Wimbledon 90: Becker vs Edberg

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.

Edberg and Navratilova sat at the head table and got to hear the toast that climaxes every Wimbledon. Shortly before midnight, John Curry stood up and raised his glass.

“To the Queen,” he said

Everyone in the room stood. “The Queen,” they chorused back. The Championships of 1990 were over.

Also read:
Wimbledon 1990: Becker and Edberg in a Centre Court reunion
Wimbledon 1988: Edberg, a new deserving champion
Portrait of Stefan Edberg, by Rex Bellamy

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

By the time day two was done at Roland Garros, the men’s tournament was in complete disarray. On that second day, both Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker lost. Never in Grand Slam tennis history had the top two seeds lost in the first round.

Both losses were shockingly decisive. Edberg, playing at eleven in the morning, acted as if he were in a different time zone, winning a grand total of seven games against Sergi Bruguera, a Spanish teenager who had shown much promise in the ppast twelve months. Bruguera didn’t even have to play very well to win this match, though. Edberg’s performance was summed up perfectly by his coach, Tony Pickard: Asked what he thought had happened, Pickard shrugged and said,

“There’s not a word I can say about this match that’s printable.”

Becker didn’t play nearly as poorly as Edberg, but he ran into a very hot, very talented player. Goran Ivanisevic was the same age as Bruguera – nineteen – but a completely different player. The Spaniard was a clay-courter all the way, a kid with solid ground strokes who would make a lot of money from the game without ever being great at it. Ivanisevic had greatness in him. He was from Split, Yugoslavia, a six-foot-five lefty with a serve that could be past you before you knew it was off the racquet. He could play superbly or horrendously no matter what the surface. He had been tossed out of the European Championships at the age of fourteen and, by his own admission, had a tendency to tank when things went wrong.
On this day, nothing went wrong. He beat Becker in four sets, playing, as Becker put it, “completely out of his mind.”

While the men were losing their two most glamorous names on the tournament’s second day, the women were watching it all, feeling just a little bit envious. Upsets of the Becker-Edberg magnitude just didn’t happen in the women’s game. There simply wasn’t enough depth for the top players to lose that early.
In the fifty-six Grand Slam tournaments of her career, Chris Evert had lost before the quarterfinals twice – in the third round at Wimbledon in 1983 and in the third round of her last French Open, in 1988. In the 1980s, Martina Navratilova never lost before the fourth round – and lost that early only three times in thirty-seven Slams. Steffi Graf had not lost before the quarterfinals of a Slam since 1985, when, as a fifteen-year-old, she had lost in the fourth round of the French to Evert.

Slowly that was changing.

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.

Stefan Edberg

By Bill Simons, Inside Tennis, July 2004

From Laver and the good ol’ Aussies to Sampras and Henman, tennis has been blessed with many a fine sporting lad. But none had better timing than Stefan Edberg. In fact, the Swede emerged just as the scowl-and-stare era of men’s tennis was raging. At a mean and macho time when implosions were expected and ferocity was a given, elegant Edberg entered the game with a minimalist, (be joyous within and walk lightly upon this Earth) sensibility.

Never mind that Connors, McEnroe, and Lendl were setting a mean-spirited snipe-and-run tone. Never mind that critics claimed tennis was free-falling out of control and was in danger of becoming a kind of World Wrestling Federation wannabe. As it happened — don’t worry, be happy — Edberg was there to save the day.

After all, no matter how bad his luck, no matter how outrageous the call, the Gentleman Champion never complained. For Stefan, a raised eyebrow was the equivalent of a full-blown Connors convulsion. A simple Edbergian inquiry to the chair umpire — “Are you sure?” — was his version of a McEnroe meltdown. There was no Becker-like gamesmanship, or anything like Lendl’s intimidating, icy stare.

It’s little wonder that Becker once told him, “You’re the greatest tennis ambassador I’ve ever known.”

Commentator Mary Carillo raved, “I’m such a big Eddy fan. He’s been the classiest, most elegant No. 1 that men’s tennis has had. He leads a very balanced life. He understands fame, fortune and celebrity better than just about any superstar I’ve ever met.” In a “narcissists gone wild” world, where a sense of entitlement was a given and it was just presumed that he who had the biggest toys (or private jets) won, Edberg was down to earth and solid — a freak of nature who was so normal he was abnormal.

Not surprisingly, the ATP honored him with its Sportsmanship Award five times and then threw in the towel and just named the award after him.
Edberg’s appeal was the sheer beauty of his strokes and the rhythmic fluidity of his movement. Sure, his pushy forehand was a foible never quite fixed, but his looping backhand was a shot apart, and his easy, balletic grace was a sublime delight. He brilliantly executed tennis’ most important and complex sequence, the serve-and-volley, and was a master of the perfectly timed chip-and-charge. Only McEnroe matched his skills at capturing control of the net. Once there, Edberg prowled with razor-sharp reflexes and merciless instinct, dishing out unforgiving volleys, particularly on the backhand side.

There was always something different about Stefan. He not only was a bizarre kind of throwback: a thrifty, conservative introvert in a self-indulgent, me-first modernist universe, on-court he was a true mutant: a serve-and-volleyer who emerged from Sweden’s homogeneous, stuck-at-the-baseline, gene pool.
Despite his mild appearance, Edberg was a fighter. His coach, Tony Pickard, famously informed us that he had “fire in his belly.” Plus, he was a true triple threat. He won six Grand Slam singles titles (two Wimbledons, two U.S. Opens and two Australians), 41 singles crowns, was ranked No. 1 in ‘90 and ‘91, was a top-five player for nine years in a row, he won 18 doubles titles and, after McEnroe, was the most heroic Davis Cup player of our era, a patriot who willed little Sweden to four Davis Cup titles. He was the only player ever to have won the Junior Grand Slam, won the ‘84 Olympics and played in 53 straight Grand Slam tournaments.

He knew how to come from behind, as he did when he was down 3-1 to Becker in the fifth set of their ‘90 Wimbledon final. He could outlast his foes, like when he beat Michael Chang in five hours, 26 minutes in ‘92 in the longest U.S. Open match ever. Or he could dominate. Just ask Jim Courier, whom he crushed 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 in the most inspired match of his career — the ‘91 U.S. Open final.

It was easy to dismiss Edberg as a too-good-to-be-true, squeaky-clean Eagle Scout who was not exactly the life of the party. When the London tabloids set out to discover his dirty laundry, they found out only that Edberg washed his own clothes. For years, his wife cut his hair. Still, his career has been filled with a mix of sad or bizarre happenings. When he played the U.S. Open Juniors, one of his kick serves smashed a linesman in the groin. The linesman then toppled over, hit his head on the court and suffered a fatal heart attack. In mid-career Edberg courted and, in ‘92, married Mats Wilander’s former girlfriend, Annette Olson. Throughout his years his Nordic appeal didn’t go unnoticed. “What a body,” said one Wimbledon observer, “he’s so cute, and those legs…”

Early in his career, when things got rough, he would drop his shoulders and mope, projecting “woe-is-me” body language. And, of course, even the mighty Edberg had his share of setbacks. He failed miserably on clay at the French Open, just once reaching beyond the fourth round. And he failed to convert his golden opportunity when he was up, two sets to one, to Michael Chang in the ‘89 final. (Later he would wryly quip that Michael won because he “had God on his side.”) Then there was the highly forgettable, mercifully brief “Norwegian Joke” phase of his career when, with a series of insufferable quips, Edberg tried to convince journalists that he was some kind of wild and crazy guy. Not!

Still, he was the co-ringleader of the Great Potty Protest of ‘87, when two of the game’s most mild-mannered, compliant soldiers — Edberg and Wilander — stepped way out of character and hid in the U.S. Open locker room for 15 minutes before their semi to protest that they were being forced to play at 11 a.m. in a virtually vacant stadium.

The incident was so remarkable because, as McEnroe said,

“He was seemingly immune to getting upset. I never heard anyone say anything bad about him and he never said anything bad about anyone.”

Sampras suggested, “When parents are looking for a role model, Stefan is the player to look to.”

A man of grace, blessed with quick stutter steps, deep-angled volleys and flowing backhand — now has seamlessly embraced all-court domesticity with a vengeance. Happily married and living in rural Sweden near his seaside birthplace, Vastervik, he now rises early to make sure his two kids get to school. He manages his investments and oversees his tennis foundation, which helps Swedish teens excel.

Of course, all this white picket fence/Ozzie and Harriet normalcy is hardly a shock. After all, never has there been a more balanced, “aw-shucks,” tennis champion, and a No.1 who so easily dismissed the siren song of fame and indulgent consumerism than this policeman’s son who played with the blissful ease of a dancer lost in an unending moment.

Photo: Tennis Buzz, Lagardere Trophy 2010

By Robin Finn, The New York Times, 4 December 1989

After a bridesmaid’s season in which he had twice been the runner-up in Grand Slam tournaments, a beaming Stefan Edberg was only too thrilled to get a grip on the flower-filled Tiffany trophy that pronounced him the champion of the 1989 Masters, the last event of tennis’s year and the last run of the tournament at Madison Square Garden.

It was, for Edberg, a whirlwind of a weekend, during which he knocked down the top two players in the world: Ivan Lendl, a five-time Masters champion, and Boris Becker, the defending Masters champion.

Those victories were the only tonic he could imagine that would restore a self-image that had suffered this year as he gained a reputation for making progress to tournament finals only to crumble. Until he defeated Becker in four sets yesterday, Edberg’s record in 1989 finals was a discouraging 1-6, and he had failed in five consecutive finals.

More than any other player here, Edberg seemed sincere when he conceded, before the Masters began and after the tournament was over, that he had not only wanted to win the tournament; he needed to.

”I’ve been waiting for this one,” said Edberg. ”It’s something I really needed. I’m going to start believing in myself, and that’s something I needed to do, because I know I’ve got the game and the talent to challenge for the No. 1 spot.”

Edberg, an even-tempered Swede who has been No. 3 in the world since last spring, followed his defeat of Lendl in two close sets in the semifinals Saturday with a 4-6, 7-6, 6-3, 6-1 dethroning of Becker, in a 3-hour-2-minute match yesterday afternoon.

”It’s not the easiest thing in the world to beat Lendl or Becker on two consecutive days,” said Edberg, who prefers an understated approach in his analysis of matches but could not help being bowled over by his achievement here. ”I played the best tennis of my life in those two days.”

Fadeout After First Set

Becker, whose banner year included two Grand Slam titles – Wimbledon and the United States Open -attributed his deflation as the match wore on yesterday to a simple case of burnout. After he had won the first set easily and come within a point of claiming the second-set tie breaker, Becker’s resolve, usually omnipresent, vanished.

”I was getting tired physically and mentally,” he said. ”Not many people understand how close a match can be. One set, and if I make that shot in the tie breaker, it’s an easy three-set win for me. But sometimes I’m just empty. I’m exhausted, and that’s the bottom line.”

Becker had needed to resort to acrobatics to force the second set to the tie breaker in the first place, saving himself from Edberg’s well-aimed backhand pass at a break and a set point with a somersaulting backhand volley at the net.

Fateful Forehand Pass

He pumped his fist after two strong serves put him up, 6 points to 5, in the tie breaker, but lost his edge when Edberg, who had double-faulted twice at the start of the tie breaker, presented him with a service winner, then an ace, to take a 7-6 advantage.

Edberg won the tie breaker, 8-6, by returning Becker‘s second serve with a swift and unretrievable forehand pass.

”After I took the second set, I could see his serve breaking down,” said Edberg, whose play, with the exception of a single game in the third set, only grew steadier. Consistency, from the back court and at the net and eventually on his serve, again paid off for Edberg.

Becker briefly made as if to run away with the third set, where he broke an angry Edberg to take a 2-0 lead. But after changing from a worn-out racquet to a fresher one, he was broken by Edberg. That left him fuming for the rest of the match, in which he won only 2 of the last 13 games.

Beginning of the End

The new racquet did not survive for long: Becker stalked away and smashed it after the third game of that set. ”I picked out a bad one,” he said, ”and the racquet is now gone.”

In the final set, Becker progressively unraveled, raising his eyebrows at his own mistakes and raising them in grudging surprise as Edberg calmly splattered his passing shots off the side lines and laced his netside volleys with a geometry the West German could not solve.

Becker double-faulted three times in the course of losing his serve in the fourth game. When Edberg smashed an overhead to the court’s hinterlands to go up by 4-1, he clenched his fist in an uncharacteristic display of bravado.

With careful, classic ground strokes, Edberg broke Becker to take a 5-1 lead. Then, serving for the match, he did not allow Becker a single point, ending the contest with a sharp backhand volley into a court his opponent did not bother to guard.

Big Plans for ’90

Edberg was so excited about celebrating with his longtime coach, Tony Pickard, that he nearly forgot to shake hands with Becker.

Becker, acknowledged by all of his peers, but not by the computer, as 1989’s finest player, said later that he expected either Edberg or himself to take the No. 1 spot away from Lendl in 1990.

”If we stay healthy and play long enough, I think it’s definitely the case one of us will be the next No. 1,”

said Becker, who has a rematch with Edberg in two weeks when the two compete in the Davis Cup final in Stuttgart, West Germany.

”Now I’m kind of the unofficial No. 1,” Becker said. ”To have it written down on paper that I’m No. 1 and Lendl No. 2: that I would like to see.”