He may have been a former World no.1, a Wimbledon legend and someone the great Roger Federer sought help for in his bid for resurgence. But when Stefan Edberg walks up to you for the interview unaccompanied, wearing a simple T-shirt and neatly combed hair, you realise he does not believe in carrying his cult status.
Was he ever under pressure to change his style of play, his persona and his image when he played in the era of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors? «It’s very easy for me being my own self,» he said.
Excerpts from this India Today interview where he talks about everything from the serve and volley era, his rivalry with Boris Becker to working with Roger Federer:
SERVE AND VOLLEY — THEN AND NOW
Q. Stefan, the game has moved on. But perhaps your serve and volley style was made for the years you were in your prime. The Australian Open was still played on grass and the big servers hadn’t quite come in.
A. I think so. Tennis has changed in the last 30 years — there is no question about it. Tennis goes a little bit in cycles. If you look at it, there were a lot of serve and volleyers at one stage. That was my weapon and that’s how I played my best tennis. Tennis has changed if you look at the last four five years. Most of the tennis is played from the baseline. It’s due to a lot of changes over time. Racket and strings have changed overtime and the courts have gone slower and also the balls. So it has got a lot harder; if you wanted to serve and volley it would be a lot harder today than during our times.
Q. Were you a natural at it or did you cultivate it, inspired by any of your idols?
A. My idol was Bjorn Borg and he was the total opposite of serve and volley. But somehow I wanted to find my own game and do what I was good at. I started serve and volley at a young age at 15. At 16, I was playing serve and volley on both the first and second serve which was very unusual at the time. It’s something I worked on and it was my strength.
Maybe, I wanted to be different from everybody else and play my game and use my kick serve and get close to the net and win tennis matches. Tennis is about using your strength and finding ways of winning tennis matches and everybody needs to develop that.
Q. You became a Wimbledon legend with those three back-to-back finals in the late 1980s. How big was the first Wimbledon for you in 1988? Was it all you were working for?
A. It was very big at the time. I had already won a couple of Australian Opens but Wimbledon is really what I wanted to win. I grew up watching Bjorn Borg and him winning all his titles and it is probably still the most prestigious one to win if you have to choose one out of the four. And winning the first time is always very special. Like in England they say, ‘A Wimbledon champion is a Wimbledon Champion’. So it has a meaning to it. It means a lot.
RIVALRY WITH BORIS BECKER
Q. And in each of those Wimbledon finals in 1988, 1989 and 1990, you had one Boris Becker at the other side of the net. How do you look back at that rivalry with him?
A. It developed over time. We played in the juniors many times. We grew up together and were about the same age. It was a very healthy rivalry for both of us because it made each work harder and there was a challenge having Boris on the other side of the net. He was a very tough opponent. We played three Wimbledon finals in a row and we could have played the fourth one but it didn’t happen.
I think it was a great time of my tennis career. Because being in a Wimbledon final is always very special, you want to be there year after year if possible and it happened with me so many times and that’s what people do remember.
Q. There were occasions when both of you would be breathing down each others’ neck at the net. That’s a spectacle that’s missed today.
A. Yes it is. We played very offensive serve and volley and it was a big benefit at the time because the courts were a little bit quicker and so were the balls. Courts were not as firm as they are now and that’s where you win your matches. Obviously when you watch grass court tennis, it is different there is no question about it.
But they still play great tennis. Tennis today overall is very healthy and very fascinating to watch but obviously if you had to choose something to change, maybe some more variation of the players. If you could see more style because most of them play from the baseline. But at least you see some changes now where the game is changing a little bit. People are coming in. Maybe not serve and volleying but taking advantage of the net more. That does make it different and makes it more attractive.
Q. You said tennis works in cycles. Could it be that serve and volley could make its way back gradually?
A. Well I think the offensive is picking up now where people are seeking to finish a point. I think gradually it is changing, very slowly however. But to have serve and volleyers back in a short time is not going to happen. But may be more variations with players playing serve and volley more frequently. But to see people coming in on first and second serve? I don’t see that happening.
Q. How were the two of you, Becker and you, off the court? We have Federer-Nadal who seem to share a great camaraderie while Aggasi- Sampras weren’t the best of friends.
A. That’s true. With Boris, we played for many years and over time friendship gets stronger and the longer you play the more respect you have for each other. At the beginning, it is more challenging because you want to win those matches badly but overtime it’s healthy. It’s also healthy for tennis to have these rivalries which makes it very special. You have had Roger-Rafa, Roger-Novak and Novak-Rafa and those matches have been very special to watch.
Q. But did you find it tough to be friends with Becker. Both of you had similar playing styles and were fighting for the same titles.
A. I didn’t find it tough. I don’t think he did either. You respect each other. We were not going out together for dinner; that would be quite unusual. But even that could happen if you are from the same country. But you get on doing your business. At the same time you see each other in the locker room as is the case in tennis where we have the same locker room and you see each other on a daily basis. You make good relationships over time as you grow older. You can always look back at these friendships which last even when you are off the circuit.
Q. You were seen as this dignified champion. Playing at the same time as a Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, did you ever feel the pressure to change?
A. For me it’s been very easy to be my own self. I have been always a cool guy to start with. Yes you have had a lot of characters. You mentioned McEnroe, Connors and tennis needs different characters. It’s good for the game. You always need the good guy and the bad guy or whatever you want to call it. And I was fascinated about someone like a McEnroe, you knew something magical might happen any moment.
Q. After you decided to hang your boots, people didn’t know much about what you were doing, until you got the call from Roger Federer. How was it like being back in the grind and trying to help someone of his pedigree get back to the top of his game?
A. Oh! I had been off the tour, in touch but not as much. And that telephone call from Roger Federer made a big difference in my life, also a challenge to be back on the tour. As a mentor coach because luckily, Severin Luthi (coach) was around and Roger had his whole team. So it was like being part of the whole team and at the same time getting back into tennis and helping Roger out on a few aspects because there was a reason for Roger to call me.
He wanted to change something. The year 2013 wasn’t very good for him and maybe he wanted to do something different. He switched his rackets when we started and certain things in his game and I spent two years with him on the tour and it was great to be back.
Q. In your interactions, did you notice the fire in his belly. It must have been there, given his resurgence now?
A. Oh yes. He is quiet extraordinary that way. He still loves the game. He still has the motivation. Even when we started working a few years ago, he was still hungry. He wanted to improve and also the way he was playing he had a chance to win a Grand Slam. I knew at the time it would be difficult because looking back at history wining Grand Slams at 33, 34 is very difficult. And he was very close a couple of times. We than know he had this break and now we know he has all of a sudden won these three Slams. But to do it at 36 years of age is quiet incredible.
Q. Has he surprised you with these wins?
A. Oh definitely. He has surprised a lot of people; particularly getting to No.1 at this stage of his career. He knew that by playing the tournament at Rotterdam which he won. It’s probably been even hard for him to believe. But he has set himself to be there and he deserves to be there. In last year he has only lost four matches or something which is quite incredible.
Both Rafa and Roger had a tremendous 2017. They basically won the four Grand Slams together and won most of the tournaments and I don’t think anybody expected that after 2016 when they had where both were out for six weeks and nobody knew when they would get back again. It has been quite fascinating.
Q. Working at close quarters with him, did you notice anything to make you understand what makes him the champion he is?
A. I think Roger has the game and all the shots. But as you go along you have to make some changes and I think he has made some. Also in playing more offensive and taking the ball a little earlier which does make a difference. I think the last little thing that was crucial which made him win the last few Slams was the improvement of his backhand. He already had a good backhand but now it is even better and that sort of made a difference.
And I would imagine when you have been away for five six months, it’s like starting from scratch. Your mind may be a little bit different. You are a little bit relaxed and your expectation may not be so huge, so maybe you can play a bit more relaxed. At the same time he has been able to win the big points, which does make the difference when you have to win these titles.
Q. Any favourite Roger Federer story to tell?
A. No. Not really. What I found out is he is a great person off the court and a great ambassador.
Q. How do you see the rest of 2018 panning out? You expect Djokovic and Nadal at their best again or more titles for Federer?
A. It will be very interesting rest of the season. There are a few question marks but Novak Djokovic will be back soon. Andy Murray may have some question marks with his hip. Wawrinka has made his way back but may probably need some more time. It will be interesting and at the same time you have some young players, if one of them can do something special. That would be good for tennis. You need some new names to come forward and would be great to have a new name nobody has heard of to come and win a Slam at some stage.
Q. Personally, are you at peace with what you are doing? Or is there a temptation to begin working with a top 10 player again?
A. No. I think I had two great years with Roger and I don’t think I would want to get back in the grind again because it is quite demanding as you would know. I would love to be around but in a different capacity. As a coach mentor you need to travel quite a bit and I am not prepared to do that. Also you need the passion for it and maybe I don’t really have that at the moment.
Q. Finally, what’s your take on Indian tennis. We haven’t had much to write home about in singles but doubles champions in Bhupathi, Paes and Sania Mirza. Indian fans rejoice with these wins and get pragmatic when told doubles success doesn’t mean as much. How do you look at this?
A. Tennis has developed throughout the world and played in a lot more countries and I feel India as a country is doing very well. The economy is growing and I think with what I hear more money is being put in sport. Regarding tennis, sometimes you need to start at the grassroots. At the clubs get as many kids as you can but it does take time.
Hopefully and I cross my fingers there will be a young boy or girl developing. It will be great for tennis to have somebody from India on top of the world in singles but it will take some time.
Q. How much do you value a doubles win?
A. I do value it and any Grand Slam title is special. But it has changed. I stopped playing doubles when I was 21 and it was too hard to continue playing singles and doubles. I think you do have to make a choice.
Everybody wants to be out there to win titles in singles. You can still have a great life and lot of success playing doubles. But there is a difference between singles and doubles. Most of the top players don’t play doubles. And if they don’t, you won’t have as much coverage which will be focussed around singles.