Adieu to an elegant assassin: Stefan Edberg interview

As Stefan Edberg prepares to play his last Wimbledon, John Roberts talks to the winner in 1988 and 1990, someone who has always brought a special style to the lawns of SW19
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There was a delicious moment when an announcer at Madison Square Garden, New York, hailed the winner of the 1989 Masters thus: "From London, England, Stefan Edberg!"

Dream on. Edberg may be at ease strolling along Kensington High Street, having based himself in England at the onset of his professional career some 14 years ago, but the policeman's son from Vastervik remains as Swedish as Bjorn Borg.

The 30-year-old Edberg is ours only in the sense that great sportsmen belong to everybody, although there would hardly have been a quibble if the New York MC had introduced him as Stefan Edberg from Wimbledon.

His style was made for the lawns of the All England Club, his deportment complementing the ambience of the sport's traditional theatre as impressively as his strokes. He embraces the so-called power game with a gentle touch, serving and volleying with elegance.

There is not a trace of brutality in Edberg's play, yet the leading players of his generation, Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Becker et al, would endorse the potency of his first serve and the wicked kick of his second serve.

Edberg's natural gifts, galvanised by a self-belief painstakingly instilled by his coach, Tony Pickard, from Nottingham, enabled him to win the Wimbledon singles title twice in three consecutive finals against Boris Becker.

In addition, Edberg has won both the Australian and United States championships on two occasions and here, in his retirement year, he is about to compete in his 53rd consecutive Grand Slam tournament, a unique record which dates back to Wimbledon 1983.

Two months before the odyssey began, however, a 17-year-old Edberg had to come to terms with the loss of a trusted ally. Having advanced to the semi-finals of the State Express Tennis Classic at Bournemouth with a victory against the Hungarian Balazs Taroczy, he was summoned to the media interview room.

"I had one good racket, a Wilson Javelin," Edberg recalled. "It was my favourite racket, and I made the mistake of putting it next to the heater. It just got so hot that it melted. I still had rackets, but not as good as that one. Next day I lost easily to Jose Higueras, 6-1, 6-1."

The experience did not impede Edberg's progress. That year, he went on to become the only player ever to win a junior Grand Slam. Replacing a racket was not a problem. His impact on the senior game was delayed by a tendency to signal despondency to opponents by lowering his head when matches ran against him.

Pickard called the condition "the droops", and helping Edberg cure it was a big triumph. There is not a finer sight in tennis than a confident Edberg in full flow. One could imagine him enjoying equal success in the pre-synthetic era, when wooden rackets might warp or scorch but were not known to melt.

Becker and Edberg dominated Wimbledon in the latter part of the 1980s, the diffident Swede finally catching the precocious German who had startled the All England Club by winning the title, unseeded, in 1985 when only 17.

"We had a little bit of a battle going," Edberg said, whose victories in 1988 and 1990 sandwiched Becker's last success, in 1989. "Three finals in a row, and Boris made a fourth one in 1991, when I lost to [Michael] Stich in an incredible semi-final." Stich won, 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 7-6, without once breaking Edberg's serve.

"I think the rivalry with Boris has been very good for both of us, because that's really what's important in tennis. We've been fighting through Wimbledon and we've been fighting for the No 1 spot and looking at each other's results. Connors and Borg and McEnroe and Lendl had this thing going, and Boris and I had it going for a little while."

Probably the most important moment in Edberg's career was his Wimbledon victory in 1988, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2, in a rain-delayed final which began late on Sunday and was completed on Monday afternoon.

"That was a major breakthrough for me," he said. "I'd won the Australian Open twice, but winning Wimbledon takes something special. I remember having a great match with [Miloslav] Mecir in the semi-finals. I was down two sets to love and nearly out of the match, and I think winning that match gave me a lot of determination, a lot of guts going into the final.

"Obviously, the rain delay after playing just a few games on the Sunday was a bit frustrating. I was hitting the ball beautifully on Sunday and started off not as good on the Monday. But the change really came in the tie-break in the second set. From then on I never looked back. I was flowing around the court and doing the things that I wanted to do. It was a great day."

The loss to Becker in 1989, 6-0, 7-6, 6-4, was Edberg's second disappointment within a month. He had returned to London from Paris determined to atone for an agonising five-set defeat by Michael Chang in the French Open final.

"I thought I had a good chance at Wimbledon because I was playing very well towards the final," Edberg said. "I was lucky to finish my semi-final match against McEnroe on Friday. Becker had a rain delay and had to come back on Saturday.

"Maybe a lot of people thought I was going to win that match, but I think he [Becker] really picked up speed on that Saturday in his final set against Lendl. He really took off flying, and I never really had a chance to get into the match, apart from a little bit in the second set.

"He just blew me off the court that day. I didn't play well, unfortunately, and I felt pretty bad after the match. It's fine if you play well and you lose, no problem. But when you don't play up to standard it makes you feel even worse.

"It was a tough year for me, '89, losing two Slam finals and losing another five finals. It wasn't until I won the Masters, or what's now called the ATP Finals, that things changed again. Suddenly I won seven tournaments in 1990 and became No 1."

Having advanced to the Wimbledon final again in 1990, Edberg appeared to be heading towards a victory even more comfortable than Becker's the previous year. In the end it went to five sets, and Edberg was relieved to win, 6-2, 6-2, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4.

"I was playing great for two sets, and it was almost looking as easy in the third set," Edberg said. "But he got the break, and once Boris sees his chance he takes it. He took over the match completely. He levelled the match and then had that break in the fifth set before I turned things round.

"It was a good omen. That year I was down 3-1 in the final set of a lot of matches. Even when I beat Michael Chang in Cincinnati to become No 1 [in August], I was down 3-1 in the third set."

Pickard sat through it all until they parted amicably at the end of 1994, a rare British presence in the corner of a Wimbledon champion. He is back there again for the valedictory performance. "Tony's probably got a lot of satisfaction out of it as well," Edberg said. "Being a British person, and having played there before, he really enjoys going to Wimbledon. I think he's handled the pressure pretty well. I mean, a coach can do so much. In the end it's still up to the player."

Edberg may have been eliminated in the second round on his last two visits to SW19 and dropped in the pecking order, but he has lost none of his fascination for the championships. "There is nothing like being on the Centre Court," he said. "For me, and most of the other players, too, if you had to pick one of the four Grand Slams, you would pick Wimbledon. It's got tradition, it's got atmosphere, and it's got mystique."

What will he remember most in the years to come? "I think you remember the times you were sitting in the locker-rooms, around all the other big players, the ones when you first came on the tour, and walking out on the Centre Court and bowing, which you only do at one place; little things like that. You sort of will miss those moments."

He will even miss the All England Club's idiosyncrasies. "I think you have to laugh about all the rules they have. It's sometimes so strict. Some of the rules are almost ridiculous. But that's what makes it."

For example? "Well, I don't want to get into that too much," he said, laughing, "I'd rather stand aside here. Actually, I think they're right in keeping the traditions and the rules because if you start loosening it, you won't have that special feeling."

And will he remember the rain delays? "Yeah, yeah, those have been tough at times, too. Rain is part of Wimbledon. I've had a four-day match, when I played [Marc] Rosset in '91. We were supposed to play at two o'clock on the Monday, and we finished on Thursday. I was there from early morning till late evening four days in a row before we completed it. That's the longest match I've played so far."

For the record, Edberg, the No 1 seed, won, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.