Two opposites who balance each other out. The naturally gifted, elegant Edberg, offering the world the best backhand volley ever seen in modern tennis and the ruthless, consistent Ivan Lendl, believing wasn't fun, represented two different universes, two ways of being an icon.
“We always got on well. We trained together many times, we spent a lot of time for tournaments. Ivan is a very direct and honest man, just like me. We understood each other” Edberg said. Honesty, Billy Joel would say, is such a lonely world.
And Lendl, bringing tennis in the modern era almost all by himself, reached the highest and loneliest place: the top in the most ego-centric, self-reavealing sport. They faced 27 times, surprisingly Edberg won one more than Lendl (14-13), and gained more victories in Grand Slam matches and five-set meetings.
Lendl, moved like the defining champions of all time by negative feelings, by hate of losing more than love for winning, defeated Edberg 4 times in 7 finals. In the Czech Republic, Edberg is known as the tennis player who denied Ivan Lendl the Wimbledon title in 1990, having beaten him in a one-sided semifinal.
Like him, the Swede had his nightmare, the French Open, where he lost an iconic final against Michael Chang. “Unfortunately it was the only chance I got in my life, even though I had thought of having another” he admitted.
In 1987, in the first Wimbledon semifinal they contested each other, the third-set tiebreaker decided the fate of the match. Edberg got to set point helped by a net-cord and shook his fist but Lendl came right back with a service-winner.
And when Edberg got his second set point with a marvelous drop volley, Lendl levelled with another first-serve winner before clinching the set whipping one of his sizzling forehand passing shots. “If I had won that, it would have been different” Edberg said.
He was “really down” Lendl noted. “At that point, he lost some pace on his serve. It just made me all the more confident”. It came as a surprise to no-one that Lendl won 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(8), 6-4. In that 1990 semifinal, his Beckett-style quest for the ever-evading Wimbledon title came to an end a round too early after marching through the early rounds without having to face a seeded player, Lendl, the world’s No.
1 player, squared off against Stefan Edberg, the 1988 Wimbledon champion and the 1989 runner-up, and emerged empty-handed again. The natural-born talented Swede dismissed the most dedicated student of Wimbledon in straight sets, 6-1, 7-6(2), 6-3.
Lendl looked defied, missing what in Czech they called “Zazrany”, an almost impossible to translate mix between stubborness and desire. “You only fail if you do not try” said the 30-year-old Lendl, ending a streak of 10 consecutive wins on grass and 5 Wimbledon semifinals ina row, maybe even believing it.
But to define the rivarly between Edberg and Lendl Australia must be the place to start. In 1985, they faced for the first time in a Grand Slam in the last edition on the grass at Kooyong. The world was changing, Lendl had won his first major in Paris the previous summer, Edberg had become the youngest to play for a Davis Cup winner (until Chang, a slightly younger 18 in 1990), performing a consequential one-day role in Sweden's startling upending of the U.S.
in the final at Goteborg. He and Anders Jarryd clinched the 4-1 victory by stunning Peter Fleming and John McEnroe, unbeaten in 14 previous Cup starts, 7-5, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5. Everyone agreed that Mats Wilander, the eventual No.1 that pressed to give birth to the actual ATP World Tour, would play the leading role.
Edberg couldn't stand the association between him and Wilander: he passed to his trademark one-handed backhand, he revealed, not to be compared and confused with him in the group of Swedes of his generation. Instead, Edberg moved through his first Grand Slam semifinal.
And he had to face the World No.1, Ivan Lendl, and his perfect groundstrokes. Edberg had the merit the merit to hold, hanging on to his efficient service, his backhand volleys and killing backhand, after losing the first set tiebreak.
The Swede brought the match to a decider, remained true true to his convictions, saved all breakpoints before concluding 9-7. Then, in a final without much suspense, Edberg he got an intense satisfaction in destroying Wilander 6-4 6-3 6-3 to seal his first major title.
It's not a coincidence that for many years to come the Australian Open logo was modeled on Edberg's service movement. In swift executions by different methods, five years later they won two of the most one-sided Grand Slam semifinals since the Open era began in 1968 and meet each other for the first and last time in a major final at Melbourne Park.
The ending was anti-climactic. After the huge anticipation and expectations, a pulled abdominal muscle forced Stefan Edberg to retire late in the third set with the score, 4-6, 7-6, 5-2. He became the second player to retire from a Grand Slam final because of an injury after H.Roper Barrett in 1911 at Wimbledon.
''Maybe if I could have got that second set I could have bluffed my way through and won in three sets,'' Edberg said. ''But right after the second set I thought I wasn't going to last much longer.
There's no way I could beat Ivan by staying back and not being able to serve.'' ''It was not the greatest way to win,'' Lendl said after clinching his eighth major title. ''Stefan displayed great courage in continuing to play when he was in such pain.
I've had the same injury and it really hurts.'' Edberg, who was forced to retire also during the 1989 quarterfinal clash against Pat Cash, looked deceptively fragile, vulnerable. And in 1991 he lost, as the Italian well-known tennis writer Gianni Clerici stated, for a cap.
The Swede wasted the first of two match-points with a disastrous volley, at 5-4 in the fourth set, and even committed a double fault on the second. Lendl was playing in one of the legionary models, like the cap Jean Gabin won in "La bandera".
Two years earlier he had risked to collapse under the Australian sun against Thomas Muster. Inspired by Rod Laver, who used to wear a cap lined with a leaf of cauliflower inside, and his coach at the time, Tony Roche, who wore that model during an exhibition in his club, Lendl surrendered to the utility of a cap.
Edberg, on the contrary, faced the sun unconvered and all of a sudden started to mis-hif. He gifted Lendl a total of 12 double faults, including one on his second match point, as he fell 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 7-6, 6-4 to the two-time defending champion who finished it off with a forehand winner in the corner ran to the net, pumping both fists over his head, then consoled Edberg with a pat on the back.
Edberg won a last epic five-setter quarter-final against the longtime nemesis Ivan Lendl to reach the Australian Open semifinals in 1992. "I didn't really have too much chance in the beginning," said Edberg, who broke when Lendl was serving at 5-4 in the second set as he made three unexpected unforced errors, all on forehands.
Edberg lost only 7 points on serve in the last two sets and won 4-6, 7-5, 6-1, 6-7 (5-7), 6-1. Few months later, they would play their last clash at Us Open. They had met at Flushing Meadows for the first time in 1986. Lendl had just started change his game and the game as a whole.
He had hired Robert Haas, the dietist that turned Martina Navratilova in a champion, who persuaded him to buy a stair-master, transform his disordered way of eating and take aerobics lessons. In 1985, he met Alexis Castorri, a psychologist that worked on visualization, and Tony Roche, the Australian legend he chose to learn how to beat a lefty like McEnroe and muster the attacking-game to win Wimbledon.
Between 1985 and 1986, Lendl lost 13 matches out of 171 and remained the World No.1 from September 9, 1985 to September 5, 1988 (157 weeks in a row). He won 94 titles during that period and would remain into the top 10 for 13 years in a row.
That first Us Open meeting agaist Edberg became a rout, carved in typical Lendl fashion. He outlasted the Swede in a hard-fought first set, then dispatched him easily. ”The way he is playing now, he’s a little bit better than all the others,” Edberg said.
Lendl, who followed Fibak and became as an exile living in Greenwich more American than the Americans, made history: for the first time, four native-born Czechoslovaks played in the men’s and women’s finals (Lendl faced Mecir, Martina Navratilova met Helena Sukova in women’s final).
"There is nothing more beautiful or more breathtaking than Stefan Edberg's tennis game when he is on. Every stroke is poetic, every movement lyrical" Alison Muscatine of the Washington Post once wrote. One of his most lyrical performances came against Lendl in the 1991 Us Open semifinal.
Playing with the kind of cold-blooded game usually associated with his opponent, he forced the action to win 6-3, 6-3, 6-4. “Right now, it gives me more pleasure at the moment to be in the Open finals than to be No. 1,” said Edberg.
“That’s why I am here: to win it.” And he did it, after one of the most devastating final round performances, beating 6-2, 6-4, 6-0 Jim Courier, holding serve throughout. “Edberg, a first-round loser the year before (to Volkov)” Bud Collins noted, “was the second in the tournament's history to spring from such ignominy to the title.
Mal Anderson did so in 1957”. Ivan Lendl was characterized 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, Lendl had just beaten Connors in the 1992 Us Open second round.
In the quartera, he would face Edberg in their 27th and final clash. Lendl saved four match points as the rain hit. Edberg, who led two-sets-to-one when the delay hit, dropped the set 5-7 when play resumed. He took a 2-1 lead in the fift, when rain again suspended the match.
On the next day, after 50 minutes, the longtime rivals were in their tiebreaker. “Ivan has played his best tennis,” Edberg said. “It’ll be impossible for him to get back to his level of 1985 and 1986. You play your best tennis in your mid-20s, and he’s 32.
You can still play good tennis in your 30s, but you’re not as consistent. That’s the way it is”. Edberg won 6-3, 6-3, 6-4, then he would overcome Chang 6-4 in the fifth after 5 hours and 26 minutes and refuse to relinquish the title, beating Pete Sampras in the final.
That was his last major title. That was the end of a glorious rivalry. The beginning of a new era. .