Stefan Edberg champion in Flushing Meadows 1992
by Mert Ertunga
We are once again in a slow period in the world of professional tennis, especially on the men's side. Compared to the excitement of 2011 so far, with Novak Djokovic's rise to number one, dethroning both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, how else would you classify a series of tournaments in Europe on clay courts and a few hard court tournaments on U.S. soil, squeezed between the end of Wimbledon and the "real" beginning of the pre-U.S. Open hard court season with Canadian Open and Cincinnati Masters titles?
Chalk that up to the long list of reasons why Wimbledon should move back a week. Not only would that give grass court season an extra week of relief, but it would effectively shorten these weeks of minor tournaments where you see the likes of Marcel Granollers and Alexandr Dolgolopov win titles.
Since only a limited amount of tournaments are on TV during this time, I usually find that this period is a good time to catch up on some reading, especially tennis literature if possible. In my old collection of articles that I used to cut and keep in a mid-sized "treasure chest" until the Internet came along, I found the report of Stefan Edberg's win over Pete Sampras in the 1992 U.S. Open final match. It was only three paragraphs, with a happy quote from Edberg and the quick summary of the final day of the tournament. Yet I knew from memory that there was so much more to that victory of Stefan Edberg.
The 1992 U.S. Open would be the last Slam title of the Swedish "Prince of Tennis." It was a triumphant run for several reasons. He was the holder of the title; in 1991, Edberg ran through the draw capturing his fifth Slam title, never losing a set in his last four matches, while defeating admirable opponents like Michael Chang, Ivan Lendl, and Jim Courier, and only losing six games in the final. But history books were destined to have a much different version for the 1992 edition, albeit the winner remaining the same as 1991.
First of all, Edberg was having a mediocre 1992 Slam season by the standards set in his preceding year. He lost in the finals of the Australian Open, but he was out in the first week of Roland Garros, and even worse for him, he failed to reach the semifinals of Wimbledon for the first time since 1986. The number one ranking that he kept until April of 1992 was also lost to Jim Courier, well before the U.S. Open arrived.
The only positive aspect was Edberg's signs of returning to form in the few American hard court tournaments leading up to the U.S. Open. He won the New Haven tournament and reached the semifinals of two others. For those authorities who claim that Slams are all that count for top players, the gentleman from Sweden would have another story to tell; he would later claim that these tournaments played a vital role in his renewed confidence when he entered the two weeks at Flushing Meadows.
He was facing a formidable American generation of top players composed of Courier, Chang, Sampras, and Andre Agassi. Lendl, Boris Becker, and Michael Stich were also around playing some championship quality tennis. It is thus no surprise that Edberg would end up needing more than confidence to finally come out with the trophy in his hands at the end of one of the most exhausting series of matches the Open Era has ever witnessed.
After first three rounds of fairly comfortable wins, Edberg would have never guessed what he would face for the rest of the tournament before triumphing heroically. In the fourth round, he needed almost four and a half hours to defeat a young and up-coming Richard Krajicek, including coming back from a break down in the fifth set to win it, 6-4. It was only the beginning. Next was the giant task of facing Ivan Lendl in the quarters.
Ivan Lendl was characterized few days earlier as a player "who is just bunting the ball back" by Jimmy Connors, who also added casually that he was "nothing like he used to be." Of course, this was after Lendl had defeated Connors in the second round. The announcer Mary Carillo, who did not take Connors' statements lightly, was not amused and became virtually a cheerleader for Lendl during his match against Edberg. Why do I remember that so vividly? Because when Lendl surmounted an improbable comeback against the Swede after having gone down two sets to none, Carillo was ready to declare Lendl the winner in the beginning of the fifth set, repeating several times sarcastically "not bad for a guy who is just 'bunting the ball back', hein?"
Perhaps it was because I got tired of Carillo, but I remember pulling for Edberg when that fifth set started. Although it did not look good for Edberg when he went down a break in the fifth, once again he found the energy and the drive to pull himself out of the hole and closed out the match in the decisive tiebreak. It was the second match in a row that he was pushed beyond the four-hour limit.
But the most dramatic match was yet to come. In the semifinals, the ultimate fighter Michael Chang was energized at his first chance to reach a final in a Slam since the famous 1989 French open victory. The first four sets went to distance: 6-7, 7-5, 7-6, 5-7. Having just won a close fourth set, Chang was pumped up and Edberg looked tired. Therefore, when Chang went up 3-0 in the fifth set, the dream run seemed to have to come to an end for the Swede. Yet, Edberg dug deep to save two points to go down 4-0 and won the game. Same thing happened the next game and Edberg was now only behind 2-3. He mounted a final push, overcame his fatigue, and came out of an epic match that lasted five hours and 26 minutes.
Three matches lasting over a total of 14 hours, three fifth sets in a row where he came back from a break down, and yet, Edberg was still not done. There was one more hurdle before the trophy: Pete Sampras, a player who had just recently beaten comfortably Edberg in Cincinnati. This set was not to last five sets. In fact, it looked like Sampras would win it easy after winning the first set. Edberg won the second, then the third set proved to be decisive. Edberg won it in a tiebreak and cruised in the fourth set against a discouraged Sampras. It was also a key match in the career of Sampras. He admitted later that it was the kind of loss that made him realize how much he hates losing. The same Sampras went on to win 14 out of 17 Slam finals in his career.
Let's summarize this incredible accomplishment: Edberg played four matches in a row, remained on the court a total of over 20 hours, and captured the last Slam title of his career to write history. Fittingly, he recaptured the number one ranking at the end of the tournament. He would never win another Slam and would retire in 1996 as one of the most beloved tennis player of all times. Needless to say, the 1992 U.S. Open run of Stefan Edberg is not likely to be rivaled, and one that needs to be reminded from time to time, especially in these times of minor tournaments dominated by tennis players who are not recognizable by most tennis fans.
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