Tennis: Edberg's power of recovery lifts him to new heights: John Roberts in New York on the qualities that secured a second US Open title

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT WAS an American, Tony Trabert, who encapsulated the way Stefan Edberg used to respond when the going was tough. 'He has a tendency to walk on his chin,' the former French, Wimbledon and United States champion said. Today, the Edberg chin is too high and proud to be trampled by anybody.

The Swede's momentous triumph, in successfully defending the US Open title and reclaiming the position of No 1 in the world, deserves to be counted among the sport's great achievements.

His 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-2 victory against the Californian Pete Sampras in Sunday's final, denying the Americans a clean sweep of the Grand Slam men's singles titles, proved to be a gratifying lunge for the finishing line at the climax of an amazing marathon.

Before that, Edberg had extricated himself from being a break down in the fifth set of each of his previous three matches, leaving Richard Krajicek, Ivan Lendl, and, particularly, Michael Chang, with the emptiness of a near miss. The Swede was so stubborn when defeat beckoned that it would have been easier to extinguish the lights on a Volvo.

As a test of endurance, for the players (those on the court and those pacing the locker rooms) and the leg-stretching spectators, the semi-final match against Chang would take some beating. It went on for five hours and 26 minutes, a Grand Slam record, with Chang, the great retriever, lacking the service power to capitalise after leading 3-0 and 4-2 in the fifth set.

If Edberg was weary, Sampras also had problems. A gastric condition had struck the 1990 champion in the concluding games of his semi-final against Jim Courier on Saturday night. Sampras's win meant that either he or Edberg would supplant Courier as No 1 in addition to receiving a cheque for pounds 500,000 ( pounds 260,000).

Sampras made a promising start, taking the opening set in 31 minutes, but he discovered that Edberg, crucially, had corrected his service game. The Swede was no longer regularly double-faulting his way into trouble, as he did when hitting 39 in the previous three matches. 'I lowered the toss a little bit and found the rhythm on my serve towards the end of the match,' Edberg said. 'The serving is all timing; nothing else.'

The American would attest to that after double-faulting at vital moments, such as on game point in the 10th game of the second set to give Edberg the opening to break and level the match. The Swede then saved four break-points in the opening game of the third set, and though he double-faulted when leading 5-3 in the tie-break, Sampras immediately reciprocated.

After losing the shoot-out, 7-5, Sampras compounded his problems with another double-fault on the way to being broken in the opening game of the fourth set. 'I was running out of gas,' the American said. 'He saw my head was dropping a little bit and my energy wasn't that high and he started playing much better. I had a very long, long night last night and didn't get too much sleep, but I can't say that I didn't have my chances here and I am not giving any excuses. I thought we were both pretty tentative out there, but he came up the better man.'

Edberg spotted the difficulties his opponent was experiencing. 'Once something starts to go wrong a little bit, it can go very wrong and the wheels come off,' he said. 'It happens to everybody.'

It nearly happened to Edberg three times on the way to the final. 'It was a bumpy road,' he said, deriving satisfaction from the fact that while his success here last year is remembered for a near- perfect performance against Courier in the final, this one was a testimony to willpower.

Edberg's coach, Tony Pickard, the British Davis Cup captain, was ecstatic. 'This has to be one of the best performances of any tennis player, ever,' he said. 'You have to consider the three five-setters, the difficult conditions of playing in Flushing Meadow, and the heat, which can be very draining. If he hadn't been in such great physical shape, he wouldn't have won it.'

The fittest in mind as much as body. The comeback against Chang was particularly significant bearing in mind how the young American out-stayed Edberg in the final of the 1989 French Open.

Pickard began to see an important change in Edberg during his straight- sets win against Chang in the fourth round here last year: 'In terms of becoming a stronger player, mentally, everything has stemmed from when he won that great night match.'

Injuries towards the end of last year had left Edberg short of his true form. An appearance in the final of the Australian Open was an unexpected bonus, even allowing for an emphatic defeat there by Courier; Andrei Cherkasov beat him in the third round of the French Open, and he was overpowered by Goran Ivanisevic in the Wimbledon quarter-finals.

Edberg's preparation for Flushing Meadow had been 'gruelling', and Pickard knew that his player was determined to keep a grip on the trophy. 'Stefan hadn't done anything this year. He had something inside,' he said.

Pickard became Edberg's coach shortly after the Swede accomplished a junior Grand Slam. Guided by the Briton, he has now won six major championships, adding a second US title to two Wimbledons and two at the Australian Open.

He has held and lost the No 1 ranking four times previously since first rising to the top in August 1990. 'Because of this win, and the way it was achieved, Stefan can now bump himself up another level,' Pickard said. 'I keep telling everyone he's not reached his peak, and I really believe it.'

---------------------------------------------------------------------- THE 1992 GRAND SLAM WINNERS ---------------------------------------------------------------------- Australian Open J Courier (US) M Seles (Yug) French Open J Courier (US) M Seles (Yug) Wimbledon A Agassi (US) S Graf (Ger) US Open S Edberg (Swe) M Seles (Yug) ----------------------------------------------------------------------