In the Zone with Stefan Edberg
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Stefan Bengt Edberg is, by almost any measure, a true tennis legend.
The Swede won all four Junior major titles in 1983, the first player to win the Junior Grand Slam.
He added six Slams in singles and three more in doubles after turning pro in late 1983.
His career arc had some remarkable spikes.
As one of the very last true serve-and-volley specialists in the history of modern tennis, Edberg took to the grass like no one since a young Boris Becker, with whom the Swede had a scintillating rivalry on the hallowed lawns of London.
By degrees, Edberg eclipsed his fellow Swede and periodic doubles partner, Anders Järryd, as the linear successor to Borg as the standard-bearer of Nordic tennis greats, only to be eclipsed himself by the phenomenon of Mats Wilander, who won Slams in 1983-’84 and then had a season for the ages in 1988.
Edberg won his first major in 1985 at the Australian Open (felling the back-sliding Wilander). He defended the Oz title in 1987 (the tournament was not held in ’86), in the final AO played on grass.
Stefan engaged in one of the most riveting trifecta of Wimbledon finals, meeting Becker every year from 1988 to 1990, winning the first and then the rubber match in ‘90.
Oddly enough, he never won a major on grass again.
At a crossroads in the late ‘80s, Edberg was nothing more than a poor candidate for the Hall of Fame. He had never been able to surpass the indomitable Ivan the Terrible (Lendl) for the world No. 1 ranking, and appeared obsolete before the onslaught of the tenacious Wilander.
All of that changed on August 13, 1990, when Edberg, at the somewhat advanced age (by tennis standards) of 24, ascended to the rank of world No. 1, supplanting Lendl.
He continued to go into grass court tournaments as a prohibitive favorite, yet his late career renaissance was fueled by increasingly good results on hard courts.
It was on the asphalt of Flushing Meadows, New York in 1991, however, that Edberg had his brush with immortality that causes us to feature him today.
Edberg had been surpassed in the rankings by Becker, and Boom Boom came into the USO as the No. 1 seed; followed by Edberg, Michael Stich, Jim Courier, Lendl, and Pete Sampras, the defending men’s champion.
That’s five Hall of Famer’s plus Stich, who was never a slouch and was particularly dangerous on a fast track.
Stefan built momentum as he advanced through his quarter of the draw. By the time he humbled Lendl in the semis, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4, little did anyone know what the Swedish wunderkind had in store next.
Opposing him was Jim Courier, one of the best retrievers of his era. Courier was one of the transition figures from the multi-faceted tennis of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s to the staid, power-baseline generation of today.
After each man held his serve, Courier fell behind love-40 in the third game. He fought back determinedly to deuce, the first of seven in the game. Courier squandered four ad-points and fended off two breaks points before finally succumbing to the break.
In the next service game, the Swede’s movement and anticipation were uncanny, and he held at love, taking a 3-1 lead in the first set. Three holds later, Edberg broke once again to race to a commanding 5-2 lead. He then held at love to take the first set, 6-2.
Stefan was in total control of the proceedings. He was taking a bit of speed off his first serve, but increasing the spin. Early in the set, he was probing Courier’s backhand almost exclusively, but the American adjusted and started whipping two-handed vipers.
So Edberg took to mixing it up more thoroughly, and often caught Courier leaning the wrong way on serves and approaches, leaving Jim to block balls back weakly. This left Courier vulnerable to the Swede’s precision volleys, which were landing unerringly wherever the fourth-seed was not.
So “in the zone” was Edberg that he just lost five points on his own serve in set No. 1.
To begin the second set, Courier began mumbling to himself as his opponent turned up the heat a few more notches. Jim was confronted by aggressive chip-and-charge approach on his own serve, with well-placed volleys that constantly left him on the defensive.
In the third game of the set, the Scandinavian master toyed with his rival’s game plan, mixing in a chip-and-charge strategy, while sometimes content to engage Courier in rallies.
This befuddled Courier, who responded to the constantly changing tactics by flailing away, and played into Edberg's strategy by making errors.
At 15-30, the American double-faulted. At 15-40, Edberg once again feigned a net rush, then delayed coming forward until after a deep approach forced Courier to open up the court. Edberg’s forehand volley pushed Courier wide to Jim’s forehand side, and the weak return led to a crisp backhand volley that Edberg whipped crosscourt for the break.
Courier tried everything. He clubbed dipping pass attempts at Edberg’s shins; the Swede feathered volleys with insane degrees of difficulty and into very small areas for points.
Courier’s heavy, flat forehand was easy prey for the Edberg volley; his two-handed backhand was actually quite sturdy on the day, but simply not good enough.
The fourth-seeded American lifted several gorgeous lobs, some offensive, some defensive; time and again, Stefan craned his body at seemingly impossible angles, rocketing hooks and slams for points.
One sequence late in the second set illustrated just how zoned in Edberg was this day.
All afternoon, Edberg held serve at love an astonishing number of times; leading 5-4, he was actually down 15-30. As Courier ripped a blistering two-handed backhand return right at the Swede’s shins, it appeared that we were moments from seeing 15-40.
The on-rushing Edberg, who had barely made it inside the service line, calmly dropped his racket and wrenched a wicked crosscourt backhand volley that skidded just in.
This left the American no recourse but to shake his head as he prepared to receive serve.
Courier commented on this ultra-critical point after the match.
“It was like, ‘Wow, what are you going to do?'", he intoned. “It was, you know, one of those shots that you see on the tapes that Laver made 20 years ago. Not too many players are going to make that shot against me.”
At 30-30, Edberg’s volley attempt was wide, and he faced his first break point of the day.
Up came another twisting serve, which Courier gave a mighty blast. With the ball at knee level, Edberg sent a nasty volley right back at his foe. Jim countered with a beautiful offensive lob, which Stefan calmly leapt and deposited far out of Courier’s reach.
Jim Courier was caught on camera trudging back to return the next offering, and he clearly mouthed the word “Bullsh*t” in disgust. He surely should have broken the Swede on that sequence; Edberg was just on fire.
Shortly thereafter, Courier hit a brilliant, twisting backhand defensive lob. The net-rushing Edberg had to slam on his brakes and reverse direction, neck craned and eyes tracking the trajectory of the ball.
Given the angle of attack, Courier astutely headed toward his forehand court; there was no way the Swede was going to be able to attack Courier’s backhand this time.
Sure enough, Stefan elevated and rocketed a sky-hook that by any rights should have dumped into the net.
But Stefan Edberg was in the zone.
The slam lasered just inside the court, only a step or so in front of a motoring Courier. Advantage, Edberg.
He then slammed only his third ace of the day, right down the “T,” just inches below the flailing racquet of Courier, to win the second set, 6-4.
Jim Courier’s shoulders slumped in clear dismay as he muttered and cursed, pondering how he could possibly play so well and be down two sets to none.
The third set was more of the same...only worse for Courier, who turned to a serve-and-volley attack out of sheer desperation.
Edberg had broken his spirit, and broke his serve at love to begin the third. He then held at love to go up, 2-0.
A break and a hold ensued, both at 30, and just like that, the Swede held a daunting 4-0 lead in the final set.
Courier led 40-30 on his own serve, but his fourth double-fault led to deuce, and an error along with two missed volleys gave Edberg a 5-love advantage.
The Swede rushed to 40-15, and on match point, the Courier return of serve caught the tape, throwing of Stefan’s rhythm as he had to wait for the ball to bounce.
He gathered himself, and scooped a backhand, swinging half-volley—which has a very high degree of difficulty, though he made it look incredibly easy—and the American couldn’t catch up with it.
The third set was over in just over 30 minutes.
This completed his 1991 U.S. Open finals victory, 6-2, 6-4, 6-0, one of the most dominating performances in Flushing Meadows history.
The numbers tell the tale. The Swede never lost his serve, faced only two break points—both of which he promptly saved—won 51-of-66 points on his serve on the day, and broke Courier six times.
He further smacked 36 wins against just 18 unforced errors, and ventured to net 94 times, winning 68 points there.
“It was the best match I ever played,” Edberg said afterward. “It was like a dream out there. I (felt) like I could do almost anything. It’s fantastic you can actually play such a good match in a Grand Slam final without losing your concentration once.”
Courier was laconic in defeat.
“I've been pummeled before, but. . .”
When pressed, his simple reply was, “Nothing you could do.”
Edberg’s victory was made all the sweeter by his first round dismissal at the USO just one year before, at the hands of Alexander Volkov. Only Mal Anderson, way back in 1957, made such a dramatic turnaround.
“It is really hard to believe,” he said in both disbelief and glee. “I mean, it really is something to win it here, you know, after what happened last year and the last couple of years where New York hasn’t been the greatest place for my tennis.”
The late Arthur Ashe explained in simple terms how Edberg had accomplished such an astonishing dismantling of a great baseliner.
“Edberg's full-court pressure was relentless, precise and effective,” he began. “The new Open champion has the best volley, best overhead smash and best backhand in the game.
“His strategy on all surfaces is centered on getting to the net as soon as possible. Thus he takes advantage of any opening to approach the front court.
“During normal baseline exchanges, Courier can expect his opponents to trade ground strokes with him until a shot lands short in the service court. But for 2 hours 2 minutes Sunday, Courier had to try more passing shots than ground strokes.”
“Edberg had been in the so-called "zone" (when an athlete can do no wrong) since the fourth round, when he dispatched Michael Chang in straight sets. In this mind-set, he believed he could do anything at any time. He tried shots that usually qualify as risky, and they worked.” (Parentheses Ashe’s.)
This did not, in Ashe’s mind, take away from Courier’s prowess.
“Still, Courier has had a phenomenal year,” he summed up. “He is reigning French Open champion and is one of two U.S. men who can presently win major championships on any surface. Andre Agassi is the other one who can, but hasn't as yet. (He did, of course.)
“Although Agassi has garnered more headlines, Courier may well be the anchor in the Davis Cup semifinal against Germany in Kansas City later this month.”
Edberg stayed in the world number one conversation for more than a year after this historic victory. He retired in 1996 with $20,630,941 (eighth all-time in career earnings), a career mark of 806–270 (74.9%) and 42 tournament titles.
He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2004.
All Courier and Edberg quotes can be found here: Courier Gets Bested by Edberg U.S. Open, by Thomas Bonk, L. A. Times, September 9, 1991
Arthur Ashe quotes can be found here: EDBERG'S FINAL DOMINANCE DOESN'T DIMINISH COURIER, by Arthur Ashe, September 10, 1991
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