Thursday, July 03, 2008


(third in a series)

Before Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal made headlines for stringing together a trilogy of grand slam finals at a single event over a three-year period in Paris (and could do it again in London), Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker did it first at Wimbledon from 1988-90.

Masters of the grass court surface, they were often times a case of polar opposites in many ways: Edberg, the characteristically serene Swede who was a fluid serve and volley expert who'd taken to living in London, and Becker, the power-serving, emotionally-charged red-headed West German known to throw his body around the court and enjoy the European nightlife.

But Wimbledon was where their two sometimes-divergent paths met to great effect. In a six-year period between 1985-90, the brief span between the dominant SW19 eras of Bjorn Borg/John McEnroe and Pete Sampras, the pair won five titles and met each other in those three final matches, the third of which came in 1990, when they battled in a five-set classic where each momentum swing was massive and full... and the final reversal in the match's concluding games determined the champion.

Let's crack open the time capsule door and experience a blast from the past, as I saw it back in July 1990...

"The Third is a Tale of Three Matches" (July 1990)

Stefan Edberg vs. Boris Becker.

1988. 1989. 1990.

This is starting to get stale, right? It has to, doesn't it? The same two men playing in the Wimbledon Gentlemen's final for three years running is bound to get repetitious, isn't it? Wrong. In fact, it is turning out that the opposite is the real fact -- and one of the all-time rivalries (ala Borg-McEnroe and Evert-Navratilova) is materializing right before our eyes.

Sometimes It Matters Who's on the Other Side of the Net

Edberg, 24, the silent Swede once again slipped through this fortnight while causing a remarkably small amount of noise. Of course, with most of the media attention being paid to Becker and the mission of Ivan Lendl to win his first Wimbledon it was a little easier than usual to accomplish his usual feat. Edberg admits that he is "quite a calm person," but that's like Donald Trump saying he's in a little financial trouble. This man has won an Olympic Medal (a singles Bronze in Seoul in 1988, after winning the '84 demonstration event in L.A. that preceded tennis' re-introduction as an Olympic medal sport), a junior Grand Slam in 1983, and has been ranked in the Top 5 for years, but he is still not nearly as well known as Becker, Lendl or even Andre Agassi.

The Londonite went into this tournament not playing his best (a 1st Round loss in the French Open) and a loser of three grand slam finals in a row ('89 French, '89 Wimbledon and '90 Australian), but by the end of the two weeks he was crushing Lendl and starting to show "the look." This is, of course, the best way to describe Edberg when he goes into his zone of immortality and plays better than anyone could ever be expected to play, when his opponent is as helpless as an ant, and when every shot seems to find a line or an angle to work to Edberg's advantage. Sure, other players can dominate opponents. But Edberg can make them invisible, and when he is "on" no one, and I mean no one, can beat him. For much of the afternoon of this Sunday in July, he was IN that zone. Guess what? He won, 6-2/6-2/3-6/3-6/6-4 over Becker -- though it was a tale of two matches, or maybe even three.

Becker, 22, came into this final with a tough tournament behind him and a hard-fought semifinal match with 18-year old Goran Ivanisevic still fresh in his mind and body. This was the West German's fifth Wimbledon final appearance in the last six years, having won three times and lost once (defeating Edberg in '89, after having lost to him in '88).

Becker has the potential to be the best Wimbledon champion ever when one considers he is still not yet 23 years old, but he's had some problems off the court in the past with the German press and his free lifestyle (which probably played a role in his '87 2nd Round defeat by Peter Doohan). Whether that will play a role in the future is not known, but it should be noted that East German figure skater Katarina Witt was present in the Friends Box for this match -- something which could certainly bring even closer scrutiny if it turns out that they are more than just friends. But even with all the attention that Becker attracts in West Germany (even as he lives outside the country), he was still the second story on the sports pages there this day. You see, West Germany defeated Argentina for the World Cup title in Rome -- and that's more important than even a fourth Wimbledon title for Becker would have been. Right? Well, I guess if they think so.

The day before the final, Becker said that the winner of the match would be the one who gets "out of bed in a better frame of mind." These two men are that close on the dirt with their dominating games of serve and volley (Edberg) and, well, mostly serve (Becker). This tale of three matches was to be one of the most memorable in some time.

The 1st set was, at best, what it would look like if Edberg went up against you or me. The only thing was that Becker has won three Wimbledon titles and is one of the best grass court players ever. The Swede showed "the look" and crushed a seemingly tired and disinterested Becker in 29 minutes for a 6-2 advantage.

The 2nd set was just a continuation of the clinic, as Edberg hit conceivably every line and net cord shot known to man and crushed every other shot with superb volleys at the net. He won fifteen consecutive points on his serve and displayed the same "human backboard" juggernaut form that he did in the 1988 final. Edberg won 6-2 again, in just 27 minutes, as Becker scored just ten total points. But one of those points, a net cord winner, came near the end of the set and would set the tone for the next portion of the match.

Act II began with Becker not even trying to chase down an Edberg lob which was imminently reachable. That may have been the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back, because from that point on Becker was the '89 champ once again rather than the helpless amateur he had earlier appeared to be. A string of stinging backhand return winners started the snowball down the hill. Becker began to correct his game with shorter backswings and ran away with the set 6-3 while holding a 22-8 advantage in winners.

The 4th set was a virtual photocopy of the 3rd. Becker had effectively changed the tone of the match and totally reversed the momentum to his favor. One wondered whether the two had switched clothes when we weren't looking right after the 2nd set. A confident Becker once again won 6-3 and looked to be well on his way to becoming the first champion since Henri Cochet in 1927 to come back in the final after being down two sets to love.

Act III set up a fitting final battle in this showdown, as both players went at it with all that they had left. But Edberg, possibly trying too hard to blow away Becker, had a number of double faults to give the West German what appeared an insurmountable 3-1 lead. But the Swede got an unexpected break and "the look" was back for a final reprise. Tied 4-4, a costly Becker error on an easy shot off an Edberg lob attempt at the net turned the tide of emotion one last time.


I know it's not a word generally associated with Edberg unless it's preceded by "the lack of," but that wasn't the case this time around. In the last two games, the silent Swede made noise and pumped ala Jimmy Connors (and Becker himself) all the way until the end when the West German hit a return long and gave Edberg the set and the match at 6-4.

Edberg launched a ball into the stands in ecstasy (and later threw two shirts to the crowd in an unforeseeable and probably one-of-a-kind Edberg display). The hug from Becker after the match only gave us one more indication that these two bring out the best in one another like no two other male stars around.

A look at this new matchup for the ages makes expectations only grow. Becker and Edberg are just 22 and 24, respectively, and will in time fight for #1 (they rank #2 and #3 now) between one another once Lendl leaves the game, and maybe before since Edberg WILL be #1 if he wins the U.S. Open in September. Becker, who is virtually unbeatable on Centre Court is now 22-2 there... and guess who beat him those two times.

These two men, between them, have won five of the last six Wimbledon titles and have now faced each other in a trilogy of Centre Court matches from 1988-90. Am I crazy, or is there a terrific feeling of the beginning of something very special going on here?

=1990 NOTES=
...Ivan Lendl, #1 in the world, skipped the French Open and his grass court game peaked the weekend BEFORE Wimbledon began. Will he ever win there?

...Andre Agassi, 20, skipped Wimbledon once again (he hasn't played since a 1987 1st Round loss to Henri Leconte). I guess he was too busy washing one of his cars.

...John McEnroe, playing extensively for the first time since his ejection from and suspension after the Australian in January, lost his 1st Round match to Derrick Rostagno. One year after making the semis, it looks as if the Mac will never be back.

...Goran Ivanisevic, 18, from Split, Yugoslavia had the true breakthrough of the fortnight. A friend of Monica Seles, he became the first Yugoslav to reach the semis since Slobodan Zivojinovic in 1986. The lanky (6-feet-4, 161 lbs.) new star was ranked #954 in 1987, #371 in 1988, came into this Wimbledon at #38 and will surely climb higher if he can continue his recent superb play (he also reached the QF at the '90 French and the '89 Australian).

Ivansevic's "ties" to Becker and McEnroe make him one interesting character. His monster serve (105 aces in the tourney, and 28 vs. Kevin Curren) is reminiscent of a young Becker (who readily admits as much), as was the interest two years ago by Becker manager Ion Tiriac in becoming Ivanisevic's manager (Goran's family said no). But even more telling is his performances against the West German himself. The Yugoslav defeated Becker ten days before the French in an exhibition, in the 1st Round of the French, and nearly upset him at Wimbledon in the semifinal before a crucial game slipped from his grasp (it would have given him a two sets to love lead) and Becker's experience took control of the match. As for McEnroe, his legacy is his temper (which doesn't appear to be that evident these days in Goran, at least not as much as it used to be). The 18-year old was at one time suspended by the Yugoslavian Tennis Federation for spitting on an umpire. Mac would be proud. The American himself was almost the focus of his wrath when Mac accidentally left the grounds after his 1st Round loss with some of Ivanisevic's rackets. The new star said he was angry for a while, until the rackets were sent back the next day. Oh, well.

The future looks bright for this one. We could be seeing the man who will challenge Becker and Edberg in future Wimbledon finals.

Goodbye departed Standing Room Only, bomb scares, the grunting "fiasco" and the pied wagtails of Centre Court. Until next time, that is.

Edberg vs. Becker, Wimbledon 1988-90
Nadal vs. Federer, Roland Garros 2006-08
NOTE: Federer/Nadal could face each other in final for third straight Wimbledon, 2006-08

20...Lendl vs. McEnroe
16...Agassi vs. Sampras
15...Connors vs. McEnroe
13...Federer vs. Nadal#
13...Becker vs. Lendl
#- post-Roland Garros '08

The hoped-for continuation of this great Wimbledon rivalry never materialized. Surprisingly, 1990 was Edberg's last appearance in a Wimbledon final (he reached the SF in 1991 and '93), and Becker never won Wimbledon title #4, though he was runner-up again in '91 (to Michael Stich) and '95 (Sampras).

Edberg knocked Lendl out of the #1 position in August of 1990, then was replaced himself by Becker in January '91 after the German (East and West Germany had officially reunited in October '90) won the Australian Open. The pair traded the top ranking back and forth throughout that season. Edberg ultimately held the #1 spot for 72 weeks in his career, while Becker never seemed interested in maintaining the top ranking after he'd reached his stated goal of getting there (he only held the spot for 12 weeks in his career).

Edberg and Becker met 35 times in their careers, with Becker notching 25 victories, including nine of the final ten meetings that occurred after the '90 Wimbledon final (he was forced to retire from the one match he lost). They met three times in Davis Cup finals in their careers, with West Germany winning twice and Becker going 3-0 against Edberg in singles during those ties. Their final meeting came on the grass at Queen's Club in '96, with Becker winning 6-4/7-6.

That I would say "even Andre Agassi" hints at his "style over substance" persona at the time. In 1990, he had yet to win a slam and was making a habit of tanking an occasional match and finding an excuse to avoid the All-England Club and its all-white attire policy (he being of the denim shorts and day-glow bicycle pants not long before). After losing in three straight slam finals in 1990-91, he finally won his first major title in '92... at, of all places, Wimbledon. Not long afterward, Agassi's remarkable re-making of his career and reputation began. In the end, he won eight slams and in 1999 became the fifth man to complete a career Grand Slam by winning all four slam events at least once. He married Steffi Graf, had two children, became known for his off-the-court charitable work with kids... and still managed to reach the U.S. Open final in 2005 at age 35. He retired in 2006 as possibly the most respected player and person in the sport. Go figure.

Lendl, who once said he didn't like Wimbledon because he was allergic to grass (then was photographed playing golf soon afterward), never did win Wimbledon. But give credit to the Czech for never giving up trying, as he reached two finals (1986-87) and five SF. He's now something of a forgotten all-time great. He won eight slams, reached an amazing nineteen slam finals (including eight straight U.S. Opens), and was ranked #1 for 270 weeks. Ultimately, though, his stern on-court persona in the lively Connors/McEnroe era "earned/saddled" him with the Sports Illustrated-given title of "The Champion That Nobody Cares About."

McEnroe would reach the SF of the U.S. Open later in the summer of '90, but was never the force again that he'd been in the early 1980's. His final Wimbledon singles glory came when he reached the SF in 1992, losing to eventual champion Agassi.

Ivanisevic turned out to be one of the most entertaining players in tennis over the next decade. He appeared in four Wimbledon finals, but fell victim to both Agassi ('92) and Sampras ('94 & '98), losing to both in a pair of five-set finals. But not giving up on his Wimbledon dream, Ivanisevic stuck around. After needing a wild card to get into the '01 draw, he finally won his SW19 crown in another five-setter (9-7 in the 5th) against Patrick Rafter in a rare Monday final that was delayed because of rain. His mission complete, and after a raucous celebration back home, the Croat was never a factor in a slam again and retired two years later. But we'll always have that hilarious "Two Goran's" interview he conducted with himself for NBC's coverage back in '01.

Becker had burst onto the tennis scene as an unseeded 17-year old in just his second Wimbledon in 1985 (he'd retired with an injury the year before), when he used his thundering serves and belly-flopping play at the net to win over crowds and fans (including a certain Backspinner) while stunning his opponents. Quite unlike many brash young athletes, though, Becker always seemed to have a thoughtful and philosophical attitude. As a teen, he expressed his aversion to the "Boom-Boom" moniker given to him in the press due to his powerful serve, disliking the German war-time connotations it summoned.

Becker defended his SW19 title in 1986, and reached the final six times in seven years from 1985-91 (and seven times in his career). He won six slams in ten appearances in finals (his last crown came at the '96 Australian), and won Olympic Gold in doubles with Stich in '92. He ranks tenth all-time in career ATP titles (49) and, after having "retired" in 1997, returned for one final fling at Wimbledon in '99, where he lost in the Round of 16 at age 31.

Edberg won back-to-back U.S. Open titles in 1991-92, and was the Australian runner-up in 1992-93 following the '90 Wimbledon. He won 41 career titles (13th), including six slams in eleven slam final appearances. With over 800 match wins, he ranks sixth all-time in ATP history, and is fifth in total career matches played. A Top 10 player every year from 1985-94, he retired in 1996.

Neither Becker nor Edberg ever won Roland Garros, though. Edberg reached the 1989 final, while Becker's best results were three semifinals.

The Wimbledon image of the indomitable-but-silent Swede has since been eclipsed by the exploits of both Sampras and Federer in recent years (that paragraph from '90 about Edberg's "zone of immortality" could easily be applied to Federer these days). In fact, his mastery is almost lost to history, it seems -- he's not even the most memorable Swedish champ at Wimbledon, thanks to Borg's continually strong legacy.

We rarely see Edberg anymore, or hear his name. It's a shame, really. The same fate will likely befall the female Wimbledon champion whose classic serve-and-volley fluidity is most reminiscent of Edberg's -- Amelie Mauresmo. I can remember times when Edberg would so dominate Wimbledon opponents with in-point grace that whole games seemed to fly by with hardly a sound being made on the court, what with his picture-perfect court positioning at the net and his exquisitely-angled volleys producing such clean winners he made things look almost too easy... even more so than Federer, sometimes.

Becker continued to have battles with the overzealous German press, and was the subject of several headline-grabbing stories about his personal life, including a salacious paternity suit and tax evasion case. But Boris perseveres. You still occasionally hear him doing tennis commentary work, and just this week during American TV coverage of Wimbledon he starred in ads hyping his involvement with an internet poker site (his "new game"). Thus, the always-charismatic Becker Train moves forever forward. As it should.

All for now.

NEXT UP: 1991 U.S. Open - Connors' Magical Trip to New York
PREVIOUS TIME CAPSULES: 1987 Roland Garros (Graf), 1990 Wimbledon (Navratilova)


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