Stefan, The Gentle Champion
I became an accidental fan of Stefan Edberg. While looking for a player whose game I wanted to follow, I noticed a familiar pattern. This certain Swedish player was always making it to the finals of tournaments. Stefan had that wonderful Scandinavian temperament – the downcast demeanor, the deadpan humor, the quiet disposition. He intrigued me and I began to appreciate and admire his game and followed his career with interest throughout his career.
It was the US Open quarterfinals and the year was 1996; it was Stefan Edberg playing and he was in his farewell year on the tour. I was working at the time and was trying to get home in time to see his last match. I didn’t make it and it was probably a good thing that I didn’t because I would have been in tears.
I remember that year’s US Open clearly because every time Stefan took the court everyone was hoping that would not be his final match. Stefan was my favorite player. I had no other favorite players at the time. He was the player whose career I followed after John McEnroe retired from the game. Johnny Mac and Stefan were the two exceptions to the rule on the tennis tour. They were pure serve and volley players.
Many others attempted to follow in their footsteps by mixing a little serve and volley in their games. But none were as successful as Stefan and John at playing this classic style. Ironically both players have the distinction of being the only two players who held the number one ranking in both singles and doubles. Where John McEnroe was a brash New Yorker, Stefan Edberg was as cool as a Scandinavian winter.
One of the many tennis matches I call my favorite is Stefan’s US Open final in 1991 against Jim Courier. I remember being extremely apprehensive that day because with Stefan’s record against Courier, I just knew Courier would probably be the victor. Imagine my surprise when Stefan produced the best tennis match I had ever seen him play. He was in the zone that day and produced a match I still watch today.
The Stefan Edberg / Boris Becker rivalry was just as riveting back in the nineties as the Federer / Nadal matches today. The Wimbledon finals three years in a row between the players are among my favorite Wimbledon matches. The contrast between the fiery German and the stoic Swede provided much interest. Stefan was a mild mannered gentleman sportsman of the game. I think it was very fitting that the ATP honored him by naming the sportsmanship trophy after him.
The day I heard he had played his final tournament on the tour, I felt as if it would be hard for me to form an attachment to any other player on the tour. While I was happy he was moving on and had achieved much success in his career, I was going to miss watching him play. I stopped watching the men’s game for a bit after he retired because I knew we would not see a player like him again for a long time. I mourned the loss of a very special tennis player, a true gentleman and a great sportsman.
Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Stefan!
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