drive a stake through this guy’s heart. I got the second break, went to 4-0, and even though Lendl never stopped trying (the way it seemed he had the previous year, in the final against Connors), I had too much momentum. Final set 6-1.

I had my fourth Open.
It was the last Grand Slam title I would ever win.

Bjorn and Connos, 1978 US Open final

Extract from Inside tennis – a season on the pro tour by Peter Bodo and June Harrison

The swelling began on Saturday night, shortly after Bjorn Borg mastered Vitas Gerulaitis in the semifinal. It grew like a small bubble of pain beneath the callus on the joint of his right thumb. Borg phoned his New York physician late that night and took an oral anti-inflammatory drug. But when he woke up on Sunday morning, the thumb had worsened; the pain increased. When Borg tied to hold a racquet with his customary grip, he found that the pain made it impossible. Once more he called his doctor, who gave the player an injection of Marcaine, a strong anesthetic, at 3:30 in the afternoon, less than three hours before the match.
Borg did not consider defaulting. An international television audience waited. The stadium was sold out. The dim vision of a Grand Slam still flickered before him.

The lights are already on as the men’s final gets underway. It is not quite dark, but it will be soon, and the scoreboard atop the stadium will rear up into the night like a monument to the defiance of Jimmy Connors – American hero, American scapegoat.
It is clear from the start that Borg is not himself. In one of his early servoce games, the racquet flies from his injured hand and clatters along the court. He watches Connors’ winning return with his arms dangling at his sides.

Connors leads the first set 6-4 and leads the second 5-2. It is dark now, Connors is prancing at the baseline, his jaws working over a piece of gum. It is time to throw himself into one final, savage round.

Just moments earlier, resting in his chair during the changeover, Connors had been telling himself,

“Don’t let up in any way. This is how you won in the past, and this is the only way you’re ever going to win? Don’t let up. Set up and 5-2 – hell! This is Bjorn Borg, and he can get back into it at any time. Rip the ball! Don’t let up – rip that fucking ball.”

Connors is still prancing, fixing Borg with a stare as fierce as any volley or smash in his hot, hard world. At the far end of the court, Borg is implacable, his eyes hidden beneath the omnipresent headband. He is too pround to show his pain, too cool to show any emotion, even as he faces Connors’ little dance of death.

The noise from the stands is non longer polite, encouraging applause, but a heavy, rolling din filled with unhealthy mental excitement. It drowns out the thunder of still another jet passing over the stadium. The Swedish boy stands with his weight on one leg and his shoulders slanted, still as Michelangelo’s David. He rubs the grip of his racquet with his fingers.
He knows that look in Connors’ eyes, but he doesn’t want to think about it, because he has won so often and played so well when he ignored things like that. So he just waits, aware of the pain increasing as the anesthtic wears off, sensing that he is about to lose the match and his hope for the Grand Slam. But he is not disturbed by that either, because in the end it is just another tennis match.

The game begins. Both men strike the ball furiously, sending it from corner to corner, line to line, exchanging points until 40-30. The next maniacal rally ends with Connors hitting a forehand just centimeters behind the baseline. He shakes his head violently. It is deuce. The retching sound of his effort fills the stadium, and he hits a service winner for advantage. It is set point. There is a short rally. Borg drives Connors back from the net and then comes forward behind a heavy forehand to the backhand corner. Connors barely manages to float it back; the ball bounces high in the midcourt area but the backhand is mistimed, and Borg bangs the ball into the net.
Connors has the second set. Before long he has the third as well, to win 6-4 6-2 6-2. Borg did not hold a single break pint agasint Connors in the entire match; his opponent put a remarkable 80 percent of his first serves into play. It was a reversal of the Wimbledon final.

By Peter Bodo, TENNIS, September 1984

After Mats Wilander won his first match of the 1983 U.S. Open, he rendered a curious prophecy. He laconically confessed that he gave himself little chance to win the tournament, horrifying a press corps that is unaccustomed to such frankness. Contemplating the incident, the 20-year-old Swede now remarks: “I said that the same way a newsman, or a coach, might say it. After all, only one guy can win. I analyzed my chances and I didn’t feel like a good choice for the title. I was just trying to be honest.”

Once before, Wilander had garnered headlines as a result of his honesty. In the semifinals of the 1982 French Open, while he was still an unknown youth, Wilander held a match point against heavily favoured José-Luis Clerc. When a Clerc groundstroke was called out, ostensibly ending the match, the Argentine protested. Wilander interceded on his opponent’s behalf and the point was replayed. Wilander went on to win the match and to rock the entire tennis community as he became, at age 17, the youngest male winner in the history of a Grand Slam tournament. The gesture towards Clerc has haunted Wilander ever since, but the excesses of youth are in ebb.

“When you do things a little different, it gets too much attention”, he says. “Then you have to do too many extra interviews. From now on when I’m asked how I’ll do in a tournament, I’m just going to say I have a good chance. And I’m not going to change any more calls. I’m 20 now. I’m a professional.”

However, this is no elegy on the passing of virtue or the loss of innocence in Wilander. The “professional” who will be trying to solve the puzzle of tennis on medium-fast cement at the U.S. Open this month has matured and grown wiser to the world, but his character has not been deformed by success. With diligence, dignity and style, Wilander has entrenched himself in the world’s top four. In fact, the cool youth almost snatched the world’s no. 1 ranking right from the hands of John McEnroe late last year.

In a surprise that rivaled Wilander’s victory at the 1982 French Open, he closed the 1983 campaign by winning the Australian Open. He accomplished it, moreover, by toppling McEnroe in the semifinals and Ivan Lendl in the final. At the end of the calendar year, thus, Wilander found himself holding three victories over McEnroe on three different surfaces in three distinguished events: the French Open (clay), the ATP Championships in Cincinnati (cement) and the Australian Open (grass). There were some who argued that entitled him to the world’s top ranking.

To many spectators, particularly Americans, Wilander is an unheralded force in the game, and a virtually unknown face outside pro shops or tennis clubs. “I’ve never played really well in the big American tournaments, so I understand why I’m not so recognized”, he says. “That doesn’t bother me so much because I try not to be too complicated. And in a way it’s good, because I like to be as free as possible.”

As a tennis player, Mats Wilander is a classic model. He is our sport’s version of the mint julep, the wooden boat or the button-fly blue jean. Wilander is not an athletic specimen sculpted on the same heroic scale as Yannick Noah, nor a riveting theatrical presence such as McEnroe. He lacks the fire of Jimmy Connors and the ice of Lendl. Wilander is lithe, quick and fluid, a triumph of proportions. His olive complexion and pale blue eyes belie Wilander’s Swedish nationality. In tennis whites, his bearing is placid and aristocratic. He is the son of Einar and Karin Wilander, both of whom are factory workers.

The contradiction implied by Wilander’s appearance and background are not accidental. They are intrinsic to his personality as a tennis player, a classic tennis player created by a system and conditions that are anything but classic. “Tennis used to be for another class of people, but now it’s become very popular”, Wilander observes. “It’s now the third most popular sport in Sweden.”

The tale of Wilander’s success is also the history of a national effort to transcend on a great scale the usual social and economic boundaries associated with the sport. Bjorn Borg broke the ground from which Wilander and a host of other Swedish pros sprang. Tennis development programs burgeoned throughout the country in the wake of Borg’s success. Such free national programs, and the team concept that evolved from them, represent a radical departure from tennis traditions. The Swedes have developed a “socialized” tennis that challenges the assumption that, at its highest level, tennis is a Darwinian jungle patrolled by solitary creatures.

Wilander himself says: “I don’t think I would have the results of the last two or three years if I didn’t have the team situation. And I think it made success easier to handle.”

Wilander’s career germinated in his hometown of Torpsbruk, where Einar Wilander worked in a factory adjacent to a neglected macadam tennis court. Working in their spare time, Einar and some of his friends made the court playable.

Wilander’s talent began to flourish when the family moved to nearby Vaxjo, where the tennis facilities were more elaborate. Although Wilander’s first love was ice hockey, the tide soon turned in favor of tennis, pleasing Einar Wilander. “My father loves the game”, his son reports, “Even today, he goes down to the town tennis courts every night after work to watch the game even if the players aren’t good.”

At the age of 15 Wilander quit school to pursue a tennis career. It would be inspirational to report that he did it for reasons of economic hardship, but such was not the case. The Wilanders lived a comfortable life in socialist Sweden. As Wilander’s agent, Jean-Noel Bioul of the International Management Group notes: “The basic standards in Sweden are pretty high. Social differences show up mostly in matters of taste – not in the house you live in, but the curtains you choose.”

Young Wilander developed quickly under the auspices of the Swedish junior program. He won the French junior title in 1981 at age 16. A few weeks after that event, Swedish coach Jan-Anders Sjogren convinced a Swedish building firm, SIAB, to finance a team of outstanding prospects: Wilander, Joakim Nystrom, Hans Simonsson and Anders Jarryd. “We started the team just before Wimbledon”, Sjogren recalls, “mostly because none of them could volley and that looked like a big problem. My job as coach was simple – teach each one to hit a volley.”

There was another, less technical reason for forming Team SIAB. Inundating foreign shores with a flood of junior talent from an isolated Scandinavian nation was a costly proposition, and the prospect of providing the youngsters with adequate coaching and chaperones was equally grim. There were other specific barriers and conditions that made the team concept viable. As Sjogren explains: “The team idea owes a lot to the fact that we are a small country with our own language and a long winter that has always given the Swedes a tendency to stay together. We like the team idea. It suits our national character.”

Wilander flourished in the team atmosphere. “Mats is a very loyal person, maybe the best person among the players I know”, says Swedish journalist Bjorn Hellberg. “Even after he won the French Open, he would still go home and play matches for his club in the Swedish league. That’s the kind of guy he is. He likes that spirit of friendship. He always goes out to watch the matches of his team mates, even in doubles. Mats is an extremely kind person.”

Although the original Team SIAB has broken up, Wilander still travels and practices with its constituents. He’s also now a member of the Club Med-Rossignol touring pro team. “I know it’s unusual for a player in the top four to be so close to other players”, he says. “But then I’m the youngest one so high in the rankings. It’s always been important for me to walk into a dressing-room and have somebody to talk to.”

The Swedes form a distinct group within the fragmented society of pro tennis. They are as conspicuous and insular as Japanese tourists. Because they don’t do a great deal of mixing, the Swedes often remain provincial. After practice, they play soccer using a tennis ball and the service boxes. They go to movies or out to dinner together.

The week before Wimbledon this year, the Swedes observed their national tradition of holding a party on the eve of the summer solstice. Then, they travelled to central London to dine together. Wilander explains: “We have been traveling and doing things together since the age of 13 or 14 and it has just stayed that way. It’s comfortable.”

Lately, Wilander has been paying a higher price for the benefits of camaraderie. In the first half of this year, he lost important matches to Swedish players, most of them friends. Wilander was beaten by Stefan Edberg in the final at Milan and twice by Henrik Sundstrom, in the final at Monte Carlo and in the semis at Hamburg. “It’s easier for the other Swedes to beat Mats”, Sjogren admits, “They know him so well that there isn’t that tension you feel with a stranger, that fear.”

Wilander is aware of the condition, but maintains that he has never entertained notions of divorce in the interests of better results against his fellow Swedes. He is not even convinced that, in the big picture, withdrawing from his friends would improve his results.

“It does matter to me that I have lost to the other Swedes”, he admits. “But you just don’t care as much about winning or losing if you are playing with a close friend. The one thing I know for certain is that when I’m not in a good mood, I can’t play good tennis. I need to feel harmony. To just go and hit tennis balls, staying apart from everybody, that would be boring for me. I think I would lose my interest in the game.”

The allegiances developed through his participation in a nationally administered tennis program, and the security bred by team identification during his formative years as a pro, had a profound impact on Wilander. They imbued him with a highly cultivated social sense and a much greater capacity for group identification than most of his rivals show. “Maybe the team idea has taken away a little from the killer instinct”, says Hellberg. “That is one of the ways Mats is different from Borg, who was always alone.”

With the dissolution of the original Team SIAB and the emergence of Wilander as a player of the first rank, the bonds of team fidelity are being tested. During the French Open, Wilander broke with tradition and stayed at a different hotel from his friends. Sjogren has been trying to expand Wilander’s range of practice partners to keep complacency and lack of variety from eroding his form. As Bioul puts it: “It would be great for Mats to practice with a (Guillermo) Vilas here or a (Vitas) Gerulaitis there.”

The recent losses to Swedish players and the growing financial security of Wilander (a Monaco resident now for tax reasons) have raised questions lately about his motivation. Critics suggest that his situation is too secure from every angle. Wilander does not bridle at the charges. “To tell the truth, I think now I could be happy with an ordinary job. I know I did something in tennis and I’m proud of it. With two Grand Slam titles I could be content if I left the game.”

“I have the drive to be on top, too, but to me it doesn’t feel right to be so serious about it. Let’s face it: there are 50 players who believe they can be no.1 and ten who maybe could do it.”

“I never expected to be in the top 10. When I made the top 80, enabling me to get straight into Grand Prix tournaments, I thought it was incredible. Then I couldn’t believe it when I made the top 50. I once felt that if I won the French Open I would achieve everything I wanted in tennis. But after I won it didn’t seem to matter that much. The feeling goes away soon after you’ve won. In fact, the joy of winning dies down to about 10 percent by the time you finish your shower. The best moment – the real moment – is the time between the last point and the handshake.”

Like many restrained and well-mannered Europeans, Wilander seems intimidated by the scale of the U.S. He seems puzzled by the friendly, loud, unsophisticated citizenry, surprised at the general lack of culture and uninterested by what he describes as “cities that all look the same and all the new houses, like little boxes.” Wilander adds: “The attitude in the States seems to be “take whatever you can.” I don’t get the feeling that people care as much about each other. On the other hand, people aren’t as jealous as in Europe. They don’t resent your success as much.”

Along with many other European pros, Wilander regards the U.S. Open with skepticism and thinly-veiled disdain. “The difference between Flushing Meadow and Wimbledon is night and day”, he says. “Wimbledon is perfect to play tennis in, while Flushing Meadow is just the opposite, like playing in an airport. Flushing Meadow lacks tradition.”

Like Borg, Wilander has found that adapting to tennis on cement poses distinct problems. It is different from, but no less challenging than, adjusting to clay or grass courts. “Mats should play well on any fast surface because he has a good service return”, Sjogren says. “If you have good ground strokes, good physical conditioning, you should play well on any surface. Usually the rest is a matter of your returns.”

Sjogren points out that Wilander is not a “volley-killer”, maintaining that his protégé won the Australian title by keeping his own volleys in court and successfully converting more passing shots than his opponents. “On cement”, Sjogren maintains, “You have to step into the court more and kill any ball in the midcourt area. The power and mentality you need for that is not natural to Matsie.”

Wilander at his best is a master of containment, a man whose precision and consistency keeps his opponents from generating any kind of attacks. To some observers he is “boring”, but that charge stems from a shallow view of his style. “I’ve thought about the philosophy of baseline tennis a few times”, Wilander says. “And the way I see it, if you’re a serve-and-volley guy, you give the other players a good chance to win every point. Taking risks and being picked apart isn’t the most positive kind of aggression. Connors is the most aggressive player I’ve ever seen and he doesn’t play serve-and-volley tennis.”

To Wilander, tennis on cement requires difficult, spontaneous decisions. The relentless attack by the server is not as profitable as it is on grass. “It’s difficult to tell on cement what ball to come in on”, Wilander says. “Also the courts are consistent and high-bouncing; my serve isn’t good enough so that I can always come in on it. On grass, a consistent first serve is good enough. On cement, you have to hit the big one.”

Wilander was able to serve rocks as he took the ATP Champion-ships on cement just before the U.S. Open last year, but he maintains the result was deceptive. “I won the tournament because it was the best week I had serving in my life. But that didn’t make me a complete cement player, and it was wrong to relate the Cincinnati result to the Open because the courts at Flushing Meadow are much, much faster.”

The vital role played by Wilander’s serve provides a general key to his game. Against players such as Noah, Lendl and even McEnroe, Wilander is reminiscent of a light heavyweight who fights up in the heavyweight division. Although he plays with less abandon than Connors, Wilander is no less reliant on mobility and reflexive counter-punching. He hits off his toes, thinks in motion and puts a fence round most opponents’ ambitions.

Lately, Wilander’s energetic game has taken a toll on his lean body. Through the first half of 1984, he suffered ankle and wrist injuries that taught him not to take sound health for granted. Consequently, freedom from injury has become a top priority for Wilander. He was eagerly awaiting Flushing Meadow as an event in which he would be completely fit. The 1984 U.S. Open loomed as Wilander’s best chance to reassert his sovereignity, particularly if he can survive a confrontation with McEnroe.

In selecting a world’s no.1 after the 1984 Masters, one panel chose McEnroe by a split vote. “I’m not playing tennis to be selected no.1,” Wilander insists. “I’m playing to show myself what I can do. On the other hand, they chose McEnroe and it’s nice to know that I beat him three times last year on three different surfaces.”

Contemplating the Champion’s Ball that he missed this spring when the world’s no. 1 man and woman pros were honoured, Wilander adds that “I’m glad I didn’t have to dance, that’s all.”

Boris Becker, Wimbledon 1985

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.