EDBERG: SPLENDOR IN THE WET GRASS

r “I didn’t know how to react, so I just fell backwards. It worked out all right, I think.”

Stefan Edberg, on his moment of victory

WIMBLEDON, England — Well, knock us all over. Look who just won Wimbledon. Stefan Edberg, the shy one, the quiet one, the “other guy” across from superstar Boris Becker, whom he beat 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2. Look. There he is. Lying belly-up on the damp grass of Centre Court, smiling in disbelief. Why not? He just became the first Swede since Bjorn Borg to capture this title, and the only person I’ve ever heard of who moved to England for the weather.

Weather?

Did someone say weather?

Look out! It’s raining. Now it stops. Now it’s pouring. Down with the net, up with the tarp, oops, down with the tarp, up with the net. Here was a final that began Sunday, finished Monday and had so much rain, Yannick Noah could have brought in animals two by two. Slow? The 1988 trophy should be inscribed
“Wim . . . ble . . . don cham . . . pi . . . on.” If this were a Sylvester Stallone film, it would be a sequel already. “WIMBLEDON III: HE WENT BACK FOR HIS UMBRELLA.”

But let’s talk tennis:

When it was played, once it was played, this was a charming little story about a handsome young Swede who has a heck of a serve and a heck of a net game, but has taken his lumps for being dull. Which is not altogether false. Someone once asked Stefan Edberg, 22, to tell the funniest joke he’d ever heard.

Q: Why did the Norwegian take sandpaper into the desert?

A: He thought it was a map.

Cracks you up, right? Becker missed easy shots Which brings us to another subject: Edberg’s concentration. For all his enormous tennis talent, he could, they said, be broken mentally. Becker had done it a month ago at Queen’s Club; stalled him, played mind games, and forced two double faults in the last set.

On Monday, however, it was Becker — the two-time Wimbledon champion — who couldn’t keep his focus. He missed easy shots, including match point, which he slapped into the net from just a few feet away. (“I couldn’t believe that,” Edberg would say. “He could have put that ball anywhere.”) Becker tried to restore his intensity: He screamed, he slammed his racket, and even did a little rain dance, not that we needed any help with that, thank you.

“The matches before this one took a lot out of me,” Becker admitted afterward. “I had already beaten the defending champion (Pat Cash) and the No. 1 player in the world (Ivan Lendl). When I went to play the final it was like, ‘What the hell am I still doing here?’ “

Tell us about it, Boris: We’re out of underwear. This was not a Wimbledon for traditionalists, who like a trophy on Sunday and a plane out on Monday. Gone were the strawberries. Gone was the cream. All we had Monday were wet, weary fans with nothing to eat. In the final set, one of them let loose a napkin, which floated over the court. Becker jokingly lobbed a ball at it.

“Missed again, Boris!” someone yelled.

Tough crowd.

But let’s talk about the champion, Edberg, blond, 6-foot-2, eyes of blue, who hails from a small Swedish town but lives in the Kensington section of London. Why? They say he likes the weather and the tax break. Not necessarily in that order.

“It’s hard to believe I really won,” he said after accepting the silver trophy from the Duke of Kent. “This could have been the best tennis I’ve ever played in a Grand Slam final. After I won the second-set tiebreaker, I felt like I could hardly miss the ball.”

He hardly did. That tiebreaker (7-2) erased any doubts about his desire; his serve and volley took care of the rest. Although most Swedish players prefer a baseline game, Edberg (who is coached by a Brit named Tony Pickard) attacks the net. He loves to volley. And even when he was deep Monday, his passing shots were so dead-eye accurate, he often left Boom-Boom sprawled in the grass-grass.

“A lot of players say winning Wimbledon changes their lives,” a British reporter noted. “Do you think it will change yours?”

“Well, I don’t know,” said Edberg, “it hasn’t changed yet.”

Hey. He made a joke.

Edberg-Graf new first couple

OK. Give that man an umbrella. Edberg joins Steffi Graf as a first-time Wimbledon champion — the first new couple since Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert won in 1974. And good for him. When he fell backwards in joy after that winning point, he put an exclamation point on a blazing young career that had heretofore gone largely unnoticed.

Not anymore.

“It’s going be a lot more fun coming out to practice having won this,” he admitted. “Life will be easier, I think.”

We hope, Stefan. We hope. As for Becker? “Well, I think,” he said, smiling,
“I leave this country and go someplace warm.”

Right. Good idea. And so ends this year’s Wimbledon, on a Monday instead of Sunday, on a summer day during a freezing rainstorm, with two new champions: a West German teenager and a nice-guy Swede who is suddenly making jokes. That’s a wrap, folks. It can rain all it wants now. Signing off from jolly old England, where it’s always the cold and flu season, we say to Stef and Steffi, good luck, God bless and . . .

Ah-choo!

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