Boris “Boom Boom” Becker hit aces and unreturnable serves by the boatload. For Stefan Edberg, his great rival, the serve was not an end in itself but the means to the end: setting up his first volley — the deadliest in the game. On heavily spun serves kicked out wide to the backhand on the ad court, he could close to within two or three feet of the net. In this position, he was a matador poised for the quick and artful kill. No one struck so many clean, first-volley winners into the open court as the graceful Swede.
Becker is now a puffy-faced 46 — suggesting a life lived hard if not always well — while Edberg, who is a year and a half older, retains a look of boyish innocence and stoic composure.
It is good to see them back in center stage at the U.S. Open — if only as coaches to the two best players in the tennis world of today (Becker for Novak Djokovic and Edberg for Roger Federer).
As a keen tennis player and long-time fan of the sport, I had the pleasure of seeing Becker and Edberg play at the very outset of their careers.
I first saw Becker play at Wembley Stadium in London in the spring of 1985. He and another unknown teenager were paired in a doubles match against Ivan Lendl and Andrés Gómez, a superb if now largely forgotten player from Ecuador. With little help from his much smaller partner, Becker single-handedly turned it into a close match. To me it looked like Becker was happy just to be out there with two legends of the game — swinging for the fences with every shot. I thought that he might never play that well again.
Two months later, Becker became the youngest player ever to win Wimbledon — defeating the South African Kevin Curren in four sets. He was just 17 years old. What I mistook for a powerful kid who got lucky and just happened to be playing out of his mind for a couple of sets was, in fact, the quintessential Boris. He played with wild abandon, all the time — blasting the ball off both wings, pulverizing overheads, diving for volleys. Of course, his most important weapon in beating his opponents into submission was that great big sledgehammer of a serve.
A year later and, at 18, still a teenager, Becker successfully defended his Wimbledon title — this time powering past Lendl in straight sets.
Boris’s extraordinary early success took everyone by surprise — including himself and members of his family. He told one interviewer: “The plan from my parents was for me to go to a university, get a proper degree, and learn something respectful. The last thing on everyone’s mind was for me to become a tennis professional.”
I first saw Edberg at Wimbledon in 1984 — a year after Becker made tennis history. There was a large crowd gathered around one of the outer courts where he was playing. At 17 years old, Edberg already had the distinctive serve-and-volley game and the beautiful flowing backhand that would carry him to the top of men’s tennis. He was also a celebrated junior champion, having won all four of the Grand Slam junior titles in 1983 — the first player ever to do so. Though he lost his first match at Wimbledon, I thought: This kid has got to be a future champion.
Becker and Edberg were destined to play in three consecutive Wimbledon finals, with Edberg coming out on top in 1988 and 1990, and Becker victorious in 1989. Roger Federer, who was born in 1981, says the Becker/Edberg rivalry at Wimbledon inspired him to choose tennis over soccer.
Unfortunately for me, I did not see any of those matches, except on television, as I left England at the end of 1985. One of the perquisites of my job as London bureau chief for Business Week magazine had been frequent invitations to Wimbledon and other sporting events.
Each of the two men won six Grand Slam tournaments. In addition to winning Wimbledon in 1985, 1986, and 1989, Becker won the U.S. Open in 1989 (defeating Lendl) and the Australian Open in 1991 (again defeating Lendl) and again in 1996 (defeating Michael Chang).
Edberg was 18 when he won his first slam — the 1985 Australian Open (defeating his countryman Mats Wilander). He successfully defended that title a year later (beating Pat Cash, the local favorite), and went on to win Wimbledon in 1988 and 1990, and then the U.S. Open in 1991 (defeating Jim Courier) and 1992 (defeating Pete Sampras).
Head to head, Becker had the best of it, with 25 wins to 10 for Edberg. But Edberg prevailed in three out of their four Grand Slam encounters (twice at Wimbledon and once in a French Open semi-final). Becker was ranked No. 1 in the world for only 12 weeks. Edberg held the top ranking for 72 weeks. He took over the title of No. 1 in world from Lendl in August 1990 and held on to it for the rest of that year and most of 1991 and 1992.
With typical modesty, Edberg described the time that he and Boris shared at the top as an interregnum between two eras — with Borg on one side and Sampras on the other. Said the man who is now coaching Roger Federer:
I think the rivalry with Boris was very good for both of us, because that’s what’s really important in tennis. Connors and Borg and McEnroe and Lendl had this thing going, and then Boris and I had it going for a little while.
Roger Federer was not alone in being inspired by the Edberg/Becker rivalry. It inspired a dream of my own. Just the other night, I dreamt that I came gliding into net behind a high-kicking service. I did a quick split step at the service line — picking up the direction of the return — and in another two steps I pounced upon a fast-dipping ball while it was still knee high. After punching it for a clean winner, I said to myself: “There, Stefan Edberg couldn’t have done it any better.”