Stefan Edberg, still golden, still polite, still with a touch at the net like a feather, stood at one end of the court.
Pat Rafter, exuding bonhomie, hair cropped short with that tiny white flash on the crown, still the most nimble of volleyers, stood at the other.
It was a match made in heaven.
They had met just three times before, almost 15 years ago. Edberg was about to retire while Rafter was just coming of age on the Tour. Edberg won all three matches.
So this week’s rematch, their first since those brief encounters, promised to be special.
That they were contending for the final tennis trophy of the year at the Aegon Masters, in the picturesque oval elegance of London’s Royal Albert Hall, added still more lustre to the event. What better way to end the 2009 tennis season than with two of the most renowned exponents of the serve-and-volley game in the Open era?
Edberg’s tennis graced the world’s courts from the moment he became the first winner of the Junior Grand Slam in 1983 until his retirement in 1996. It was a decade that glowed with his elegant play.
He could sweep into the net behind a strong, swinging serve and reach effortlessly for whatever return happened to arrive.
His volley did not require huge power, placed as it was with swift and deft economy to the most out-of-reach segment of the court. Should the return arrive near his feet, he would simply reach down and touch it into space.
His ground strokes, too, were clean and piercing. Always single-handed on the backhand, and with an unusually short follow-through, the Edberg racket finished like a conductor’s baton lifted in front of his body: minimal spin, maximum accuracy.
So eye-catching was his tennis that Edberg became the role model for many an aspiring player. Roger Federer has frequently referred to his influence—which is beginning to show itself in Federer's own fluid net game.
Another fan was a young Rafter who was just climbing the men’s rankings as Edberg contemplated hanging up his racket.
Rafter went on to assume Edberg’s mantle, delighting tennis aficionados with his mobile, flexible, and creative net game. Also with a single-handed backhand, a deep and swinging serve, and effortless volleying, the Edberg inheritance was handed over to the Australian.
Rafter’s admiration clearly continues unabated. His words—“Edberg was my idol”—may have made this week’s audience burst into laughter, but it was heartfelt. The respect in his voice was palpable.
They have something else in common. Both are renowned for their decency: Edberg won the ATP award for sportsmanship so many times that they named it after him, while Rafter gave half his winnings from his two U.S. Open victories to charity.
And in this match, they would constantly acknowledge the good shots of the other, or apologise for some unseen misdemeanor such as a slight edge-of-frame on a winner.
So here we were, this historic venue filled to the brim with fans old and new, to watch the 36-year-old Ozzie face his idol, the 43-year-old Swede.
It was not blood-and-guts tennis, with cannon-ball serves followed by bullet-fast volleys. It was strong, perfectly placed serving followed by mathematical volleys driven effortlessly into any part of the court. It gave time to revel in the mechanics of the shot-making and the grace of the execution.
Edberg, tall, willowy, boasting the best legs in the business, began by serving a storm, rushing in to pick off returned shots with crisp diagonal volleys.
Rafter, of a sturdier and darker build, responded in kind. His serve, too, is in the 110 mph range, but his quick follow-up applies rather more action on the ball, slice keeping some volleys down, top-spin whipping them wide.
One of the delights of such net-attacking tennis is the pressure it places on the base-line receiver to come up with immaculate passing shots. These two men, great at the net, both know just what it takes to pass someone like themselves.
Edberg’s running forehand pass to break Rafter in the fourth game had both players tumbling outside the tram lines, one in his effort to make the shot, the other attempting to cut it off.
So while the rallies tended to be short and compact—five or six shots was around the average—every element was perfectly executed. Points were won rather than lost.
The pace in between points was also quick, no selection of the best ball but simply taking the first proffered by the ball girls.
This did not mean that the simple courtesies were forgotten. Both men have a patient, unhurried body language, and batted the balls to the right end of the court, thanked the girls for their towels, served after just a couple of bounces.
Their calm pace threw into greater relief the speed with which both men silently glided to the net, how early they took the return of serve, how easily they retreated for overheads or rushed in to retrieve drop shots. It all looked effortless, but of course was not.
Accidents happen when a ball and two men are moving around the net at such close quarters. In one incident, Rafter caught Edberg in the chest with a volley and the latter pretended to be poleaxed. Rafter rushed across to the prostrate Edberg and made as if to give him artificial respiration.
Questioned about it afterwards, Edberg said “That was something I need to think about, but I’d better do it later!”
As if to add icing to this Christmas cake of a match, the men fought a very tight contest. Edberg squeezed out the first set 7-6, and Rafter came back strong in the second, 7-5.
By now, though, the stresses were beginning to show on Edberg, who had played a tough three-setter against Greg Rusedski only 18 hours earlier. In contrast, the younger Rafter had played only seven games more than 24 hours before, due to Goran Ivanisevic’s retirement with injury.
Edberg began to stretch his shoulders and back while Rafter seemed to grow in energy, and the deciding Champions Tiebreak went Rafter’s way, 11-9.
And it seemed somehow right that, having failed to wreak proper revenge on his 2001 Wimbledon nemesis the day before, Rafter was able to take his first win from the man he admires so much.
The award ceremony could not have been warmer or more full of mutual admiration—little surprise there.
Rafter said that, as a teenager, he so loved to watch Edberg play that he decided to play that way himself. It was a great compliment from one champion to another.
Here’s another compliment. Whether or not the tennis between these two players produced the best, as well as the last, match of the year was not important. For many spectators in London—and with apologies to Roger and Rafa, Andy and Novak—it was certainly one of the most enjoyable.