Watching clips of matches old and new at Wimbledon, I noticed something telling. One was between Andy Murray and Stanislas Wawrinka, a 2009 pre-quarter-final match. The other was Stefan Edberg playing Boris Becker in their 1990 final.

In 2009, both players prowl the baseline, slamming the ball back and forth, using the angles cleverly. In 1990, the server swarmed over the net, volleying the return, cutting off the angles. The way the game is played is the obvious difference between the two clips.

But there’s something else. Murray and Wawrinka play on a court that’s mostly green, except for large brown patches along each baseline. Edberg and Becker played on a court that had similar patches along the baselines and additional brown patches about two-thirds of the way to the net.

Why so? A generation ago, so many players used the serve-and-volley game that the grass near the net would wear out; today, so few players use it that it remains green. In the brown patches that have vanished, you can read an epitaph for serve-and-volley tennis.

Edberg and Becker are among the best serve-and-volleyers the game has seen—by my reckoning, only John McEnroe is better. Wimbledon used to be a tournament tailor-made for them. Their attacking style worked well on its grass; opponents must have felt they were facing wave after relentless wave of shots, the ball coming back at them almost faster than they could manufacture their own strokes. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Becker and Edberg were the world’s finest exponents of this kind of tennis. How fitting, then, that they met in the final at Wimbledon—not once, not twice, but three times in a row from 1988-90. Never before in the Open Era of tennis, from 1968, had the same two men contested the final thrice in a row; it would not happen for another 16 years.

For lovers of this elegant and ruthless style of play, those three finals were some kind of tennis Valhalla.

Edberg had not set the courts on fire in quite the same way, but by 1988 he had quietly assembled an impressive career. He took all four junior Grand Slams in 1983—the only player ever to do so—and once he turned pro, won two Australian Open titles. If Becker was athletic and powerful, Edberg was smooth and elegant, with a devastating backhand and a kick serve that was deceptively effective. Still, Becker had won nine of the 13 matches they had played till then, including the Queen’s Club final, on grass, only weeks before. Few expected Edberg to stay with a rampant Becker when they met in the 1988 Wimbledon final.

That impression was only underlined as Becker won the first set with apparent ease, 6-4. But there were signs that it might not be so easy—Edberg, behind that serve, had led early, 3-0. Rain forced the match to the next day, when Becker solved the kick-serve puzzle and closed out the set. Both men played superbly through a close second set and into the tie-breaker. Edberg took that to even the match. This seemed to deflate Becker: His problems with Edberg’s serve returned; Edberg’s volleying was impeccable and he was reading Becker’s serves well. Edberg won the third set 6-4. His confidence and momentum now too much for Becker, he won the fourth set comfortably, 6-2. The last point was itself a minor classic. Stinging Becker shots met with breathtaking Edberg volleys and Becker’s final close-range backhand, struck as he himself rushed forward, slammed into the net. Edberg fell on his back in triumph. It was his first Wimbledon title.

In 1989, Edberg beat Becker in a hard-fought, five-set French Open semi-final—and next lost a hard-fought five-set final to Michael Chang. Two Grand Slam losses in a row to Edberg must have rankled with Becker, particularly because it had been three years since he last won Wimbledon, the tournament that really made him. Determined and focused, Becker believed he was the world’s best grass-court player and intended to prove it.

In the 1989 final, the first set was not even a contest. Becker won it 6-0 in just 22 minutes, passing Edberg at will, returning everything that came at him. Edberg won just 10 points in that set, and only four of those off his own serve. He was simply blasted off the court. He did manage to play on more equal terms through the second set, and nearly won it. Serving at 6-5 and 40-love, he had three set points. But amazingly, three successive volleying errors gave Becker the game.

That game broke Edberg’s spirit. For his part, Becker was visibly more alert and nimble than he had been in 1988. He swept through the tiebreaker and then the third set. At match point, one more Becker thunderbolt flew high off Edberg’s frame, Becker stopped halfway to the net and stood there for a few seconds, arm raised, finger pointing to the sky, signifying “I’m No.1."

Which he certainly was. That was Becker’s third Wimbledon title. If he kept playing at this level and in this mood, tennis watchers thought, surely there would be several more.

But amazingly, it was to be his last.

When Wimbledon rolled around in 1990, tennis watchers fully expected a third successive Edberg-Becker final. They were still the best grass-court players in the world, after all. Sure enough, both progressed through the draw with relative ease. Edberg played a five-setter against the gritty Israeli Amos Mansdorf, but otherwise seemed in cruise control. Becker dropped three sets to three different players, but never looked in much danger. So with minimum fanfare, they set up Edberg-Becker version 3.0—and we lovers of serve-and-volley licked our lips.

Only, Becker seemed half-asleep when the match began. Consistently a step slow in getting to Edberg’s crunching volleys, he lost the first two sets 6-2, 6-2. Though I liked both men’s games, I always favoured Edberg for his silken agility around the court and the way he blanketed the net when at his best. But even so, I didn’t want to see a rout. With Becker in this state and Edberg playing so beautifully, that’s what loomed.

Just in time, however, Becker reverted to the sharp focus of his 1989 victory. How he returned Edberg’s serves was always key to his level of play, and he now began returning with power and precision, especially on the backhand. Now it was Edberg who seemed a step slow on court, though only because the man across the net had raised his game. The third and fourth sets went by in a blink, 6-3, 6-3, to Becker.

One set for the title—and it played out almost like the match itself. Becker served first, and Edberg, raising his game too, had him at 15-40. But Becker held serve and then broke Edberg to lead 3-1. Match over? Not yet. Edberg broke back in the very next game. Four games later, Edberg sensed that this was his chance and stroked sublimely to another break of Becker’s serve. At match point in the next game, it was Becker’s turn to mishit a service return. Edberg watched it all the way to where it landed outside the court, a smile as wide as Sweden spreading on his face.

It was his second Wimbledon title, and it would be his last as well.

Both men had more Grand Slam success in the next few years. Becker took two Australian Opens and Edberg won twice at the US Open—in 1991, with a wondrous dissection of Jim Courier.

But for a serve-and-volley fan like me, those three successive Wimbledon finals remain like a first love, wrapped forever in fondness, even romance. I remember well what Edberg and Becker painted: a tribute to elegance, athleticism and attacking instincts in tennis.

But perhaps above all, a certain ineffable charm that starts lush green and ends brushed brown.

Dilip D’Souza is the author of Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar, and tweets at @DeathEndsFun. He writes the column A Matter Of Numbers for Mint.

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