by Peter Bodo
LONDON -- When Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer meet in Sunday's Wimbledon final, it will be just one of the rivalries rekindled on Centre Court.
A short lob from where top-seeded Djokovic and No. 2 Federer will clash for the 40th time (Federer holds a slim lead of 20-19), Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg will be sitting a mere 10 or 12 feet apart. They will continue a rivalry of their own -- as coaches of the men doing the dirty work on the grass.
Becker, now 47, is the co-coach of Djokovic (with Marian Vajda, who isn't in London). Edberg, a 49-year-old Swede, is Federer's top aide. The men probably won't glance at each other as they sit enveloped in silence, most likely under white duckbill caps and dressed in garb paying homage to Wimbledon's all-white dress code.
But the coaches could be forgiven if at some point they suddenly leap from the player's box, commandeer rackets and shove their charges out of the way. Edberg and Becker are esteemed former Grand Slam champions and two of the more beloved players from the early 1990s, with the fiery German a sharp contrast to the reticent Swede. They met as combatants 35 times -- a robust, historic rivalry -- with Becker winning 25 times. But Edberg won two of their three crucial, final-round meetings here at Wimbledon.
Boris Becker hopes his charge, Novak Djokovic, takes home the Wimbledon crown for the second straight year. Omen or odd coincidence?
That edge always stuck in Becker's craw, and now he'll be obliged to watch as his protégé -- clearly the superior player through the first half of this year -- faces a situation that might strike Becker as unfair. Federer, resurgent at 33, is playing some of the best tennis of his life and riding a wave of adulation. He's not the favorite on paper, but he's embedded in the hearts of the tennis fans throughout Britannia. That will count for something.
Of course, it's just this kind of situation Djokovic had in mind when he brought Becker on to his team in late 2013. Becker's mission from Day 1 has been to help him deal with the mental challenges presented by the stress of peak moments in competition.
"It's about the mental approach, especially when you're in the big tournaments and you're facing different adversities on the court," Djokovic reminded the press again the other day. "And especially in the later stages of Grand Slams, when things are getting tougher from every point of view. It's where I think [Becker's] contribution is the biggest to me and to the team."
Still, Djokovic's record with Becker is mixed. Djokovic has solidified his hold on the No. 1 ranking. He's also won Wimbledon and added another Australian Open to his collection. But Djokovic hasn't made that much-anticipated breakthrough at the French Open, and he missed a good opportunity when he was upset by Kei Nishikori at the 2014 US Open.
In the weeks before Wimbledon, Djokovic also had to spend some time putting out PR brush fires started by his coach -- one a controversy launched when Becker suggested Djokovic and Federer aren't particularly friendly, another having to do with alleged illegal coaching from the player guest box.
Becker has an undeniably big personality, but that's no liability in Djokovic's eyes. The important thing is Djokovic remains all-in when it comes to his coach.
"Boris is going through the emotions with me like when he was playing," Djokovic said. "At least that's what we talk about and that's what he tells me. I can see that. There are times when he doesn't sleep well before the big match, stuff like this. It's just the connection, the link that you make between the two. There has to be that kind of chemistry in order to really deliver, you know, team-wise, something that you want."
The Djokovic team runs on emotion. Owing to the British love affair with Federer, it may also be fueled by aggrievement. That can be a potent combination. But as those Edberg-Becker clashes of yore demonstrated, cool and imperturbable can be a useful state once the forehands start flying.
Edberg's has been such a low-key presence in the Federer camp that it's tempting to think of the Swede as some kind of champion's accessory. He's anything but, as Federer explained when asked how his relationship with Edberg has changed since they began to work together -- at almost the same exact time that Djokovic recruited Becker.
"I don't want to say I'm less nervous, but I'm more comfortable around Stefan now," Federer said. "When you spend time with someone you've looked up to your entire life, it's a bit awkward in the beginning. You're not quite sure what you're allowed to ask, what you're allowed to say, all these things."
Those anxieties are gone, Federer said, though he added he still has trouble believing the guy coming through the door to have a chat or a meal is really "the" Stefan Edberg. At first, Federer spent a lot of time showing Edberg around the tour and trying to make the shy Swede comfortable around his family and team.
"It's more straightforward now," Federer said. "In the beginning, we forced it a little bit maybe. Maybe he tried to say a little more than he should, and I requested more than I should. Eventually now he knows exactly when to say what."
Just what that "what" is remains the great mystery that everyone would like explained, and that holds true for both coaches. But that's their secret. You can bet, though, that Edberg and Becker both see this final as a proxy war. They'll have to; they're competitive guys. One of them will win, and one of them will lose.
Only this time, it won't hurt quite as much. And there won't be any skinned knees or grass stains on their shorts.
- Stefan Edberg & Tony Pickard Mr Class and his teacher
- Edberg and Navratilova test the 2018 Wimbledon courts
- "Federer should skip the claycourt season," says former coach Edberg
- "Federer is exceptional, but tennis needs a new name too"
- "I am a happy person"
- Cincinnati, the "Edberg effect" on Federer in 3 hot shots
- Federer: "Edberg injected a lot of energy into the team"
- Edberg: It's not over yet
- Federer can still win Wimbledon, insists Edberg
- Edberg: Nole too strong for Roger today
- Stefan Edberg previews Federer vs Djokovic final
- Edberg: "The best Federer I've seen"
- Edberg: "I see myself in Federer So I agreed to coach him"
- Federer Reflects On Sampras, Edberg Influence
- Edberg: "Being Federer's idol speaks for his taste"