Stefan Edberg: Being No.1 better than winning a Grand Slam
Crisp white. That’s how you would colour Stefan Edberg in memory. The quiet Swede vanquishing opponents softly with his clean, swift volleys on green-going-to-brown grass courts. All class and no controversy, as he would shyly, reluctantly, step into the spotlight that an individual sport like tennis throws.
On the evening of 25 February, Edberg, now 52, sat in the conference room of a hotel in Mumbai under soft lights, doing media rounds that are part of his duties as the mentor of the Times of India Sports Awards 2018. He was, inevitably, dressed in a crisp white shirt and beige pants, and looked every bit as refined as you would expect.
“I had only gone through Bombay—at the time I think it was called—in 1985 on the way to Bangalore (Bengaluru) for the Davis Cup tie,” said Edberg in his Scandinavian staccato, of the World Group quarter-final against India, which Sweden won 4-1.
“I played doubles against the Amritraj brothers (Vijay and Anand). I remember because it was the longest set of my career, the first set was 21-19. We lost the second set and then won in four. Maybe it wasn’t the best grass court I played on, but it was fascinating. It was a different country from where I grew up.”
Tennis was mainly a grass-court affair back then, even though Edberg grew up on the quick indoor wooden courts in Sweden that laid the foundations of his classical serve and volley game. Unlike his countrymen Björn Borg and Mats Wilander, who battled from the baseline, Edberg flew to the net. His first Grand Slam came at the Australian Open in 1985, when the tournament was still played on Kooyong’s grass courts.
“Borg definitely was the idol of most of us,” said Edberg. “A great inspiration for Swedish tennis. Mats, same generation, but made me believe that I could make it to the pro tour. Winning the French Open when he was 17—I was about 15 then—made me believe. If he can do it, I can do it.
“The serve and volley, it’s a game that takes time. That’s where I played my best tennis and that’s what I worked with. Obviously, if I was playing today, it would be different.”
Another departure from the Swedish style was the single-handed backhand that Edberg employed, caressing it past opponents or using it to set up volleys.
“I had a two-handed backhand till I was 15,” he said. “But I felt that my two-handed backhand was not good. I wanted to change it. At the same time, I had started to develop a serve and volley game. It was easier with a one-handed backhand playing serve and volley, playing the slice. The first two years, it was a weak spot, I was not strong enough in my wrist. But over time, it got better, and, one day, I had a better backhand than forehand.”
His game tailor-made for the turf, Edberg would go on to win four of his six Grand Slams on grass. The three Wimbledon finals in a row he played against Boris Becker—from 1988-90, with Edberg winning in 1988 and 1990—became one of the definitive points of his career.
“Winning Wimbledon the first time was special, since I grew up watching Borg win his titles,” Edberg said. “Getting to No.1 (in 1990) was special. Winning a Grand Slam, yes, you can do that. But it’s more difficult to become No.1, because it means you have to play very well for 12 months and probably win more than one Grand Slam.”
He did it in an era littered with Slam-winning talent and strong characters. His career stretched from 1983-96, overlapping with those of John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Becker, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. It was a time of great variety and depth, and players and their games were not microscopically dissected for flaws.
“There’s no question, there was more variation in style. It was trickier—you could meet many different players, one playing serve and volley, one playing from the back. The preparation for the matches was difficult. Today may be a little bit more predictable because they play similar pattern, the courts play similar to each other. It doesn’t mean it is easier.”
The Swede, who had been a tennis recluse for a while, got to experience the increased pace and power of the game at close quarters when he began his partnership with Roger Federer in 2014 as coach. Though the Swiss master didn’t win a Grand Slam during his two-year stint with Edberg—he did make it to two Wimbledon finals and win 11 titles—he did turn a corner.
“He wanted and he needed to make some changes, which was a brave thing to do,” said Edberg, on making Federer play a more daring, attacking game. The Swede also suggested he switch to a larger racket-head, which has been a crucial piece in the puzzle for a rejuvenated Federer, who has taken his tally to 20 Grand Slams and became the oldest No.1 at 36 last month.
“I was all for it (a bigger racket). Modern technology meant more strength, easier power; that’s what you need to compete with others. Maybe I led him into a different path. He was close to winning a Slam or two. It could have happened, but Novak Djokovic was on the other side. Made it a bit too difficult. He was also a bit unlucky, but now, over the last 12 months, he has got some of the luck back. The biggest improvement has been his backhand. It has gradually, eventually, become stronger.”
The high-profile partnership with Federer put Edberg back in the spotlight, something he had stayed away from. At the end of 2015, he returned to his quiet life in Sweden to make smart, less followed moves in the stock market and real estate sector.
“For me, growing up as a child, I liked to be in the background,” Edberg said. “But being a tennis player, you are sort of forced out of that corner and sooner or later you are going to get on to centre stage. Before, I felt uncomfortable. It takes time, but you just have to learn to deal with it. Nowadays, I can come out into the light for some time, then go back,” he added with a smile, preferring to remain hidden in the folds of tennis history.