from World Tennis
by Steve Flink
Where there's Becker and Edberg, there's sure to be fireworks. Especially at Wimbledon.
Here was Stefan Edberg surprising Boris Becker in four sets in the 1988 final. There was Boris avenging that loss in straight sets the following year. Last year the brawny German and the graceful Swede collided in their third consecutive final, with Edberg holding on in a memorable five-setter. And so the stage is set again for the two top-ranked players in the world to continue their scintillating series on Centre Court. What are the chances that the game's two greatest grass court players will meet in Becker-Edberg IV?
"If they're seeded 1 and 2, which they presumably will be, there is a very, very good chance they will get back to the final again," answers John Lloyd, the 1977 Australian Open finalist and two-time Wimbledon mixed doubles champion. "Looking at it realistically, there are only five or six people who can win Wimbledon, and that's being generous."
Lloyd considers Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras and John McEnroe legitimate contenders, but he clearly has a higher regard for Boris and Stefan when it comes to playing on grass. The coach of 1989 Wimbledon semifinalist Catarina Lindqvist envisions an unclutered path for the two champions in the early rounds.
"There aren't that many people who could tag them out in the first three rounds," Lloyd reasons, "Guys who could be dangerous - David Wheaton, for example - should all be seeded so the earliest Becker and Edberg should meet guys like that is the round of 16. Once Boris and Stefan get to that stage of the tournament they're in a groove. Perhaps Kevin Curren [1985 runnerup] or Tim Mayotte [six-time quarterfinalist] could do something big in the first two rounds, but it's doubtful."
Lloyd's opinions are seconded by none other than Rod Laver. The game's only two-time Grand Slam champion and a four-time Wimbledon titlist (1961, '62, '68 and '69), Laver has nothing but the highest praise for Becker and Edberg. "They are right up there with the greatest players I've seen on grass," says the Rocket. "They have the experience it takes to win Wimbledon, and I think they could very well rehash it again this year. But somebody new might slip into the final against Boris or Stefan. Somebody could come along and hit a purple patch."
"The guy I see being most capable of doing that is Sampras," suggests Lloyd. "Even though I can't rate his chances as high as Becker's or Edberg's, he can do some astounding things on the volley and no one can serve more aces. He'll believe he's got a shot at it, so then you just wonder how he'll fire when the time comes. It will be interesting to watch him."
But while Lloyd will look at players like Sampras and Wheaton with considerable interest, he is decidedly skeptical about the quality of grass court play he sees these days from all but a few players. In fact, he came away from last year's Wimbledon wondering what had happened to the great grass court game so prevalent in his time.
"Some of the people who were winning second-round matches were just awful," he recalls. "They had no technique, they stayed back on both first and second serves, they didn't know how to hit a slice backhand approach shot, and they basically didn't know how to volley. A number of people I play with in the 35s could have won two rounds last year at Wimbledon, depending on their draws. I was just astounded at how bad the grass court standard has become."
"I would basically agree with that," says Laver. "There isn't much grass tennis these days, and most players don't know how to play on it. They're playing clay court tennis or hard court tennis or whatever it is, but it isn't grass court tennis. But the beauty of it is that they're all in the same boat because so few of them know what they're doing."
That's understandable, to an extent. Up until 1975, three of the "Big Four" were grass court festivals. Now the Australian and US Opens are hard court events. Only Wimbledon has remained true to God's green earth. Given those circumstances, most of the players in the top 100 have neither the time nor the inclination to do anything about their flagrant grass court weaknesses.
That should only make Becker and Edberg more secure. So many more players have the ammunition to do serious damage on clay at Roland Garros and on Deco-Turf at Flushing Meadows. The community is much more closed at the All England Club. Few would debate that point. And few would question the supreme confidence built up by Becker and Edberg over the years.
The numbers tell the story, Edberg has taken two of the last three titles. Becker has appeared in five of the last six finals, winning three times. Both are tailor-made for grass. Both are in their prime (Becker is 23, Edberg 25).
"Every year at Wimbledon I'm asked who's going to win, and I always say Becker," Lloyd says. "I've done it the last five years and I'll do it again this year. His [grass court] game seems like it's made in heaven."
Yet Lloyd concedes he was surprised by Becker's inability to complete what would have been an astonishing comeback in the 1990 final. Boris had been routed in the first two sets before storming back to win the next two and take a 3-1 lead in the fifth, only to falter at that crucial moment in the match. But Lloyd believes Becker has put that agonizing defeat behind him and argues that the German's Australian Open victory, at the start of this year will take the pressure off him at Wimbledon.
"Winning the Australian was big for Boris," Lloyd points out. "Becker and Edberg relate the success of their year to how well they do in the Grand Slams, and Becker grabbed the first title."
Laver also gives the edge to Becker, based on his being the challenger rather than the champion. "It's harder to defend a title than it is to challenge for it," Laver says. "You come back in a frame of mind where you say, 'I'll prove I can win this damned thing again: Boris should have a more aggressive outlook this time."
"If Boris is on, his strengths overpower Stefan's," insists Lloyd. "Stefan has a pretty reliable 65-percent first-serve percentage, gets in tight and has a very good first volley. Boris can get 60 percent of his first serves in and no one's going to beat him. He has days when he slips to 30 to 40 percent and even then not many people can beat him on grass, but Edberg certainly can."
Lloyd enjoys Becker-Edberg matches from a purely teehnical standpoint. "To me," Lloyd says, "it's very exciting because you never know who's going to come out blazing. They both have great backhands, but Edberg's is slightly better. Edberg is by far the better volleyer in terms of technique, but when Boris is on he has a more forceful serve and his groundstrokes are more powerful."
Despite his psychological rationale for picking Becker," Laver is in some ways more impressed with Edberg as a tennis player. "Edberg has more finesse than Becker," argues Laver. "Stefan has the ability to use chips and lobs and hard returns to keep his opponents off balance. Stefan is more of a certainty to come through in matches where things are going wrong, while Boris seems to have the mentality that he's going to blast away and see what happens. And usually he gets away with it."
It is Becker's explosiveness that makes Laver applaude and shake his head at the same time. "I feel Edberg may be a better grass court player than Becker," he says, "but Boris has the strength and ability to whack returns and put a lot of pressure on you. You never know what's going to happen,"
So what will happen if Becker at his very best meets Edberg at the height of his game in a fourth consecutive Wimbledon final? "It's very difficult to separate them in those circumstances," answers Lloyd. "But if they play you have to come back to power and the mental side. Becker has an edge in both departments. At his very best, Becker could knock Edberg off in straight sets, which I don't think Edberg can do to Becker. Edberg would have to go four or five sets."
It would seem so. In 1988 Edberg came from behind to beat Becker in a rain-delayed, four-set final. Last year it took him five. In '89 Becker belted Edberg off the court in straight sets. Furthermore, Becker has ruled the rivalry rather comfortably, holding a 17-10 career edge at last count. Yet that statistic is somewhat misleading. On paper, Becker should have won two of those three Wimbledon
finals from Edberg; he won only one. And Becker has lost on two other occasions when the stakes were high: in a five-set 1989 French Open semifinal on clay, and later that year in the final of the Nabisco Masters.
There are other factors as well. Edberg has grown decidedly as a competitor and as a match player. His consistency on fast surfaces has improved dramatically in the past year. And while Edberg once seemed to fear Becker, clearly that is no longer the case.
Already, the two have set a Wimbledon record, becoming the first male duo since the abolishment of the Challenge Round in 1922 to meet in three straight finals. (Among the women only Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, from 1987-'89, have collided in three straight finals.) No doubt Sampras, Wheaton and a few others will be heard from, but it is difficult to imagine anyone other than Becker and Edberg having the final say.
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