Tennis: Edberg still trying to scale French mountain: Ever-ready Swede approaches Roland Garros seeking the one Grand Slam title to elude him. John Roberts reports

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The Independent Online
STEFAN EDBERG would not normally command so much space on a page going into a French Open. Though twice a winner at Wimbledon and the championships of the United States and Australia, the Swede has still to add his name to the French trophy. His classical attacking style has been inclined to pull up short on the slow, red clay of Paris.

What makes Edberg worthy of special attention on this occasion is simply that he is there. Provided nothing ill befalls him between now and Monday, he will participate in his 40th consecutive Grand Slam tournament.

Edberg, 27, has not missed any of the four major championships, from defeating Christophe Roger-Vasselin, of France, in the first round at Wimbledon in 1983, to losing to Jim Courier, of the United States, in the final of the Australian Open in January this year.

When the sequence began 10 years ago, Edberg not only made his debut in the main draws at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open but simultaneously became the first player, male or female, to achieve a junior Grand Slam.

The forthcoming French championships mark 25 years of open tennis at the Grand Slams, starting with Ken Rosewall, of Australia, winning the men's singles title in Paris in 1968. Edberg has competed in the last 39 of the 100 played so far.

While other accomplishments in the men's game obviously warrant greater recognition - Rod Laver's two Grand Slams and Jimmy Connors' 109 singles titles and 160 consecutive weeks as the world No 1 spring to mind - Edberg's unique attendance record is laudable in a sport frequently beset by absenteeism among leading players.

'I think it's a little bit of luck,' he said with characteristic modesty, 'because in my career I haven't really had many long injuries. I've more or less been healthy in most of the Grand Slams.

'OK, I've created injuries while playing, and I sometimes have started a Slam not being as fit as I would have wished and maybe having a small problem, but I never missed a Grand Slam.' He paused and then added: 'It's quite a record if you think about it.'

It is, particularly in view of Edberg's experiences in Australia. He was fine when the tournament was played on grass, albeit baked into a hard court, at Kooyong, in the Melbourne suburbs. There, he won the title twice, defeating his compatriot Mats Wilander in the 1985 final, after saving two match points against Wally Masur along the way, and defeating Pat Cash in the 1987 final, 'gutsing it out' over five sets. Since the tournament moved to the rubberised concrete courts of Flinders Park, near the city centre, Edberg has known only disappointment.

In 1988, he lost a five-set semi-final against Wilander, who went on to defeat Cash in the final. In 1989, Edberg had to withdraw from the quarter- finals after injuring his back while defeating Cash in the fourth round. In 1990, a torn stomach muscle caused him to retire in the third set of the final against Ivan Lendl. In 1991, he held two match points against Lendl in the fourth set of their semi-final, only to be let down by his serve and to lose in five. In 1992, after a two-month absence recovering from injuries, he reached the final, only to lose to Jim Courier. In January this year, Edberg, troubled by a spasm in the lower back midway through the tournament, advanced to the final and, on a scorching day, lost to Courier again.

'It's all happened since they put down Rebound Ace,' Edberg said, finding a certain irony in the name of the synthetic surface. 'I don't know whether that's got something to do with it, but that's the way it's been. In a way, I've been a little bit unlucky, but I can't really complain.'

For all the problems at Flinders Park, Edberg's mind flashes to Flushing Meadow, New York, when he is asked to recall his worst moment in a Grand Slam. 'Playing against Connors in the night match in '89,' he said, recounting a thrashing - 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 - in the fourth round of the US Open. 'He played a great match. He had all the crowd and I was playing really bad then. I was getting killed. I was feeling really bad out there.'

That was not the only occasion Edberg felt bad at Flushing Meadow. The first time this exemplary sportsman used an expletive in an interview was to describe the debris being blown across the court during a night-time defeat by Aaron Krickstein in 1988. A year earlier, he was forced to play a semi-final against Wilander at 10am to accommodate the demands of television, even though he had played a doubles match late the previous night. 'I thought it was a shit place, I did honestly,' he said, 'but things change for the good when you've had success there.'

Edberg could not help but warm to New York on his last two visits. He describes his sublime triumph against Courier in the 1991 final, 6-2, 6-4, 6-0, as 'like a dream', and the tour de force of last year's successful title defence as 'probably the greatest effort of my career'. Before defeating Pete Sampras in the final, the Swede had to recover from being a break down in the fifth set in each of his previous three matches, the semi-final against Michael Chang lasting five hours and 26 minutes, a Grand Slam record.

The resilience displayed by Edberg was a tribute to the influence of Tony Pickard, the coach from Nottingham who has been the player's mentor for the past 10 years, following groundwork in Sweden by Percy Rosberg. 'It has to be one of the best performances of any tennis player, ever,' Pickard said, remembering, perhaps, earlier times when Edberg had a habit of turning himself into a distress signal.

Edberg hesitated when asked to name his happiest moment in tennis. 'I don't know,' he said. 'Winning Wimbledon the first time is something very special, just hitting that match point and having that feeling of having won it, and walking around with the trophy. But I don't look at my career as just one special moment, I look at it as a few milestones, starting with winning my first tournament when I was 11.'

Having won two of his three duels with Boris Becker in Wimbledon finals, Edberg has in common with the German the frustration of failure at the French Open. In 1989, Edberg defeated Becker in five sets in the semi-finals and then lost to an inspired Chang. The next year, Edberg and Becker, the top seeds, created history by being eliminated in the opening round.

'I had the chance in '89 and didn't take it,' Edberg said. 'I know that I'm capable. It's going to be extremely difficult, but in the next couple of years I have a chance to win it.' A case, perhaps, of believing that life begins at 40.

----------------------------------------------------------------- TABLE: EDBERG'S RECORD IN GRAND SLAM EVENTS ----------------------------------------------------------------- Fr Wim US Aus 1983 + 2 1 2 1984 2 2 2 Q/F 1985 Q/F 4 4 W 1986 2 3 S/F * 1987 2 S/F S/F W 1988 4 W 4 S/F 1989 F F 4 Q/F 1990 1 W 1 F 1991 Q/F S/F W S/F 1992 3 Q/F W F 1993 - - - F ----------------------------------------------------------------- + Did not enter * Tournament not held (Key: Fr=French, Wim=Wimbledon, US=United States, Aus=Australian) -----------------------------------------------------------------

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