x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Edberg and Becker's rivalry, up close but not personal

The true rivalry of the two, especially at Wimbledon, had friction yet without the heat.

 
 

A tennis rivalry often feels like that object the child has placed underneath the magnifying glass, focusing the sun's rays through the glass on to it. It becomes pinpointed, as if all the world's attention, like the rays, is upon it and the rivalry heats up.

Eventually it generates its own heat, from the friction of opposing forces. Personalities grind against another or failing that, styles of play and in the best ones, both. This is Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Sometimes rivalries form frictionless, emerging through the simple accident of co-existence. Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg was one, acknowledged among the greatest but curiously lukewarm; no book or DVD compilation exists in its honour. Few obsess over it, though Federer was inspired to choose tennis by it.

Can it even be called a rivalry given the implications of conflict and tension in that word? There was little heat between them, as Becker noted.

"We were actually quite close. There was always tremendous respect, never any bad blood which was astonishing given how many big finals we played. It was never personal, just the tennis. With other guys, Ivan Lendl, McEnroe, it got personal at times but never with Stefan."

They were different men - "I was reserved and introverted," Edberg explained once, "Boris was the exact opposite: irascible and emotional", - but not to a degree that bred volatility (on court, Edberg was not as emotionless as the memory has him). And though they did it so differently, both were serve and volleyers.

But it was something. Over 12 seasons from the mid-80s, they played 35 times, 25 semi-finals or finals, battling protractedly for individual honours of the top ranking and for national honours in Davis Cup finals.

They met in only four grand slams but three years running it was in the Wimbledon final.

It is an immense triptych, perched on thin margins, with an end so epic it was apocalyptic, a five-setter of vast moods, surges and twists. Even the first two, less tense on paper, had moments where it was too delicately placed, a healthy glut of those critical points all great matches hinge on, underlining a fragility in sport and practitioner.

Becker was the strong favourite in 1988. He had lost one set getting to the final, to Lendl in a semi in which the Czech saved eight match points.

He had already beaten Edberg in two finals that year and had won Wimbledon twice. By contrast, Edberg was scratchy, only winning one match in straight sets, and his semi from two sets down.

But Becker was tired, having ended the rain-hit semi a day late on Saturday.

"I was a bit disadvantaged. Edberg got the first match so I played catch-up because the weather wasn't great. I played a lot back-to-back and had no rest, whereas Stefan had a day off, a nice night's sleep. I wasn't mentally fresh."

It began late on Sunday, Edberg whiling away time playing cards with coach Tony Pickard, and was swiftly curtailed by more rain. Edberg raced to a 3-0 lead but was pulled back.

"I was hitting the ball beautifully on Sunday," Edberg said.

He had just had lunch on Monday when the match resumed; a heavy stomach and briefly-energised Becker cost him the first set. But the match turned in the second, a high quality set in windy conditions. Edberg's serve found range and so too did his backhand as they went to a tie-break.

Edberg made the mini-breaks, punting a backhand return and gambling by racing in to volley away Becker's pick.

Then, having barely returned serve, he chased down a forceful volley, hitting a crosscourt backhand winner on the run; Becker dived and yelled in frustration, the tie-break as good as gone. "He had the best backhand in the world," recalled Becker, "whether it was the slice, the lob or passing."

The toil of Becker's semi began to tell. "I was really fatigued. Once Stefan won the second, he took advantage because he was fresher."

The next two sets were straightforward, Becker frustrated, Edberg "flowing around court and doing things I wanted to do." Edberg had won the Australian Open twice but a first Wimbledon was the "major breakthrough."

Next year could not have been more different. Becker was in the middle of greatness.

"1989 was my best year. I won two grand slams, the Davis Cup, semis at the French."

Edberg was playing well enough to make finals but not win them, a particularly (and peculiarly) dispiriting affliction.

Again Becker's semi against Lendl, a five-setter, had stretched into Saturday. "I felt jinxed, thinking 'not again, I've got a day less again'. So I felt nervous going in, thinking I'd lost last year like this."

But he resolved greater aggression; such a familiar opponent needed a change in mood not technique. "When I was the aggressor, when I went for my shots early on his serve I was able to intimidate Stefan. That would lead to breaks and as long as I carried that momentum I was in it."

His serve, delivered from that ungainly stance where it appeared planks had been put on his legs to prevent bending, was back to its monstrous best.

In 22 minutes, he won the first set losing five points on his serve, allowing Edberg five points on his. "I was in the zone. I knew I had to make a point, start quick and show that I've come here to play."

His overall game had broadened, as became evident at a vital moment in a second set that again settled the match.

Edberg hung on initially before improving as the set progressed. The quality was exceptional, six of the first ten games held to love.

Eventually Edberg broke for a 6-5 lead and at 40-0 up the set was his. He served to Becker on the ad court, following up with a deep, low volley to the opposite corner. Becker moved swiftly, carefully measured his last strides and whipped a top-spin forehand outside the line for most of its journey that - like a free-kick - curved inside deliciously at the death.

"When you're 6-5, 40-0 up, serving, 99.9 per cent you're going to win the set," said Becker. "But anything can happen in tennis. I had to go for shots. When I played that round the corner, that was a message that it isn't over."

For Edberg it was, his fluidity rapidly draining out; he lost 11 of the next 12 points, broken back and losing the tie-breaker. The championship was gone soon after.

"The longer the match went with us, the better he got," Becker said, remembering their French Open semi that year which he had lost despite leveling from two sets down. "I wanted to make sure I finished it here."

One apiece into 1990 and neither man in great lick. Edberg, in the process of winning seven titles that season and claiming top spot (he displaced Lendl soon after Wimbledon), arrived out of sorts, knocked out of Roland Garros in the first round. "Everything was wrong," Pickard said.

In the third round he nearly lost to Amos Mansdorf, winning 9-7 in the fifth. Becker was ill-prepared, again. He would later reveal his descent into a haze of sleeping pills and alcohol around then.

"I was under stress then. I overslept morning practice and got up two hours before the final. I was really jaded first two sets, pretty much sleeping."

He lost both, the contrast between their serve and volleying shockingly stark. Becker, as was his style, thudded and stomped so stiffly and jerkily you thought any second he had drop his racket and bust out the robot-dance.

Edberg choreographed his way through carefully and lightly, skipping a path through a minefield.

The backhand was also in town. He broke Becker in the second set with a backhand lob picked off his toes. Then the fifth game saw Edberg at his classiest; two forehand winners, another beautifully cloaked backhand lob, and a running cross-court put-away to finish.

But Becker awoke to win the next two, returning Edberg's kicking serves better. So imposing did he suddenly become, and so fragile Edberg's serve, that he was leading the decider; two ugly double faults handed Becker a break.

But that was not the decisive twist for Becker was broken back, putting the kind of straightforward high volley wide that sticks and twists in your heart forever. "It wasn't difficult," he recalled.

"I tried to guide it which was a mistake and that gave Stefan life. It was a wrong, wrong mistake, the turnaround."

Edberg broke again in the ninth game with a backhand lob - what else? - and then celebrated, on one knee, right fist pumped, left arm arrowed, like some mythical Greek hero. Shot-making in tennis evolves relentlessly but some, like this Edberg lob, transcend eras. "It was frustrating," Becker said of it, "when you're at the net, waiting for a pass and he lobs."

Edberg served out and the trilogy was complete. Edebrg did not win a single completed match against Becker thereafter.

They never met in another grand slam; the following year Becker made his sixth Wimbledon final but Edberg lost to eventual winner Michael Stich in the semis.

"I wish I won two, not lost two," Becker concluded. "You always want another shot, to be there again, but those times pass quickly. My record against Edberg is positive, I won much more than I lost."

Not those he wanted most though, an equation that best captures the unquenched nature of the truest rivalries.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

OTHER GREAT CLASHES

Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe
The pair played 14 times with seven wins apiece, the finest two in the Wimbledon finals of 1980 and 1981. Their contrasting games and personalities – ice-cool European baseliner against hotheaded American serve and volleyer – enriched it and the quality was terrific. Borg won the first in five, McEnroe winning a tie-breaker 18-16 before losing the last set 8-6. He had his revenge the next year, winning in four and ending Borg’s 41-match winning streak at Wimbledon.

Martina Navratilova-Chris Evert
The most prolonged rivalry ever. Between 1976 and 1988, the pair met nine times at Wimbledon, five times in the final, four times in the semi-final. Good friends, vastly different characters and players, Navratilova, above, won seven of those matches, including all five times in the finals. But an indication of how close and intense it was: only two matches did not go to three sets. 

Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal
Arguably the two greatest players ever had their own take on Becker-Edberg, playing three successive finals from 2006. Each time the pair clashed having faced off in the Roland Garros final weeks previously. Federer was experienced enough, and Nadal not skilled enough on grass, the first two times for the Swiss to win (though the second was especially tight. But Nadal’s growth on all surfaces came through in 2008 when he won out in five sets among the best modern-day Wimbledon finals ever.

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