Stefan Edberg’s creativity, elegance and craftsmanship on grass courts was never taken for granted by the tennis cognoscenti. The Swede’s stylish game was a perfect fit for the lawns of Wimbledon. He was the quintessential serve-and-volleyer. No one could get closer to the net for the first volley than the agile Edberg. His backhand volley was perhaps the best of all time. Across the board, Edberg was exemplary on the lawns.
By the time the taciturn Swede approached Wimbledon in 1988, he had already taken two Australian Open titles, prevailing in 1985 and 1987 Down Under. But, despite a semifinal appearance the year before, he had not yet ruled at the All England Club in five previous attempts.
When I spoke with Edberg on the telephone recently, he said, “I always knew from the beginning that I had a good game for grass. But the grass is different at Wimbledon from the Kooyong grass in Melbourne. The court in Australia was almost like an oval, sloping from one end to the other and from side to side. In England it can be more damp and there is more humidity. It is heavier there.”
Edberg says of his earlier years at the shrine, “I put a little too much pressure on myself. At some point I probably was due to have at least a shot at winning Wimbledon. In ‘88 I got my chance.”
The draw was not easy for third-seeded Edberg. He played big serving left-handed Frenchman Guy Forget and went four-hard sets in the first round. American Richey Reneberg returned well enough to take a set off Edberg in the next round, and then another American, Ken Flach, exploited his attacking skills to push Edberg into another four-set tussle in the third round.
After a straight set triumph in the round of 16, Edberg conceded another set against Patrick Kuhnen in the quarterfinals but was not unduly threatened in that match.
“It helps to have those tests, especially in the first week of Slams,” Edberg says, speaking of those string of tough contests. “It was a real test to play Forget in the first round, a lefty on a green grass court. Reneberg played well and Flach, who was a good grass courter but mainly a doubles player, was a tough match. It was nice to get out of that one in the first week.”
Edberg captured his first Wimbledon trophy in 1988. (Getty Images)
As he came down the homestretch of that tournament, Edberg was very nearly cut down by Miloslav Mecir, an inventive shotmaker known as “The Cat”. Mecir took the first two sets from Edberg in the semifinals and was making every shot in the book. “I was pretty much down and out, “says Edberg.
But Edberg did not lose heart. He recalls, “What is really behind that comeback was going back three months before Wimbledon, I played Mecir in the fifth rubber of Davis Cup in Sweden. I was down 4-1 in the fifth set and I managed to turn that match around and win it. It was a huge comeback. That was really one of the keys to turning the match around at Wimbledon ‘88. It was quite a big match for me. If I had not beaten him in Davis Cup I probably would have lost to him at Wimbledon.”
Edberg overcame Mecir, 4-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. He then collided with 1985-86 champion Boris Becker in the final.
“It was fantastic to be in the Wimbledon final,” Edberg remembers. “That had always been my dream since watching Borg win his five titles in a row as I was growing up. Boris had already won Wimbledon twice. I knew it was going to be tough, but when you are in the final you always feel like you have a chance.”
The two combatants played only five games in the first set as rain disrupted play all afternoon long, and they had to return the next day to finish the skirmish. When Becker rallied to salvage that opening set, he seemed on course for a third title in his favorite setting.
But Edberg was undismayed.
“Losing in the first set is not great, but the second set came down to a tie-breaker,” he says. “I got away to a 4-0 or 5-0 lead. I was hitting some good shots and suddenly you are one set all. From then on I just got better and better. I never looked back and maybe he lost momentum.”
Edberg was stellar in all facets of his game and was returning beautifully over the last two sets, winning the match, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4, 6-2.
He reflects, “Our final was completed on Monday. I won the Australian Open on a Monday and I think I played another final one year in Tokyo, so Monday finals always seemed to be successful from my point of view.”
Capturing that crown left Edberg immensely gratified.
“It was definitely one of the highlights of my career. It is indescribable, but something you have worked hard to achieve for a long time,” he says. “I felt lucky that tennis was an interest for me that turned into a profession. If you think about it, it just went so quickly for me from turning professional, to suddenly winning tournaments, to moving up in the rankings. I got this good chance at Wimbledon in ‘88 and took it.”
The Swede coached Roger Federer during the 2014 Championships. (Getty Images)
A year later, Edberg moved back into another final against Becker, but on a dark afternoon Becker was too good, rolling to a 6-0, 7-6(1), 6-4 victory. Once again, the second set tie-break was crucial, but this time Becker was the better man under pressure.
“Boris escaped in the semifinals in five sets against Lendl,” Edberg recalls. “It probably would have been easier for me to play Ivan in the final, but it was Becker again. I thought I would win it again but had that poor start. To do that in a Grand Slam final was not one of my best performances. A couple of weeks earlier I had lost to Michael Chang in a five-set final at the French Open. To lose two Grand Slam finals in a month felt pretty bad to me.”
And yet, the resilient Edberg had the right temperament to leave his disappointments in the past and pursue new targets. One year later in the first Wimbledon of the nineties, Edberg and Becker set up a third consecutive final-round appointment on the fabled Centre Court. Edberg, however, had been pushed awfully hard by Israel’s capable Amon Mansdorf in the third round. The third seeded Swede came through 9-7 in the fifth set.
“I was playing on Court One in that match,” he says. “Centre Court is a better place to play. Mansdorf is a good grass-court player. It was a great match from him. Maybe I didn’t play great, but it was not like I was playing badly. It was just one of those tough days that you had to wait for your chances. I was relieved to get out of it in a good frame of mind, That match with Mansdorf was crucial.”
Thereafter, Edberg was much sharper as he marched into the final. As if by design, the formidable Becker stood on the other side of the net for round three of their stirring final-round series at the world’s premier tournament.
“It’s amazing that Boris and I only played four times in Grand Slams in our careers,” Edberg says. “And that three of those matches were Wimbledon finals along with one semifinal at the French Open that I won in five sets . Our ‘90 Wimbledon final was a fascinating match in many ways. I was pretty confident going into the final because I played a really solid match against Ivan Lendl in the semifinals. I felt if I played somewhere close to that level I had a really good chance to beat Boris.”
Edberg was both solid and spectacular in casting Becker aside 6-2, 6-2 in the first two sets. Could he ever have dreamed of taking two sets in a row so decisively against a powerhouse on grass like Becker?
“Never,” he answers. “You could maybe win one 6-2 set, but not two. If you are lucky enough, you break him once and if you are really lucky it happens twice. But I was playing very, very well and Boris was maybe not playing his best tennis.”
Two years after his first Wimbledon triumph, Edberg lifted his second trophy at the All England Club. (Getty Images)
Becker roared back to take the third and fourth sets. And then the dynamic German moved out in front 3-1 in the fifth set. This was treacherous territory for Edberg—to say the least.
“Suddenly I am two sets all and down a break in the fifth, “ he says. “But we all know that if you work hard enough you may get another chance. You have to remind yourself of that, keep holding serve and wait for that opportunity to break back. I got that opportunity. Boris missed an easy volley to get me the break back. That can happen with the tension. Both of us were a little tired and it was windy also.”
Becker was serving at 3-1, 30-40 when he bungled that forehand first volley. As Edberg explains, “That really turned the match around. Suddenly you feel more energy. From then on I played really well. I still remember the backhand topspin lob winner I hit to break him at 4-4 in the fifth set. It is a great feeling to see that shot go in. And I knew then I would be serving for the match.”
Edberg closed it out with some stellar volleys to win 6-2, 6-2, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4. Was that his most memorable win in a major final?
“Getting out of that match in 90’ was satisfying, but winning my first Wimbledon was very special as well,” Edberg replies. “I will always remember my first US Open final in ’91 when I played one of the best matches of my career against Jim Courier. But winning that Wimbledon title over Boris in five sets in ‘90 was one of the biggest if not the biggest moment for me.”
Remarkably, Edberg toppled Becker in two of their three Wimbledon finals despite a 10-25 career record against his burly rival. Why wasn’t it a closer series?
“Maybe he could lift his game more than I did,” Edberg replies. “We played in quite a few finals, and he was tough to play against with that serve, especially on an indoor carpet. A lot of times he was not as vulnerable towards the end of tournaments as he would have been at the beginning. That is part of the reason he beat me so many times, but it is a pity we didn’t end up playing a fourth final in a row at Wimbledon in 91.”
That year, Becker reached the final again, but Edberg narrowly missed out. As he says, “I was playing probably my best grass court tennis that year. I won at Queen’s Club and was striking the ball really well. But Michael Stich somehow managed to win our semifinal match in four sets even though I never lost my serve. That never happened to me before.”
Despite that 1991 disappointment, Edberg is delighted by his scintillating career record at Wimbledon.
“The most important thing, “he muses, “is to win Wimbledon once if you can. I have done it twice. That is something that feels incredible. It is nice being a member there at the club. All of the Grand Slams are special but, at least to me, Wimbledon is a little more special.”