WIMBLEDON, England — For a moment there, I thought we were on the brink of tennis history. I thought Stefan Edberg was actually going to raise his voice!
Well, wouldn’t you? If you had surrendered your crown at Wimbledon without losing a single game on your serve? If you had gone to three tiebreakers — tennis’ version of overtime — and blown all three with boo-boos? If John McEnroe had done that, we’d still be cleaning up the bodies.
So as I rushed to Edberg’s press conference in the basement of the big green stadium, I figured finally, after years of thrilling us with such exciting post-game statements as “I had my chances. I played well. He played well. We pla . . . zzzzzz” — finally, we were going to hear some emotion from the man who owned Wimbledon two of the last three summers. Stefan speaks out!
Of course, this would have meant immediate expulsion from his home country, Sweden, where even truckers have bumper- stickers that read “Shhhhh!” The Swedes, rumor has it, believe that too many words cause premature death, which is why tennis stars such as Edberg, Mats Wilander and Bjorn Borg always spoke in a whisper.
(By the way, please don’t write me letters saying “You churl! What do you know about Sweden?” It just so happens I have been there, several times, on doctors orders to get some peace and quiet. And I can safely report the following: Sweden is a wonderfully flat place that refuses to go to war with anyone because it would require getting up early. Also, it is full of gorgeous blond people that look — no matter when you catch them — as if they’ve never
been sick a day in their lives.
Unfortunately, their conversations go like this:
“There is fine milk today.”
“I am fit.”
“Sky is everywhere.”
“Will you snorkle?”
“I am fit.”
“Good morning.”) Nearly flawless in failure
So you can imagine what Wimbledon has been like with Stefan as king. But Friday? Well. Friday was different. Friday was weird. Edberg, who had not lost a set all tournament, won the first against his young German challenger, Michael Stich, then lost the next three — while playing nearly flawless tennis!
He held his serve in the second set — as did Stich — they went to 6-6, then into a tiebreaker. Lo and behold, Edberg double-faulted twice! He lost the set. Double-faulted? Stefan? As they say in Sweden . . . well, whatever they say.
Back to work. Edberg played another fine set. Held his serve again. Went to another tiebreaker. Then, trailing 6-5, he was at the net when Stich lofted a ball high over his head. Edberg backed up, looked up, swung for the smash — and missed everything! A whiff?
There went another set.
By this point, McEnroe would be loading the machine gun. But as they say in Sweden . . . well, whatever they say. Stefan went back to work. Another flawless set on serve. And another tiebreaker. This time, he came forward on the third point, just as Stich smacked the ball into the net. It hit the tape, and bounced over Edberg’s racket like a spaceship darting away from an asteroid.
A few minutes later, Edberg failed to return two Stich serves, and that was it. He had been dethroned — 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 6-7 — without losing a game on his service. As far as we know, that has never happened at Wimbledon.
Boy, is Stefan gonna be mad! Emotion missing; greatness remains
Or is he? As they say in Sweden . . . well, whatever they say. Edberg came into the interview room as animated as oatmeal.
“Stefan, how painful was this defeat?”
“It’s a pity. . . . I had a few chances.”
“Stefan, what went through your mind when you walked off the court?”
“I did what I could. There is nothing else to do. He played well. I played well.”
“Stefan, you lost three tiebreaks today. Do you agree that tiebreaks should not be allowed in Grand Slam events?”
“No. Because otherwise we would still be out there in the second set.”
Wait a minute. He made a joke!
What he did not do was get mad. Maybe he went home and set his bed on fire, but with us, he was the model of calm, unexcited behavior. No raised voice. Personally, I doubt Stefan will ever raise his voice, even if a Buick runs over his foot.
So much for the historic moment. Edberg is a great player, and he could be back on top really soon. Meanwhile, the Swedish style is safe and sound. Earlier in the day, I wandered past a Wimbledon juniors match and a couple of 17-year-olds were playing. One was an American who kept yelling at his racket, the other a Swede who looked like a young Robert Redford in “Barefoot in the Park.” The Swedish kid, perfectly silent, won the match with a blistering final serve. He picked up his bag, and walked off into the crowd. Didn’t even need a towel.
You know what I figure? I figure he’ll be champion here in three years, that’s what I figure.