Stefan Edberg

The Saga of Stefan Edberg: Be Joyous Within and Walk Gently Upon This Earth

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

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