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.”

Two months after her French Open victory over Martina Hingis and one month after her loss to Lindsay Davenport in the 1999 Wimbledon final, 22-time Grand Slam champion Steffi Graf announces her retirement.

Boris Becker is playing golf with Franz Beckenbauer when he learns the news. Read what Boris Becker had to say about Steffi in his autobiography, The Player:

‘Steffi has retired’. So, Steffi as well. It’s Friday 13 August 1999, six weeks after my Wimbledon farewell. Officially she played 994 professional matches; I played 932. She won twenty-two Grand Slams; I won six. If the friendship between Steffi and me turned into a book or a film, nobody would believe it. She was six and I was eight when we met for the first time.

I rode my bike to Leimen. She came with her mother. In those days I often had to play against girls, which felt like a kind of punishment, especially when then older boys – who later wouldn’t have stood a change against Steffi – used to say, ‘Look at the redhead, fighting it out with the little girl!’ It also got on my nerves when the coach, Boris Breskvar, ended the game just at the moment when I was set for victory. My mother conforted me: ‘He really doesn’t know how to handle children.’

Even as a child, Steffi was focused and introverted, and sometimes trained like a robot. Thanks to these supposedly typical German characteristics, it took quite a long time for her to become internationally popular, rather like Michael Schumacher in Formula 1, who always comes across as so brusque – as though all he’s missing is the spiked helmet. Steffi was too determined for some people’s liking – too correct, too cool, too ‘Made in Germany’. Her sign is Gemini. Perfection is in her nature. That’s how she did her job. On the other hand, she’s an extremely sensitive and compassionate person. This shows every now and then, but for a long time she didn’t really live out her emotions. The most important thing for her was tennis success, and that’s why she worked like a machine. It was much the same in my case, but from time to time other things mattered to me. She probably told herself: To hell with my feelings, what I want now is to win Wimbledon for the eight time.

The tax scandals concerning her father, the court case and his imprisonment took their toll on Steffi. I believe this also changed her way of dealing with her feelings. Steffi cried, and the people at home in front of the television cried with her. At last, something came from the heart, and the nation took her into its embrace.

We’ve been comrades in arms over the years. We didn’t have to explain to each other about the pressure we were both under. We’ve always been in the same boat, from Brühl and Leimen to Wimbledon and back.

As a woman she fascinated me. It wasn’t the infantile falling-in-love of a teenager that made me want to get to know Steffi better. It was a deep feeling of affection, an unexpressed understanding between like-minded people who shared the same fate. And, naturally, I was curious about her too: where did she get the power, the motivation, the inspiration that made her so successful? What had she got that I hadn’t? And we all know that success is sexy – not to mention Steffi’s legs! The Steffi I got to know was an exciting person, not in the least shallow, with a sombre side and a lively side. These weren’t visible in the tennis player. Early on, she moved to Florida, and took an appartment in the heart of New York’s SoHo. Black has always been her favorite colour, and she’s always had a weakness for expensive clothes. According to media reports, she had a relationship with Mick Hucknall of Simply Red. These things don’t really fit the image of the Tennis Duchess (Graf means Duke) from Brühl, and Steffi was clever enough to keep this side of her life from the public. I didn’t succeed in this endeavour, but then maybe I didn’t want to.[…]

A little later I called Steffi. She was relaxed and happy. I congratulated her on her career and on making this decision at the right moment. We both knew what retiring felt like. I had no idea of her new love, Andre Agassi; she didn’t mention him at all. But I wasn’t surprised when I did learn of it. I knew that Agassi had had a crush on Steffi for some time, but first he had to get over the break-up with Brooke Shields, and Steffi had to get used tothe end of her career. Now they are tennis’ dream couple. Their son Jaden Gil is already seen by the British bookies as a potential Wimbledon winner. Maybe he’ll play Elias in the final one day.

Andy Murray

Introducing a new feature on Tennis Buzz: Break Point, a monthly roundup of the best tennis-related articles on the web:

– find out what it looks like to attend the Wimbledon qualies at Roehampton in this great article by Liz for Grand Slam gal. Another must-read: Wimbledon 2014: A Fan’s Perspective on the Best Bits.

– the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre hosted the Wheelchair Tennis at the 2012 Games, it is now open to the public. Read this report by diamond geezer.

– discover Vigoro, the Edwardian attempt to merge tennis and cricket

– Andy Murray talks about Wimbledon, adidas and shorts in this interview by The Daily Street

– Nick Kyrgios made a mark at Wimbledon this year by ousting Rafael Nadal and reaching the quarterfinals. Heavy top spin looks at his first 50 pro matches.

– Venus Williams bares all in ESPN body issue and opens up about dealing with Sjogren’s syndrom

– the US Open is only one month away! Enjoy this behind the scenes tour of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center

And it case you missed it, check out our Wimbledon coverage on Tennis Buzz.

I’ve also some good news to share with you: for the first time we’ve got a media credential, Peg will cover the early rounds of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati for Tennis Buzz, so stay tuned!

Photo credit: The Daily Street

Steffi Graf and Boris Becker, Wimbledon 1989

Article by Barry Lorge, June 1990

At the Baden Tennis Center in the Heidelberg suburb of Leimen, the most productive of 13 regional training facilities operated by the West German Tennis Federation, coach Boris Breskvar finishes hitting with three youngsters and invites a visitor into his office. The wall behind his office is covered with photos, a couple of which he points with particular pride. There he is with Steffi Graf and Boris Becker at the European junior championships in 1981. And five years earlier, a group photo of the Baden kids, when Steffi had just turned 7 and Becker was a lad of 8. Surely another picture is destined for this gallery. Graf and Becker, at 20 and 21, posing together last July, after she won the women’s singles title at Wimbledon for the second straight year and he captured the men’s crown he held in 1985 and ’86. If you perused newstands in Germany the week after this extraordinary “Deutschland Doppel,” they dominated the covers. One magazine even had them dressed in full regalia like king and queen.

Before last Wimbledon, Becker and his girlfriend, Karen Schultz, went out for dinner with Graf and her coach, Pavel Slozil. Becker and Graf also met a couple of times during the tournament and talked.
“In other tournaments, we saw each other and said hello and that was it,” Graf says. “This was the first time we communicated more than before, and we both came out as the winner. Afterward, we hugged. It was a great moment for both of us because we have known each other quite a while.”
A fairytale come true, Becker says, “I used to be the worst in the boys and she used to be the best in the girls, so when I was almost 9 and she was 7, I all the time had to hit with her. From then on we more or less went through the same tournament and matches and we all the time kept a relationship… It’s impossible to think something like this can happen.”

GRATIFYING: It was particularly gratifying for Breskvar, who worked with Graf occassionally, and coached Becker daily, from the time they were barely out of kindergarten until they were teenagers. He had them hit against each other – not only because Graf was the top girl in Baden and Becker the runt of the region’s promising boys, but also because he saw in them similar stuff of champions.
“Steffi was (an) exceptional talent, and also mentally very, very strong,” he says. “She was never afraid. You know when it’s 5-all in the final set, they are all afraid a bit. They push the ball a little. Not Steffi and Boris. They were never afraid. They also lost matches, 5-7 in the third set, but they never pushed their shots. Also, they liked to compete.”
Breskvar, 47, who played internationally for his native Yugoslavia and has been employed by the German and Baden federations for 18 years, was at Wimbledon the second week of last year’s tournament with a team of German juniors. He watched the men’s final at Centre Court, guest of Becker’s Romanian manager – Svengali, Ion Tiriac, an old friend from their touring days.

An outgoing, expressive man with burning brown eyes, Breskvar saw Graf and Becker hold their trophies aloft and thought back to the kids on his wall. “For a coach,” he says, “this is a super feeling, something really special.” Becker grew up in Leimen, a town of 20,000 previously best known for producing cement. His home was less than a mile from the Blau-Weiss (blue-white) Tennis Club, whose indoor courts are now called Boris Becker Halle. Becker started hitting against a wall at the age of 5. After the Baden centre was built across the street in 1976, he practised there almost exclusively. Boris’ father, architect Karl Heinz Becker, designed both the tennis centre and Breskvar’s house. The coach discovered young Boris at a talent search at Heidelberg Schwarz and Geld (Black and Gold) Club in 1974, and worked with him for 10 years.
When Becker was 16, Breskvar turned him over to Gunther Bosch, a Romanian born friend of Tiriac; it was a year before Becker became the youngest man ever to win Wimbledon.
“His father told me, ‘Take care of my boy, and I don’t interfere. You must do everything,” Breskvar says. “Before he went to Bosch, he asked me three times to travel and coach Boris. I told him I prefer to stay in Leimen. I don’t want my boss to be one young guy. Nothing against Boris, who is a very good friend, but I prefer to work with a lot of juniors.” Breskvar’s relationship with Graf is decidedly cooler. She is from Bruhl, a town of 14,000 a few miles northwest of Leimen, closer to industrial Mannheim. In his instructional book – Boris Becker’s Tennis : The Making of a Champion, which has been published in Germany, Yugoslavia, Japan, England and Holland- Breskvar recalled his introduction.
“She was only 6 when she first came to us, but she already had a fairly reasonable technique. She had learned the basics from her father, who was a tennis coach . I can clearly recall the first time we met. Peter Graf came up to me and said, ‘I’ve found out as much as I can about you, and I think you’re the right man to train Steffi – because one day she’s going to be No.1 in the world.

“I don’t think I can be blamed for assuming that I was talking to yet another of these ambitious fathers who think the whole world is just waiting to see their child play. By the time we (had) completed the half-hour training session, I was greatly impressed, and inwardly asked Peter Graf to forgive me for thinking ill of him, for Steffi really did have talent.”

Her father groomed Graf’s game and is still her principal advisor, although former Czechoslovakian Davis Cup player Slozil also travels and hits with her. Breskvar believes that the Baden centre played more of a part in Graf’s ascent than the family is willing to admit. Steffi says: “My coach was my father. When he didn’t have so much time because he was giving lessons himself, I went to the centre. I played there until I was 12 or 13 – maybe 15 or 20 times a year.”

Steffi Graf and Boris Becker

ENERGETIC: Breskvar is an energetic lefthander who puts an intriguing variety of spins on tennis balls and converses in 6 languages (German, English, French, Italian, Serbo-Croatian and his native Slovenian). He does not dwell in the past, which in his case includes being the third man on Yugoslav Davis Cup teams that featured two players ranked in the world’s top 10, Nikki Pilic (now the German Davis Cup captain) and Zeljko Franulovic. At the Baden centre, he has a number of promising prospects, including Anke Huber, 13, already the best junior girl in Germany and Romanian defector Mirela Vadulescu, 12, who has moved to Leimen with her family and was signed to a contract by Tiriac last year. Breskvar smilingly predicts, “they will be playing each other in the Wimbledon final in five years.” These days, however, the coach happily obliges frequent requests to reminisce about Graf and Becker. They were both exposed early to a sophisticated programme that incorporates not only traditional training in technique and tactics, but also physical and psychological conditioning. Breskvar works closely with Prof. Hermann Reider, director of the Sports Science Institute at Heidelberg’s celebrated university.

“For five years he helped me with Boris and Steffi, making psychological tests, motivational tests, studies,” Breskvar says. “He agrees with me that it is very important to train children not only in tennis, but in other ball sports.” Breskvar points to basketball hoops and goals for football and field hockey on an area paved in asphalt, adjacent to the four red clay courts at his centre. Here players develop their sense of space, movement and what is possible to do with a ball and bodies. “We play these sports a lot, as well as sprints and jumps and other athletic drills for conditioning,” Breskvar says. “I think this is very important when children are 9,10,11, because you must play a lot of combinations in your head. How to beat the opponent, move, set up a score. If you can transfer this to tennis, you can improve a lot. Steffi is a wonderful basketball player. Boris is good in basketball and very, very strong in football.”

Breskvar encourages an all court game, with particular emphasis on the style for which a given player is suited by physique and personality. “We take all the children to a medical centre and make an X-ray here,” he says, pointing to the wrist, “so we can see how tall they will be when they grow up. We can tell within two centimeters. We did this also with Steffi and Boris. This is very important because Boris was very small when he was 9 years old, but since I know he is going to be 190 centimeters, I must practise a lot of serve and net with him. If I know someone is going to be 166 or 168, we must practise a lot of topspin and ground strokes.”

AGGRESSIVE: Despite his diminutive size, Becker was already aggressive the first time Breskvar saw him, lunging and diving and making the horizontal leaps at the net that have become his trademark from the grass of Wimbledon to less forgiving hard courts. “Boris tried for everything, but his technique was not so good – tennis of jumping,” Breskvar recalls. “He didn’t know how to roll. Knees and elbows scraped, blood everywhere. I said,’Hey, stop, don’t do this. You hurt yourself.’ He said,’No no,it’s ok and again he does it. I liked him from the first moment, but I stopped the session because I was afraid he would break some bones. I told him,’O.K. in two days you can come to the centre and begin training with me,’ but I thought to myself first I must teach him to jump properly.”

Breskvar ordered gym mats, which still hang on the walls alongside the centre’s three indoor courts, and tought Becker to land like an acrobat. “After, I encouraged him to jump,” Breskvar says. “This is his personality and an important part of his game, for three reasons. First, he can reach more balls. More important is the psychological effect. When Boris jumps and gets the ball, the next time the opponent thinks, ‘I must play exactly on the line.’ He tries to hit into an area half as small, and that is very difficult, and often he is hitting out. The other advantage is this jumping is very attractive for the spectators, and pretty soon they are all on Boris’s side. This is a great plus.”

Graf has improved her volley, but favours playing from the back court, winning with a lethal topspin forehand and quickness and concentration that are almost as intimidating. Graf has outstanding hand-eye coordination, reflexes and racquet control to go with her speed afoot. Breskvar remembers the first time she picked up a plastic hockey stick and joined in one of his post-practice scrimmages: “The others looked on in astonishment as she stopped, dribbled and hit the ball as if she had practiced the game for years.” Graf also loves basketball, but says she was disappointed that Breskvar wouldn’t let her play soccer “because I could easily get injured.” Breskvar says that tests showed Graf had weak ankles, for which trainer Erko Prull designed a special exercise programme. She still works on conditioning with Prull, who she calls “a very good friend of our family.” It was in large part because their drive to succeed was so similar that Breskvar had Becker hit with Graf. “They practiced together sometimes, but not a lot,” Breskvar says. “This was better training for Steffi than Boris. I like him to play with older, stronger boys. It is important to find the right sparring partner- somebody who is a little bit better, but not too much.”

Graf realises now that she and Becker had some similarities. “Temperamentally, yes,” she says. “I have always been somebody who criticised myself a lot. When I didn’t play well, I was getting mad. Boris was the same.”

At the time, though, she didn’t sense how much alike they were. “Anyway, we were kids,” she says. “At that age, nobody really expected Boris would become the player he is. They thought I had much more chance.” What gave Breskvar a vision of the future was that Becker shared Graf’s uncompromising determination. One of the coach’s friends manufactured Capri-Sonne, a fruit-juice made in Heidelberg, which became the unofficial currency of training wagers. “Boris would ask all the time, how many will you give me if I win?” Breskvar recalls. “He was already a real professional. It was incredible. The more drinks at stake the better he was playing. When he was 14 or 15, I was still stronger than he was, but we had good matches- 6-3 or 6-4 every set. One day he asked, ‘How many drinks will you give me if I beat you?’ I said ‘The whole box.’ He was trying like a madman, and he beat me, first time. Boris is a born competitor.” This begs the question that is widely debated, within Germany and abroad. Was the emergence of Graf and Becker from the same corner of the country without much tennis tradition a quirk of history or the result of a programme capable of producing more like them?

Boris BEcker and Steffi Graf, 1985

FAIRY TALES: Becker said at Wimbledon that his and Graf’s success was so improbable that they will be grandfather and grandmother before their countrymen realise what they have accomplished. Graf also says it was the stuff of fairy tales: “What else can you call it? I mean, you can’t build up two players like that. I don’t see it happening again. It’s just luck, coincidence.”

Breskvar disagrees. “They are great talents,” he says. “Without talent you cannot work. But I also think that we have done a lot with those players. You ask Mr. Graf it is only him. This is difficult. But I think this centre was very important. It was the first in Germany, and without the opportunity to practice every day without paying one Deutschmark, over eight years, it would be very, very difficult.” The chief coach of the German Tennis Federation calculated that Becker’s court time, coaching and travel as a junior had been subsidised to the tune of $500,000.

“It is too much money for most families,” Breskvar says. “We pay everything. We pay everything. This is very important. A champion must be born with talent, but he must also have the environment. You can have a great natural talent for skiing, but if you live in the Sahara, you cannot win an Olmypic gold medal in skiing.”

Good genes and God-given gifts need to be nurtured. Raw potential needs to be recognised, moulded, motivated. “Boris was not the best in Germany when he was 12, 13, 14” Breskvar says. “He was about No.10. But when our federation was deciding where to put the money, I told our President, ‘I think Boris will be the best. We try with him,’ I don’t think it would happen without our help. There are so many players now, a champion must be something special, and he must be very well managed. The times are over when talent alone will rise to the top.”

Says Tiriac: “Boris Breskvar is a guy who had, and has, very good kids, so the results prove that he knows what he is doing…..Boris and Steffi emerging from the same area at the same time? That is an accident with ingredients that helped. Like tennis courts to play (on). Like parents connected with tennis. Like Breskvar to discover and develop the talent. If there are no courts and coaches, it is impossible to recognise a gift for tennis.”

The Baden tennis centre where Becker and Graf hit against each other as kids – must be recognised either as the setting, of an extraordinary fairy tale, or as a contemporary cradle of champions.

Stefan Edberg, Wimbledon 1988

From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990

For the obvious reason that he is still a young man, capable of striding along the summits for many more years, ths can be no more than a half-term report on a graceful, classic exponent of the ‘big’ game. Unless memory lies, Mal Anderson has been the only other player of comparable class who, in the past 30 years or so, has served and volleyed with as much elegant facility as Edberg. In 1968, in Hamburg, I spent a long time watching Anderson. The serve and volley routine can be hard to take. It lacks charm. But Anderson’s instinctive ease of movement and racket-contol somehow gave that routine the uncomplicated allure of a Strauss waltz. So it is with Edberg. This is not to suggest that Edberg is the most efficient modern graduate of the serve-and-volley school. One refers only to the natural flair with which he does his thing. Unlike such heavily muscled contemporaries as Becker and Pat Cash, Edberg brings an aesthetic quality to the three-shot rally. His emergence is a striking eminder that Bjorn Borg‘s playing method – that of a baseliner with a two-fisted backhand – inspired no more than a transient trend in Swedish tennis. That method was Borg’s, not Sweden’s.

The main features of Edberg’s game are his mixture of services (many players find the second ball more difficult to handle than the first), his volleying, especially the cross-court backhand, and his backhand service eturns, which often explode down the court like shells. His forehand is a comparatively second-class shot for a first-class player: seldom threatening, and often wayward when his confidence is low. But Edberg’s command of the backhand and the top-spin lob gives him weapons enough for counter-punching from the back of the court. He is happiest in the forecourt, bending like a sapling in a gale as he springs this way and that and tucks away the volleys – whereupon he often gives a little hop of satisfaction at a point well won.
His general demeanour, though, is one of sad, dreamy languor. Often, he looks only half-awake. But this embodiment of a sight is a dangerously deceptive as those tall, quiet gunfighters familiar from Western movies. Edberg seems reluctant to hurry but, when he does move, the action tends to be swift and short and terminal. One can picture Edberg casually blowing the smoke out of the barrel and instantly going most of the way back to sleep.

He is that kind of man: by no means the aggressive, pushy type, but stubbornly resistant to being pushed. Edberg likes a peaceful, comfortably stable life. Gentle and unassuming, reserved and laconic, he is a private man who enjoys company as long as it is not too demanding. No fuss, if you please. He is among those who apply to themselves the principle that everybody is important but nobody is very important.
Physically, Edberg is a long-limbed, willowy 6ft 2in (which Rod Laver considers may be the ideal height for a tennis player) and weighs around 11st 7lb. He has an arresting and attractive court presence and when that handsomely composed but gloomy mien is enlivened by one of his slow smiles, the mothering instinct wells up in ladies of all ages.

Edberg has a London apartment, in Kensington, but his home is the industrial home of Vastervik on the Baltic coast. He played tennis from the age of seven, took up the game full time at 16, and in the following year, 1983, won the junior Grand Slam. This invited less attention than the 17-year-old’s form in the now defunct Bournemouth tournament. He had to qualify but then reached the semi-finals by beating the cerebral and charming Balazs Taroczy, a specialist on such slow surfaces. Edberg told us that he was a policeman’s son and took up tennis because his mothe wanted him to. His Bournemouth form, plus the comment about his mother, was the first hint we had that he was something special but needed help in fuelling the fires of ambition.

For a few years he was none too sure of himself, none too sure what he wanted out of tennis, and none too sue if the ultimate prizes were worth the effort. He was lucky in that the European representative for Wilson’s, the company who made Edberg’s rackets, turned out to be a congenial friend and, before long, assumed the more constructive roles of manager, coach, and – most important of all – motivator. Tony Pickard had, in fact, turned up in Sweden almost five years before Edberg did. That was in 1961, at Bastad, where Pickard made his Davis Cup debut for Britain. As a player Pickard did not have quite enough talent to match his self-assurance. He soon discovered that it was the other way round for Edberg.

The biggest problem, was to get him to believe in himself. It took nearly three years.

Pickard, almost 32 years older than Edberg was exactly what the young man needed: a wise, witty, avuncular extrovert who knew when to nag Edberg and when to leave him alone.

At 18 Edberg made his Davis Cup debut, playing a spectacular role as Anders Jarryd‘s partner in two remarkable doubles wins. At 19 he confirmed his growing reputation as a tough, resilient competitor by winning the Australian championship. He saved two match points against Wally Masur and beat Ivan Lendl 9-7 in the fifth set. A week after his 21st birthday Edberg produced further evidence of his guts and his belief in himself when he retained the Australian title by beating Melbourne’s local hero, Pat Cash, in a five-set final contested in fierce heat. Between them, Edberg and Mats Wilander won that Australian title for Sweden five years in a row. No other overseas nation has done that.

The next big triumph for Edberg came at Wimbledon in 1988, when he recovered from two sets down to beat Miloslav Mecir in a semi-final that provided an enthralling contrast in playing methods – and then played a glorious match to beat Boris Becker in the first men’s singles final to begin one day and end the next. That year, too, Edberg came from behind to beat Mecir 9-7 in the fifth set of a decisive Davis Cup match.

In 1989 Edberg played the finest clay-court tennis of his career to each – and almost win – the French final. Becker was too strong for him in the Wimbledon final. But it takes a player of exceptional talent and competitive maturity to advance to the French and Wimbledon finals in the same summer. During the era of open competition (1968 onwards) the only other men to manage it were Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe – formidably distinguished company for a player who, for a time, had seemed to be vulnerably diffident. With Pickard’s help, Edberg learned the truth of a couple of lines in Shakespeare:

Our doubts are traitors, And make us lose the good we oft might win