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One of the reasons why I like Wimbledon more than other Grand Slams is its surface. Grass courts are unique, and it requires in-born talent and a fine set of skills to master them...

Wimbledon Rivalries: Elegance vs. Charisma

by Rajat Jain (Analyst)

18

276 reads

History

June 20, 2009


One of the reasons why I like Wimbledon more than other Grand Slams is its surface. Grass courts are unique, and it requires in-born talent and a fine set of skills to master them. Not many players are comfortable here, and those who find themselves at ease usually have had their share of success in this tournament.

In the late ’80s, Wimbledon was dominated by two highly amiable persons, which offered us one of the most interesting, but underrated, rivalry—Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker. Even though both were serve-and-volley players, their style of play and personalities, were as different as chalk and cheese.

Becker, who stormed into the ATP as a strong 17-year-old lad, possessed one of the biggest serve in the ’80s, and had extraordinary, but not superlative, touch at the net. He had a strong all-court game with a superb running forehand, flat and powerful backhand, and an athletic overhead smash.

He was an entertainer on court—with long red hair, continuous chanting with himself between points, and unique diving volleys. The German had created an aura at Wimbledon with two back to back titles in ’85 and ’86. Even though he bowed out in the second round in ’87, his record at the Center Court was unscathed as he was undefeated at this court until the finals of '88.

Becker was a star who never shied away from hogging the limelight.

Edberg, on the other hand, was lean in build but had equally effective grass court game. His game was rich in elegance which relied on a huge kick serve to set up his amazing volleys at the net—a skill in which nobody, save John McEnroe, could come close to.

He could easily dispatch volleys inches from the ground and was equally adept at returning half volleys at acute angles. Although his forehand was a liability, he possessed an eye-candy, textbook backhand, which was among the best in business. His grass-court skills were proven to all as his first two Grand Slams had come on the Australian grass in ’85 and ’87.

The Swede’s on-court persona was a stark contrast to the German, who was usually reserved within himself and hardly showed any emotions or drama on court. He was an extremely good sportsman, and the "Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award" is a testimony to this.

The Becker/Edberg rivalry at Wimbledon began in the finals of ’88. Becker, as always, sported a rock-star look and was oozing in confidence being the favorite to take down Edberg in the finals.

Right from the start, he was on all out attack, holding serves with ease, and attacking the serves of Stefan.

The returns of serve those days were different from today as their main job was to put the ball past the server’s reach at the net or to put the volleyer in a difficult position. In short, they were more about precise placement than sheer pace and not surprisingly produced a lot more return winners than in contemporary tennis.

Becker comfortably won the first set, 6-4, and had a definitive advantage going into the second set tie-breaker. Instead, it was Edberg who showed inspired tennis to win a one-sided tie-breaker, 7-2.

Becker lost his cool after this—constantly cursing himself after every point he lost and hardly looking the person who owned the Center Court. Stefan raced away with the next two sets, 6-4 and 6-2, and upset the German to gain his first Wimbledon crown.

Shocked by this loss, Becker came out as a different person in their second final in ’89. The long hair were cut short, the commanding aura was replaced by determination, and the constant muttering gave its way to quiet fist pumps.

The change worked as Becker came out all guns blazing and created history by becoming the first person after William Renshaw in 1886 to bagel a Wimbledon finalist in the opening set.

Edberg was clueless the entire match. He was unsure about his serve—costantly changing his position on the baseline while returning and even staying back on his second serves.

Even though the Swede played a fine match, the German was too hot to handle.

After two years of disappointment, Becker reclaimed his position in the Center Court by winning his third Wimbledon crown in straight sets, 6-0, 7-6 (1), 6-4.

The rivalry had truly begun and it lived up to its expectation in ’90.

The two players fought off easy semi-finals victories and created history by becoming only the second pair after William Renshaw and Herbert Lawford (1884–1886) to contest three straight Wimbledon finals.

This final was also the best among their three, and both players showed their very top game in parts of the match.

Becker was sleepwalking at the start, and Edberg took full advantage of it by breaking  ‘boom-boom’ four times to take the first two sets, 6-2, 6-2, in less than an hour.

Boris slowly found his serve back and Edberg lost his sheen, as he clawed his way back into the match by winning the next two sets, 6-3, 6-3, to equalize the match. He was on verge of creating history as he would become the first person after Henri Cochet in 1927, to win a Wimbledon after trailing by two sets in the final.

The match became a matter of who served better on the day. Not because of getting free points but because the return games of both players were at their absolute best. The second serves were almost becoming redundant as return winners were being easily pounded across the net.

The fifth set was the best of the match, as the finalists exchanged breaks early on in the set, but Edberg finally held his nerves to sneak the concluding break in the ninth game of the set and comfortably served out for the championship.

The rivalry suffered a tame end after reaching its zenith in ’90 as Edberg lost uncharacteristically to another German Michael Stitch in the semi-finals of ’91, who further went on to claim his maiden Grand Slam by defeating Becker in four.

The two players were never the same after this tournament even though they were still competitive, and never met again in a Grand Slam.

Nevertheless, they provided a fine spectacle of serve-'n'-volley tennis in those three years.

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18 comments Last one added about 11 hours ago — Leave a Comment

  1. ...

    An elegant summation of their Grand Slam rivalry, though I expected to see a bit more of description of their matches.

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      I was torn between providing the match descriptions or providing their styles of play and history - because it was a lot. I chose the latter, but I tried to cover the more important aspects of their matches, like strong return of serves and difference in Becker's play over the three years.

      Thanks, Anand, for the feedback.

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    Splendid work, Rajat! And you are so right: you almost NEVER hear about this rivalry nowadays, but for 3 years, it was as fierce as they come, with nothing less than Wimby titles at stake. Heady stuff.

    You just keep on rolling, my man!

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      The one interesting thing about this rivalry was that Becker heavily led their H2H 25-10, but it was Stefan who had the last laugh as he led 3-1 in GS (including a French '89 SF victory too).

      Thanks, Leroy!

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    Thanks for this history lesson. I keep forgetting what great champion both these players were.

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    What an elegant way to capture not just the contrast in their styles but also their personalities and dispositions. Boy, do I miss serve-volley tennis!
    I remember that 1990 final - I wasn't much of a tennis watcher then but the seesaw was pretty incredible. I have to ditto Claudia on the revisiting of history. All too often, us fans (and by that I mean me ;)) get too caught up in the present and tend to forget how wonderful tennis of yester years was - especially the rivalries. I don't think any of the current ones match up to those in the 80s and 90s.
    Wonderful stuff!

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      After reading your articles on that epic doubles match, one would be delusional to think that you forget about yester years!!

      But yeah, the rivalry was great, I watched the repeat of all three matches one after the other, and it was a brilliant experience!

      Thanks, Karthika!

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    Yes, absolutely agree with Karthika...a brilliant way to nt just capture the game bt their contrasting style n personalities too!!
    Thanks, Rajat again for taking us down memory lane!!! :)

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    supercool article man. Wonder how you know so much about that era. I have just seen highlights of Edberg's brilliance and a few Pete Edberg matches live.Ur articles among the current and sometimes monotonous rafa-roger ones are purely refreshing.

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      Thanks, Vishal. I have a crazy friend in US who's got countless DVDs of matches of the yesteryears. I copied a lot of them from him which is great, and watching them is an amazing experience :)

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    Nicely written Rajat. Loved the flow in the article.

    Edberg, I always felt was beatable and never gave me confidence. Becker was very athletic and was the rockstar in his days.

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      Inconsistency hurt Becker. Thats the only explanation I have for his 3 final defeats (including '91).

      Thanks, Rock.

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    Great Article! What is so surprsing to me about the Edberg/Becker rivalry is that outside of Wimbledon, the rivalry was pretty one sided in favor of Becker (25-10). That has always been a little surprising to me, but at Wimbledon they produced some classic grass court tennis.

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      Yeah, I guess Becker's all round game worked better than Edberg's mostly serve/volley game outside of grass. Though, Edberg did win a 5 setter against Becker in Roland Garros!

      Thanks, Tim.

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    This was definitely worth reading. Like Federer-Nadal today, these men were stark contrasts as players and as personalities, but what they have in common is their grace as sportsmen and their high regard among their peers.

    Nice work, Rajat.

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      Yeah, its amazing how sportsmen with contrasting personalities still manage to have that grace in victory, or defeat.

      Thanks, Rob, for the comment and pick.

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