STEFAN EDBERG-TONY PICKARD... A little like the Rafael and Toni Nadal of the 80s-90s, a mythical duo with slightly (and deliciously) vintage reflections today. More than 20 years after the retirement of the Swedish player, that also marked the one of the British coach, both retain a brilliant form, and a magnificent complicity. Discretion not being the least of their qualities, their word remains very rare. For Tennis Magazine, they made an exception. For almost an hour, we have redone the match with them. And we feasted.
Tennis Magazine: Do you remember your first meeting and your debut together?
Stefan Edberg: Yes, we met in England, through Wilson, our common sponsor. I must have been 16 or 17 years old. At the time, I was working with Percy Rosberg (the man with whom he had changed his two handed backhand to move to a single-handed one, editor's note), a coach who had collaborated with a lot of young Swedish players, especially Björn Borg, but who did not really have experience on the circuit.
Tony Pickard: Specifically, it was in 1983, occasionally at the Bournemouth tournament. I had already seen Stefan play before, he was a very promising young player, but I did not know him personally. We have immediately hooked. I never imagined at the time that I would pass so many years on the road by his side. It will remain an amazing experience to have been able to work with someone like him. He was extremely easy to coach. He was listening, he had this incredible ability to assimilate and execute immediately what we had previously discussed about. In more than fifteen years, I don’t think that we have argued once. It was a beautiful time, too. After McEnroe and Connors, gentlemen had taken over the game. And Stefan was the first of these "new" gentlemen.
But, basically, that made this duo work so well?
T. P.: The secret is that we trusted and believed in each other. That is surely the reason why we have never had "words" all this time. There have been a lot of discussions. Our relationship was not a dictatorship. It was a construction over the long term. On the other hand, this is the problem that a lot of coaches face today. They are there for three months, then it's over. You can not build anything this way.
How would you describe your relationship? That of a father and a son?
S. E.: Practically, yes. A very strong relationship, anyway. When you go more than ten years alongside someone on the Tour, you do not just talk about tennis. It was very useful to be able to rely on someone who had so much experience as a player, a coach, but also on the "business" side. For my parents too, who did not speak English, it was reassuring to be able to count on him. Tony has always been very protective. Thanks to him, I was able to focus on my game and this has contributed a lot to my success. It's true that we do not see many long-term relationship on the Tour. It's not easy, because you have to find the right person.
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What are the worst and best moments that you lived together?
S. E.: I'll start with the worst... Of course the final of the 1989 Roland Garros lost against Chang. I was so close... At the moment, I was sure I would have more opportunities to win the French Open, but my chance has never come again. It was a terrible defeat. A match that I should have won, probably. Afterwards, I can not speak either of "bad memory". Rather, of a "difficult" memory.
Beside that, my first title at Wimbledon (in 1988, editor's note) was the most special moment. I grew up watching Björn Borg align his successes, I have always dreamed of imitating him. So to achieve it one day inevitably stands a little above the rest. In contrast, the best match of my career was the final of the 1991 US Open, when I beat Jim Courier in three sets. That day, I played almost the perfect match. All seemed simple, easy. And it happened in a Grand Slam final day!
T. P.: For me, the most special moment was the first Grand Slam title Stefan won at the Australian Open in 1985. The beginning of a story. I found him in the locker room after the final. There was no more people. I can not describe how good it was to find him there, sit by his side having won one of the most prestigious tournaments in the world.
Tony, how did you react when Stefan became a coach himself, and what's more, Federer's...
T.P .: I sincerely think that Stefan has "resurrected" Federer's career. Roger was in trouble. He reinjected the small "thing" that made everything go away.
S. E.: I do not know! I would have never thought to get back to the Tour as a coach. Roger gave me this opportunity. He is probably the only player I would have agreed to return for. That's what happened. We spent two beautiful seasons (2014 and 2015, editor's note), during which we were able to work on everything we had planned. He was looking for something new. He came out of a complicated year, during which he had suffered a lot on his back. He had the courage to make radical decisions. In a way, it was like starting from scratch, he appealed to me to support Severin (Lüthi), without whom, let's remark it, I couldn't have done anything. He has changed racket by opting for a larger frame, a very smart decision. With his old model, he would have had no chance at the level where he is still today. And, little by little, he found the joy of playing again, health and then confidence. He really played very well during these two seasons. The only thing that "went wrong" was that he found himself against a Djokovic at his peak. Without Novak, he could have won two or three Grand Slams during this time lapse. Finally, he managed to triumph again in a Major at the 2017 Australian Open. Without me (smile)! But it was really nice to spend these two years on the circuit, and rather fascinating to work with a champion of his caliber.
Did you really push him to go more to the net, to be more aggressive?
S. E.: Roger already had his own idea about the way he wanted to evolve his game. He wanted to return to a more offensive tennis, to play more inside the court, to be more unpredictable. All the world, and he first, knew that it was going to be more and more complicated to beat Nadal, Djokovic and Murray from the baseline. In tennis, the more we age, the more we feel the need to control the rally. It is through this evolution process he found the passion and that he began to believe in himself. What's fascinating with Roger is this permanent desire to progress, to question himself. It is the main reason he is still there. After 20 years of career at this level, it's pretty amazing...
T.P .: Amazing, that's the word. In fact, he always has the "desire". Not only the desire to go and play big matches on big courts, but simply the desire to go and work on a small training court. It's extraordinary, after all he did, to always have this flame.
Stefan, what has been the most stressful for you: to play a Wimbledon final as a player or as a coach?
S. E.: I think it's more stressful to be in the box! The problem is we are passive, we can not do very much, apart from shouting or encouraging. Even when it's hot and you sweat big drops, you have to stay there without moving, it's not easy (laughs) At least on the court, you have the freedom of your movements, you have the feeling of being able to control a little more what's going on.
T.P .: As soon as the player leaves the locker room, you have only one thing left to do: pray! Your part of the job is done. The player should do his. In the end, a coach exists only by his player. He can do the best job in the world, but if the player doesn't do his part, it's useless.
Stefan, to go back to Federer's game, he was playing serve&volley at the beginning of his career, like you. When you see how he has evolved his tennis to become an "all-court" player, do you have any regrets to not have had the same evolution, that may have allowed you to extend your career?
S. E.: The main reason why the careers are longer today is the knowledge that we have of high level tennis. Players and their entourage know much better how to take care of their bodies, optimize their diet, manage their schedule by doing more breaks than in my days. I played six consecutive Davis Cup finals, which means that for six seasons I have played from January to December without ever stopping. Physically, I could have pushed a few more years. But mentally, I was "burnt". We often speak of the heaviness of the calendar today, but look at the seasons what we were doing at that time...
In any case, if you were to play today, you should probably play more from the baseline to stay competitive at the highest level.
S. E.: Yes, that's certain... My design of tennis was to finish the point as quickly as possible using the court like in a game of chess. A ball here, here and there, and hop, checkmate! Today, the rallies are longer, there is a more important physical dimension. The evolution of the material, strings in particular, made the ball easier to control, and the players return better. So yes, it's obvious that I should play so different. Let's say that instead of coming to the net 90% of the times I would do it from 30 to 70% only, depending on the opponent and on the surface. I would strive to practice a more unpredictable tennis. I think it's the evolution of the game. There are still 4-5 years in which everyone will play from the baseline. Today, we are starting to see a few more variations. Tennis is on the right way again.
T. P.: Maybe but if we look at the overall evolution of tennis in recent years, the game has not won in quality. Compared to my time or Stefan's, everything is certainly better: the venues, the organization of the Tour, the conditions... But the game has lost in variation. I have the impression that players play rallies like if they were practicing. We see very little trying to "surprise" the opponent by unforeseen blows. Most knock, run and wait for the error.
What is the greatest feat in the history of the game according to you?
T.P .: I will say the six Grand Slam titles won by my friend here (laughs)! No, more seriously, I think what Federer has accomplished is out of the ordinary. Especially since he does everything with such apparent ease... Nadal sometimes gives the impression of being a bull. Roger, he seems to float.
S. E.: There have been huge champions: Laver, Borg, McEnroe, Lendl... But what Federer and Nadal are doing is beyond of all. If we take all the criteria, Federer may be a bit above. But Nadal's eleven Roland-Garros titles will never happen again, not in my lifetime in any case! With Djokovic and Murray, this generation is fantastic, we will probably have not more like this one.
On your side, do we agree to say that Boris Becker is your greatest rival?
S. E.: Yes, clearly. It's against him that I played most of my biggest matches (3 consecutive Wimbledon finals between 1988 and 1990, record later matched by Federer-Nadal, editor's note). Few people know it, but the first time we played each other, it was in the first round of Junior Wimbledon in 1983. And I won (6-2, 6-4, editor's note)!
Do you still play today?
S. E.: Yes, sometimes. But I do not do serve&volley (laughs)! Or once sometimes. It's hard physically. Some think it's more demanding to play from the bottom. I do not really agree. When you play serve&volley you don't only make a longer distance going from the service line to the net, but you also need to cover it more quickly. This requires a great explosiveness.
What advice would you give to amateurs who want to play serve&volley?
S. E.: I would say to care particularly for the placement of their serve and their footwork. It's about reaching the service line square the fastest possible and, once there, to brake before playing the volley, which many forget. Then there is a part of anticipation and improvisation that is learned with experience. It's hard to describe or explain, it's more like something you feel. And for that, you need to get used to playing serve&volley from the youngest age. It can not be improvised at 30 years old. To control the serve&volley remains very profitable. It's a weapon you need to have in your game, to surprise your opponent. All the best do it. Look at Rafa... They say he's a baseline player. In fact, he is one of the best volleyers on the Tour.
Since several years, Stefan Edberg (52) returned to live in Sweden, Vaxjö, where he meets other players from his generation like Jan Gunnarsson or Magnus Larsson. He remains involved in tennis especially through his foundation that aims to financially help young promising Swedish players. He is also engaged in several "business" activities, in real estate and finance. As for Tony Pickard, after many years on the Tour, as a player and then Davis Cup captain (in particular), at 84, he enjoys a peaceful retirement home in Great Britain, on the edge of the Forest of Sherwood (near Sheffield) dear to Robin Hood!
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