by Christopher Clarey
Stefan Edberg serving during the 1996 Australian Open, the last of his career
MELBOURNE— If you want to remember Stefan Edberg at his best, remember the 1991 U.S. Open final against Jim Courier. Edberg won that match, 6-2, 6-4, 6-0, and he won it playing sublime attacking tennis, mixing his serves, gliding to the net on the balls of his feet and hitting perfect volleys from above his blond head and below his knees.
On that Sunday in New York, he transformed his risky brand of tennis into something inexorable. He has flirted with that many times in his remarkable career, but he has not flirted with it lately, which is why this will be his final season.
"Whether I end up number 100 in the world or number two or three, this will be it," Edberg said recently when someone asked if renewed success might make him reconsider.
At the moment, Edberg is a distant cry from No. 2 or 3. After 10 consecutive years in the top 10, he fell to No. 23 in 1995 and has not advanced past the fourth round in his last seven Grand Slam events. He has fallen to No.30 coming into the Australian Open, where he has won twice and reached the final on three other occasions.
For much of Tuesday's first-round match against Jiri Novak of the Czech Republic, he looked very much like the Edberg of new, struggling on his serve with the swirling wind on Court No. 1, hitting his approach shots a little too lightly and flubbing groundstrokes without being forced to flub them. But in the end, he conjured up enough wile, guile, first serves and timely volleys to win in five sets against Novak, a rising 20-year-old who grew up with a poster of Edberg on his bedroom wall.
"I felt I was playing uphill most of the way," admitted Edberg, who will have to beat Jean-Philippe Fleurian in the second round on Wednesday if he wants to still be in this tournament when he turns 30 on Friday.
"I always refer to Andres Gómez winning the French Open at 30, so I think I can win another Slam," Edberg said. "There's still a possibility."
The difference is that Gómez was a baseliner who won on clay in 1990, the year Ivan Lendl, the game's No. 1 player, skipped the French to focus on Wimbledon. It is difficult to imagine Edberg, his serve no longer a major weapon and his volleys no longer rock solid, streaking all the way to the title in Melbourne with every member of the top 10 present.
Tennis is a difficult sport for a farewell tour. Always hyperindividualistic — and now hypercompetitive, particularly on the men's side in this era of massive money and exposure —tennis is unforgiving of those who slip. There is no way to protect the weak and famous, other than to put them on a show court at the hour of their choosing. A soccer player or American baseball player with fading skills can shift to a less taxing position. A golfer can get lost in the field before missing the cut.
But a fading tennis player is alone against his opponent, and a string of early-round losses is no way to make a dignified exit. Martina Navratilova pulled off her farewell tour with great panache, reaching the 1994 Wimbledon final in her final year as a singles player. But most of the other modern stars have simply departed with little advance notice, like Bjorn Borg or Lendl, or drifted slowly from their sport without ever making their retirements completely official, like John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Yannick Noah.
Edberg will do it differently. He will do it formally and over an entire season, which is quite out of character considering that he has never reveled in the spotlight or in the sort of public self-analysis that such a prolonged good-bye will inevitably demand of him. Edberg, like Sampras, has never cultivated the aura of a star. Unlike McEnroe, he has not been fiery or willfully controversial. Unlike Andre Agassi, he has not been terribly glib or prone to sartorial excess. Unlike Lendl, he has never been haughty or driven to the point of hollow-cheeked asceticism.
If you asked players about Edberg during his glory years in the late '80s and early '90s, they would almost universally mention his lack of affectation; his utter normalcy. But there clearly was a flame burning steadily beneath his equanimous Swedish exterior. You don't play in 51 consecutive Grand Slam events (an Open-era record) without uncommon drive and uncommon pride.
Part of the reason for Edberg's decision to announce his departure so far ahead of time was certainly motivational. "I am going to try to get back in the top 10," he said. "That will be one of my goals along with doing well at the Grand Slams and producing top quality tennis. That is how I want to finish off, on a high note because I don't want to have the continued sliding."
Another reason was that Edberg wants to raise money, not for himself (although he certainly could benefit financially from the increased attention) but for the foundation he has launched to help support promising tennis players in Sweden.
"I am going to ask each of the tournaments that I am playing to make a small donation, or a big one if they like," said Edberg, who put in $300,000 of his own money on Jan. 1. "I will try to be as involved as I can this year.Obviously, I will play a full schedule in 1996, but I will take even more interest in 1997."
Edberg already has a stake in the future, and on Tuesday as he toiled under the summer sky, his 2-year-old daughter, Emilie, sat courtside in the lap of a family friend and drew a picture of a sun. She will have been too young to remember watching her father on a tennis court. But she will always have videotape, hopefully of him at his best on that September day in New York in 1991.