Tennis: Champion Edberg sends pretender packing

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STEFAN EDBERG successfully defended the United States Open title here last night and restored himself to No 1 in the world. None of this was achieved easily, though the Swede's 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-2 victory in two hours and 51 minutes against Pete Sampras in the final was a leisurely jog compared with what had gone before.

In order to reach this stage, Edberg had not only played three consecutive five-set matches but had fought back from being a break down in the fifth set of each of them to overcome Richard Krajicek, Ivan Lendl and Michael Chang. Indeed the duration of his marathon with Chang created a Grand Slam record of five hours and 26 minutes, producing a weary time for all the other competitors on a ludicrous 'Super Saturday'.

Much of what Edberg had to endure before winning those matches was self-induced by his inability to use his magnificent serve with the usual rhythm and accuracy. And with Chang prepared to retrieve what most players would regard as lost causes it was a mercy that the semi-final came to a close.

However much, Edberg may have been drained by all this overtime, he knew that Sampras was also feeling less than 100 per cent towards the end of his semi-final against Jim Courier. A gastric condition made the final games agony for the 1990 champion and he was perhaps fortunate that Courier was too absorbed in his own dilemma of lost form to take advantage.

Sampras's four-set win ensured that either he or Edberg would be named No 1 when the rankings are announced today. There was also the prospect that the 21-year-old Californian would complete a first clean sweep of Grand Slam men's singles titles since Donald Budge accomplished the original Slam 54 years ago.

It transpired that Sampras had less in reserve than Edberg, but while we saw plenty of the type of mistakes to be expected of competitors who have had a hard path to the final, some of the tennis was excellent and played in a manner that is not always evident nowadays, attacking flair being more apparent than baseline attrition.

The one guarantee from this pair was that Flushing Meadow would be more like Lake Placid after the hype of the Jimmy Connors 40th birthday party, the last hurrah (perhaps) of John McEnroe and the bludgeoning of Andre Agassi by Courier.

Sampras started the better, breaking for 4-2 in the opening set, when Edberg missed with a high forehand volley and then found the net with a low backhand half-volley off a tricky service return. The American clinched the set with an ace after 31 minutes.

Edberg recovered and threatened Sampras's serve in the second and sixth games of the second set. Sampras fended him off until the tenth game, when he gave his opponent an opportunity by hitting a backhand over the baseline, the Swede then opening play to deliver a backhand volley into an empty court to level the match.

Sampras has several chances to regain the initiative in the third set, but even when he broke the Swede for 5-4 he could not rely on his own serve to secure the set. Sampras double faulted on the first point and the last to enable Edberg to draw level and push on to a tie-break. Here again, Sampras was undone by his serve, double-faulting for 4-6 and then hitting a backhand wide to lose the shoot-out, 5-7.

It became apparent early in the fourth set that the American was hampered by an injury to his left leg, and Edberg made life more uncomfortable for him by breakin g in the openin g game and continuing to exert pressure to take a 4-0 lead before Sampras was able to hold serve. He then created two break points, only to be forced to the backcourt by Edberg's serves. The Swede finally discourged him with an ace.

For the record, in those three, five set matches, Edberg was on court for 13 hours and three minites, played 163 games, served 39 double faults, had broken serve 25 times, and had been broken 21 times after saving 45 break-points. He leaves New York with his sixth Grand Slam title, and deserves to put his feet upback home in Kensington.