Swede success at US Open…Achieved the ‘Hard’ way
Stefan Edberg didn’t enjoy playing at the Flushing Meadows for many years. The discomfort reflected in his early results, rather the lack of it
However, when the Swede did win his maiden US Open trophy in 1991 it also marked the first occasion when he had won a Grand Slam title on a surface other than grass
In the final analysis the figures make for a better reading. About a third of Stefan Edberg’s 41 career titles have come on outdoor hard courts. During his illustrious career the Swede played in a total of 33 ATP Tour finals on the surface.
Add the finals that he played on indoor hard surfaces and those number move up to 22 titles in 24 finals, that is more than half of his trophies won, and a two-thirds of the total finals played. Statistics point out to the fact that the former world no.1 was an exponent on the hard courts and his many trophies corroborate his success on the surface. Stats don’t lie. The Swede indeed has formidable hard court credentials. But statistics don’t tell you the complete story either, rather they point out to the obvious.
Statistics, for instance point out that Edberg has won the Australian Open — the first Grand Slam tournament of the year, played on the hard courts in Melbourne — on two occasions (1985 and 1987). However, delve deep and it becomes clear that both of the Swede’s titles came on the grass courts on Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club, where the tournament was played before it moved to Melbourne Park in 1988. Though the Västervik-born made it to the decider on three occasions on the Rebound Ace surface, he was at the receiving end on each of them.
Fact is, though Edberg ended his career with impressive achievements on the hard courts, his success on the surface was not immediate, but gradual. During the early stages of his professional career the Swede was more at ease on the faster surfaces like the grass courts, the carpet…even the indoor hard courts, and all his majors successes was commensurate to that seamless adaptation.
It is no coincidence that Edberg’s first four Grand Slam titles came on grass courts. The slow clay at the French Open was always going to be the most difficult proposition for a serve and volley exponent — he ended up get only one opportunity (in 1989) to win at Roland Garros that he fluffed, but it certainly came in as a surprise that the Swede initially found it difficult to play at the US Open. There’s nothing wrong with his game per se. It was just that the mild mannered and reticent Edberg found all the commotion and crowd in New York tough to handle.
In his first three appearances at the Flushing Meadows the Swede failed to go past the fourth round. Not just that he was also struggling to put together a string of successes on the outdoor hard courts, and was yet to win a title. None of his first 11 tournament wins came on the surface, and before winning his first title on an outdoor hard court (in Tokyo, 1987), Edberg had lost finals on the surface in Los Angeles (both in 1985 and 1986), Toronto (1986) and Indian Wells (1987). Besides, it had taken him four years to win a trophy on that surface.
Edberg did however make it to the semi-finals at the US Open in both 1986 — losing to Ivan Lendl, and in 1987 — beaten in four sets by compatriot Mats Wilander. These twin semis were his best results in New York during the 1980s. In seven visits to the Big Apple the Swede had failed to claim the coveted title. The advent of a new decade albeit marked a significant growth in Edberg’s career, in terms of results.
In fact even though he a below par 1989, in which he lost in six out of the eight finals he featured in — including back-to-back defeats at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, Edberg did win the eighth final he played in that year, and that happened to be a big one — the Grand Prix Masters final in New York. He carried on with the good form reaching the final of the Australian Open in January, dropping only one set en route. Even though he was forced to retire in the third set of the final (against Lendl) with a torn stomach muscle the Swede was to make a strong comeback.
In March Edberg bested Andre Agassi in four sets to win the Newsweek Champions Cup in Indian Wells, in what was the first Masters Series event — or Super 9 as it was then called as, on the revamped ATP Tour. It was his first major title on an outdoor hard court since winning the Thriftway Championships in Cincinnati in 1987. Immediately after, the Swede also reached the final on a similar surface in Miami, on this occasion losing to Agassi in four sets.
The Swede’s confidence continued with another title at the Tokyo outdoors in April, and immediately after his second Wimbledon title in July, Edberg put together his most consistent run of results on the outdoor hard courts. He beat Michael Chang in the decider at Los Angeles, winning the title for the first time in the fourth attempt — having lost in three successive finals between 1985 and 1987. In fact after twisting his ankle in the middle of the match, Edberg surprised Chang by playing from the back of the court. While the American had not witnessed “Stefan play that well from the back before,” the Swede was confidence personified.
“I can play from the baseline if I want to,” he was quoted as saying by the media after picking up the trophy. A second title in Cincinnati followed in the following week. While Edberg outclassed defending champion Brad Gilbert in that final, it was his quarter-final win (over Chang again) that made the headlines. With that result the Swede had made sure he will replace Lendl as the new №1 ranked player.
In the following week he would win another title, the Hamlet Challenge in Long Island, beating Goran Ivanisevic in the final, a day before the final major commenced. Four consecutive titles, including three straight on the outer hard courts, had not only ensured Edberg the top ranking but also a 22-match winning streak going into the US Open, a tournament where he had failed to get past the fourth round in the two previous years. In 1990 the Swede was not only the favorite going into the year’s final major but it also seemed he was finally set to win that elusive US Open title.
“It would be silly to say that the class of player that Edberg will not go into the U.S. Open without a positive chance of winning,” Tony Pickard, his long time coach was quoted as saying during the Swede’s impressive run in the hard court season. However, the winning streak and favorite’s tag came to a naught in New York.
Edberg had flattered to deceive. He had failed in New York for yet another time. He had been beaten in the opening round itself, losing to Russian journeyman Alexander Volkov in straight sets. From losing in the first round (to Aaron Krickstein) in his first US Open to being eliminated at the same stage in his eighth appearance, things had come to a full circle in New York for the reserved Swede. In his eight forays in the Big Apple Edberg had been beaten twice each by Krickstein (1983 and 1988) and Jimmy Connors (1985 and 1989), and once by John McEnroe (1984), Lendl, Wilander and Volkov.
In the hindsight it was a combination of factors, a packed schedule that summer coupled with the burden of expectations following his impressive run of form, that ensured a major early disappointment for the tournament in general and a personal failure for the Swede in particular.
“This was one of my best summers so far and I really wanted to do well at the Open, but it’s too late now,” Edberg told the media after his early exit, proceeding further to explain the result.
“I didn’t feel good, didn’t feel comfortable, and I was struggling to find my game, to find the way I usually play. I’m not 100 percent comfortable here and I don’t think I ever will be,” he admitted, adding, “I told myself this year I wouldn’t let things bother me, that I’m going to take it one day at a time, but it’s all over now. This is something I need to sit down and think about. At the moment I can’t think of any reasons why this happened.”
It’s palpably difficult for the Swede to put into words his dismal effort. It had been a humiliating defeat. Though he was self-admittedly never comfortable playing at the Flushing Meadows this effort, rather the lack of it was without doubt his worst. Following the result there were few who believed Edberg could ever win at the US Open. It seemed he was destined not to win.
In 1991 things weren’t as high profile. There was no spotlight-inducing winning streak on the outdoor hard courts. He had lost his №1 ranking to rival Boris Becker, following his semi-final defeat at Wimbledon. The usually low profile Edberg had in fact shunned the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, and preferred to stay in Long Island — where he had failed to defend his title ahead of the US Open, losing to Lendl in the final.
Edberg lost a set apiece in the first (Bryan Shelton) and the third (Jim Grabb) rounds, to players ranked outside the top 100. However, following a convincing pre-quarter final win over Chang he got the desired momentum. The quarter-final against Spaniard Javier Sanchez was easy pickings, and that set up a semi-final showdown against Lendl.
More importantly for the Swede, despite his steady progress, he had not been the focus of attention at the US Open that year. The spotlight was firmly on Connors, a five-time champion who at 39 had made history by making it to the last four, setting up a showdown with fellow American and reigning French Open champion Jim Courier. Even as the veteran hogged all the attention the Swede was more than happy to stay away from the limelight.
Lendl was a veteran at the US Open, and a hugely successful one at that. The Czech-born American had played in eight successive finals at the Flushing Meadows between 1982 and 1989, winning the title for three straight years (1985–87). Edberg albeit allowed him just 10 games in their last four clash. If the crowd and his fans alike had been left wondering at this peach of a performance from Edberg in the semi-finals they were in for a surprise. In the final against Courier the Swede surprised one and all, possibly himself as well, by playing a nearly flawless match.
Edberg allowed his American opponent, playing in front of his home crowd, a total of six games — the fewest conceded since Connors eased past Australian veteran Ken Rosewall 6–1, 6–0, 6–1, in the 1974 final. Courier himself was in spectacular form going into the final. Come to think of it, he had dropped just seven games in six matches leading up to the decider — and that included a quarter-final demolition of defending champion Pete Sampras.
Moreover, the Swede didn’t drop his service throughout the match, conceding a miserly 15 points on his serve. In contrast he broke his opponent’s serve on six occasions. It was a final that lasted all of 122 minutes. The final score line (6–2, 6–4, 6–0) made for an impressive reading. Years later, both the finalists later offered contrasting descriptions of the match, and the result.
“The best match of my career was the final of the 1991 US Open, when I beat Jim Courier in three sets. That day, I played almost the perfect match. All seemed simple, easy. And it happened in a Grand Slam final day!” Edberg has been quoted as saying to the media. Courier seemed to concur.
“I remember walking off of the court knowing there was no way I could have beaten him on that day. He played a nearly flawless match in every facet,” admitted the American.
Edberg had become the first player in the Open Era to win the US Open a year after losing in the opening round. The last player to do so was Australian Malcolm Anderson in 1957, when the sport was yet to go professional. The Swede had at last learnt to like only Grand Slam where he had never previously made it to the title decider. He had proven he could indeed win a major title on a surface other than grass. He had finally won a Grand Slam title on the outdoor hard court, having taken his own sweet time to make the adjustments and get the desired results.
More importantly, the win also helped the Swede regain his №1 ranking. Edberg returned to defend his title the following year, beating Pete Sampras in the final. However, that triumph was more about reasserting his dominance. His 1991 triumph was all about proving a point…and precisely why yours truly has written this appreciation piece 30 years later.