Twenty years later, let's go back to the 1991 edition of the US Open, with the exploit of Jimmy Connors, semifinalist at 39, who managed to put in the background even the final victory of Stefan Edberg, reached though a serve & volley as effective as ever.
Stefan Edberg, US Open 1991 champion
by Mauro Cappiello
America was getting past the shock of the first Gulf war. The radio played “Everything I do”, by Bryan Adams, leader in the US charts for sixteen weeks. On the big screens “The Silence of the Lambs” had appeared. In New York, instead, on the still light-green painted courts of Flushing Meadows, one of the most memorable editions of the US Open in the last thirty years took action. It rarely happens to recall a tournament for the deeds of a player who didn't win it. That year, though, maybe the legendary run by Jimmy Connors, the old lion who reached the tournament semifinals at 39, almost overshadowed the final victory of Stefan Edberg, who, in 1991 in New York, played a wonderful tennis, by his own admission the best in his career.
Placed in the draw thanks to a wild card and with a ranking dropped down to number 174 due to an injury that allowed him to play (and lose) only three matches the season before, that year Jimmy Connors was able to carry away to his side all the American audience, to make even the occasional spectators addicted to tennis, raising the tv shares. And to gain a support he hadn’t even had in his golden age, when, between 1974 and 1983, he had won the US Open five times on three different surfaces (grass, clay and hard), without shining for sympathy on the big crowds.
1991, instead, was the year that established him as the terrible grandpa of tennis. Already in Paris, Jimbo had been able to write a big moment in sports, when, in the third round, against a Michael Chang who was almost twenty years his junior, he had reached the fifth set, had won the first rally and then, exhausted, had thrown the towel in, withdrawing when he was up in the score, even if by just one point.
In New York, his run was much longer, unexpectedly longer. It seemed it should come to an end already in the first round, when the draw placed him against Patrick McEnroe. Down two sets and 3-0, 40-0 in the third, Connors succeeded in an unlikely comeback, winning 6-4 in the fifth, after more than four hours and a half of fight.
After two comfortable rounds against Schapers and the number 10 seed Novacek, another nail biting match came up, against Aaron Krickstein, right in the day of his thirty-ninth birthday. The challenge against a boy who could almost have been his son, a guy nicknamed “Marathon man”, because, with that hair band a little à la John Rambo, at the end of his career he would be able to boast of having succeeded for 10 times to come back from a two set deficit. Not that night, though. Against a Jimmy Connors on the edge of an agonistical orgasm, Krickstein was himself victim of a comeback that probably still gives him nightmares: he won the first set, but lost the second in a tie-break. He went up by two sets to one, but couldn’t resist the fury of the rival who recovered the gap and triumphed in the decisive tie-break after also coming back from a 2-5 deficit in the fifth. It was this way that Krickstein went down in history for a battle he lost and not won. When it rains, in New York, they still repropose the highlights of that endless match that literally made the New York crowd crazy, touching peaks of involvement rarely reached in a tennis match.
In the quarters another recovery victory, against Paul Haarhuis. Lost the first set, with the opponent serving for a two set lead on the score of 5-4, Connors was able to give tennis history a point that is still nicknamed “the play”. On the break point to get back in the match, the thirty-nine year old Jimbo returned four smashes by his opponent, replied to the last with a formidable crosscourt forehand and, on the opposition volley by the Dutchman, passed with a great running backhand down the line to go and exult as gone crazy in front of the first row of the Centre Court. Standing ovation!
It was the last act of his extraordinary US Open. The semifinal against Jim Courier ended even before beginning. Too strong, too solid, much too younger and fresher was Big Jim to be frightened by an opponent who had been drained by the fatigue and the emotions of the previous rounds. It ended in three easy sets, but however Jimbo found a way to give the crowd a pearl of his own. Stumbling in the attempt of recovering a ball, Connors went down on the ground. Courier went by asking the classic «Are you alright?». Jimbo answered with a memorable «Yes… and if I wasn’t?». Out of the match, almost humiliated by his rival, Connors was once more able to carve out his own moment, tearing away a smile and an applause from the disappointed crowd, who wanted to see him in the final.
The final was reached by the other Jim, who found on the other side of the net an Edberg at his top. Dimmed by Connors’ magical nights, the Swede had made his way through the other side of the draw starting a little on a low note, but growing as the tournament went on. After losing a set both against Bryan Shelton in the first round and Jim Grabb in the third (two players well behind the top hundred), Edberg became a war machine and went on to win the tournament after a faultless path.
If one year later he would repeat himself thanks to his guts and a character that many hadn’t acknowledged, in 1991 Edberg won the US Open thanks to his game. Maybe since that edition of Flushing Meadows serve & volley tennis has no longer reached those peaks of excellence and effectiveness. The Swede was able to lift the trophy after bringing home two thirds of the points on net attacks. A monster percentage for one like him, who was used to rush forward every time, even after the second serve.
In New York Stefan had never shined: too much noise and wind for a guy like him, used to the calmness of Sweden or London, the city where he had set his residence in his years as a professional. In 1987 he had thrown away a semifinal against Wilander, because the night before he had played five sets in the doubles final, winning it at the decisive tie-break with Anders Jarryd, against Flach and Seguso.
In 1991 everything started to go to perfection from the fourth round, where he played that Chang who two years before had given him the biggest upset in his career, beating him in the Roland Garros final. It was an extraordinary match, hidden by the quite clear success of the Swede. But there was a contrast in styles that we are no longer used to admiring today, with a perfect Edberg always stretched at the net, forced to cover it in all its width by the picks of the little Chinese who ran as mad from the baseline.
After a one-way traffic quarter final against Javier Sanchez, the semifinal against Ivan Lendl came up, the match become famous for “the sellout” made by the Swede to Ivan the terrible, when he perfectly reproduced, a few games later, a shot of his played from behind the back, hitting the ball with the forehand on the backhand side. Even his coach Tony Pickard sketched a smile, while the great Ivan, with his humor sometimes hidden by a frowning attitude, commented: «I guess anybody can make that shot…».
The final was an impressive display of serve and volley: Courier, who had beaten Edberg in the quarters at the Roland Garros (and who would beat him again in the finals of the Australian Open in 1992 and 1993) that time really didn’t get in the match. He got together only six games. Edberg lost just fifteen points on his serve. Since Frank Sedgman in 1952, nobody had dropped so few games (16) in the last two rounds of the US Open. «That day he was perfect, there was no way I could have won that match», would comment Courier some years later, while, still today, Edberg considers that final the best match in his career. And he doesn’t care if Connors stole him the scene. For a guy like him, better stay in the background than under the spotlight. «Jimmy really gave the tournament a boost. I thank him. But 50 years from now I'll look back in the record book and see my name».
- Tennis Magazine, an unlikely ranking of the best grasscourt players
- How Stefan Edberg used his forehand to take the net
- Navratilova vs Courier on why Federer lost
- Grand Slam heroes become super-coaches
- When a number one...
- Special - Stefan's and Annette's anniversary
- Happy Birthday, Stefan!!!
- Revolutionary new tennis centre taking shape
- Federer gets past Edberg in singles wins
- STE...fans backs Qureshi for Sportsmanship Award
- Remembering Stefan Edberg’s Last Hurrah
- Send us your picture with Stefan!
- 10 years of STE...fans
- Cascade hotel inaugurated
- STE...fans turns 10 years old and changes look