In tennis, the man whose style and personality we should savour while we can is Stefan Edberg, last in the line of great Swedish players which began more than 20 years ago with Bjorn Borg and carried on through Mats Wilander. At the end of this year, Edberg announced last month, he will put away his racket for good. As he sets out on his last round of Grand Slam tournaments in the Australian Open, which begins tomorrow, the thought of tennis without Edberg is one to sadden anybody who cares about the finer things in sport: grace, dignity, and abundant talent mercifully unsquandered.
"Physically I'm still OK," Edberg said last week in Melbourne, where he was taking part in one of the pre-Australian warm-up tournaments. "But it's enough for me. You can only give so much. I've been at the top for a very long time. There are still days when it's great, but once the motivation starts going it becomes harder and things can slip."
Standards were always very important to Edberg, whose approach might best be described as the art of the impeccable. But he has not won a Grand Slam event since the US Open in 1992 and he has not got further than the fourth round in any of the seven Grand Slams he has played since reaching the semi- finals of the Australian in 1994.
Decline had been gradual for a couple of years before it took a lurch in 1995. He began the year ranked seven in the world and ended it ranked 23, the first time he had been out of the top 10 since 1984. The message really got home at Wimbledon, when he lost to a qualifier, the 6ft 8in Belgian Dick Norman, in the second round. "That made me realise that something had to be done," Edberg said. "I don't remember anything about that match that I want to remember. I played very poorly. It was a mixture of everything. It was one of those days when I was there but not there."
Edberg will be 30 on Friday, the age that has come to mark the cut-off point for anybody with serious designs on big prizes. Rod Laver, John Newcombe and Ken Rosewall were still winning Grand Slams into their thirties; Jimmy Connors was 31 when he won his last - the US Open of 1983; Andres Gomez was 30 when he won the French in 1990 before disappearing from tennis virtually overnight. Every other winner of a Grand Slam since the Open era began has been in their twenties or younger, and the modern emphasis on speed and power is hardly an encouragement to the older hands. So there is natural timing to Edberg's decision to retire, just as there always has been to his game.
Edberg on one of his best days was as close to perfection as you could find - the willowy arc of the service action, the footwork that got him into position for the volley, the concision with which the volley was dispatched. Lacking any idiosyncrasy, the genius of Edberg, essentially a serve-and-volleyer where Borg and Wilander had been baseliners, often seemed to go unappreciated. But then his quiet and courteous demeanour was never calculated to draw attention to himself.
"I've approached the game just being me," he said. "That's been the easiest way for me to handle pressure. I haven't tried to create an image which is not me. I've always stuck to what I believe in, which is playing tennis and being a good sportsman. I've tried to get the best out of me and improve myself as a person."
Edberg, the son of a policeman, was born in Vastervik, 120 miles south of Stockholm. He turned professional when he was 16, in 1982, and won the first of his six Grand Slams in Australia in 1985, his second at the same tournament two years later. But it was the years between 1988 and 1992 when he was at his peak, winning Wimbledon and the US Open twice and becoming the world No1 in 1990. He has no difficulty recalling the match in which he played his best ever tennis.
"The 1991 US Open final against Jim Courier. I was just in a zone when you don't think about anything else. You feel nothing can go wrong. I don't think I missed more than one or two volleys in the whole match. I hardly made a mistake, and to do that against a player as good as Courier was then was quite something."
Edberg should be able to look back on a career in which he became the first player since Laver to win all four Grand Slams, but he blew his best chance of winning the title to have eluded him - the French - in 1989 when he played the 17-year-old Michael Chang in the final. Edberg was two sets to one up and had 12 break points in the fourth set, but Chang fought back to become the youngest winner of a Grand Slam event. Does the memory of that day still haunt him? "I don't think about it too much," Edberg said. "People ask about it from time to time and that makes you think about it. But that's the way it is. It's something you'd have wished hadn't happened. He hit some good shots. He hit passing shots right on the line. But it's too late now."
If not being too hard on himself is one of the ways Edberg has kept things in perspective, he betrayed some unease when invited to address the question of what he will do when he has stopped playing. "That's something I keep asking myself. I think I'll stay involved in tennis with some of the corporate things I do, but coaching is not a short-term prospect. I'd like to get away from actually playing the game for a bit. But the transition won't be easy."
There is a more negative side to Edberg's personality, and it sometimes cost him big matches. He acknowledged that what was important about Tony Pickard, the man who coached him for more than a decade, was his ability to get him to think positively. But the sort of unhappy retirement Borg experienced is not on the agenda. "I think we're very different. I'm a more down-to-earth person, more of a thinker perhaps."
Edberg has put up pounds 200,000 to create a trust fund to support young Swedish players, but as a resident of London since 1987 - he is married with a two-year-old daughter - he is also very much a friend of British tennis. If you go to Queen's Club you will quite likely see Edberg hitting with some of the leading British players. So, is there any chance of him offering his services to the Lawn Tennis Association? "If I had the chance I think I'd help Swedish tennis first, but if they weren't interested, well, maybe . . ."Reuse content