Wimbledon Rivalries: Elegance vs. Charisma

Rajat JainSenior Analyst IJune 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.