Toronto Masters: Stefan Edberg and his ‘very good journey’ with Federer

"Being around Roger and the way he is as a person on and off court has been a very good journey," says Stefan Edberg

roger federer stefan edberg
Stefan Edberg and Roger Federer Photo: Marianne Bevis

It is a rare and usually a rather special tennis player who ends their career with their name attached to something other than a tournament’s title.

In Melbourne, one of the greatest ever to play the game, Rod Laver, can now see his name in lights atop the arena of his home Grand Slam, the Australian Open.

In New York, the remarkable Billie Jean King—a great champion on court and an equally important champion of equality off court—has her name attached to the United States Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows.

Arthur Ashe spent his post-tennis career, until his premature death at 49, campaigning for equal rights and a better understanding of AIDs and HIV—and was subsequently chosen by the ATP to name one of its most prestigious annual awards, the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year.

In their company is another name that has become synonymous with a quality prized not just by fellow players but by sports fans the world over. Stefan Edberg won the ATP’s Sportsmanship Award so many times—five in all—that they named it after him.

At the Rogers Cup in Toronto this week, he is being honoured for his achievements on and off court by being inducted into the Hall of Fame of this, the third oldest tournament in tennis.

Edberg never won the Rogers Cup, though he was runner-up in 1986 and 1987, and did win the doubles title with Pat Cash. But by the time he retired in 1996, the popular Swede had won 41 titles—including four Masters and six Grand Slams—and 18 more in doubles, and had held the No1 ranking for a total of 72 weeks. The depth and breadth of his talent spread across all surfaces, and although he managed only to reach the final at Roland Garros, he remains the only player to win the junior Grand Slam, winning the Australian, French, Wimbledon and US Open in 1983.

He might have achieved even more were it not that he rose to the top of the game in the era of two all-time greats, Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe. Edberg lived in the top 10 for a decade, resided in the top five for eight years, but was kept short of the No1 ranking year after year. The reason? McEnroe had accumulated 170 weeks and Lendl 270 weeks at the top until Edberg finally claimed the ranking prize.

But the elegant Swede’s reputation was always about both the style of the tennis and of the man. Tall, slender, fluid, and blessed with cool Scandinavian looks and temperament, he managed to combine graceful shot-making with incisive power and accuracy.

He could sweep to the net behind his strong, swinging serve, while his volleying, swift and deft, is still held up as the model of effectiveness of style and execution over power. Rarely did he seem short of time, rarely out of position, picking up a volley from his feet with as much ease as above his shoulder, on his forehand or his backhand, touched short or sliced deep.

His ground strokes, too, were clean and efficient. Always single-handed on the backhand, and with an unusually short follow-through, the Edberg racket finished like a conductor’s baton: minimal spin, maximum accuracy.

So eye-catching was his tennis that Edberg became the role model for many an aspiring player. Pat Rafter, who was coming of age on the tour just as Edberg was contemplating retirement, inherited the Swede’s serve-and-volley—and sportsmanship—mantle, and said when they were reunited on the seniors tour in 2009: “Edberg was my idol.”

Now Edberg is 48 years old, still slender, still elegant, and with the same quiet, modest bearing, and he is back in Toronto. But in a happy completion of the tennis circle, he is here not just to pick up one more award but as mentor to another man who idolised him as a boy.

Roger Federer has never made a secret of his admiration for Edberg and since Federer has gone on to win more Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Awards than the eponymous Swede—currently nine of them and counting—it’s easy to see that the influence has gone beyond Federer’s predilection for the single-handed backhand, attacking net game, refined touch and graceful movement.

For while Federer has a more extrovert personality, and is clearly the more confident amid the off-court marketing that has become central to the tennis tour, both carry themselves on and off court with a certain grace and generosity. Just ask their fellow players, the ones who vote for that Sportsmanship gong.

So when Federer announced at the end of last year that his coaching team was to be joined by Edberg, there were few who did not afford themselves a smile. Federer was quick to stress that Edberg would not be a coach in the usual sense of the word but rather ‘an inspiration’—someone who would provide the X-factor as the great Swiss sought a little more from his maturing career.

Since their tie-up, Federer has also changed his racket to a larger model and has noticeably begun to play the more forward-moving game reminiscent of his early days on the tour—and of course, reminiscent of Edberg’s game.

So what induced the quiet Swede who retired from the hurly-burly with little thought of a career in coaching, who has enjoyed family life in Sweden and London, who plays the occasional Senior tournament, to return to the tour—and into the particularly glaring spotlight of Federer’s world?

“Let’s say it’s nothing that I thought that I ever would do, but obviously being around Roger and the way he is as a person on and off court has actually been a very, very good journey so far.

“I think it’s been good to be back on the tour in many ways. A, to work with Roger, which is fantastic, and be part of the game which I have been away from, and at the same time having some of the former players doing a job out there—obviously Boris [Becker].”

A fellow Grand Slam champion and two years Edberg’s junior, Boris Becker joined the Novak Djokovic camp last year. Two of the stars of the 80s and 90s, Edberg and Becker clashed 35 times, so it was an intriguing day at Wimbledon on final Sunday this year when the two entered opposing boxes on Centre Court to support their respective charges.

Edberg smiled at the recollection: “Well, it was quite a day when you think about it, you know, being on Centre Court again in the player’s box, sitting in the final and Boris on the opposite side.

“It was a good feeling to be back in the final again, but it’s so much different now because, you know, I don’t feel it like a rivalry as I did at the time when we were playing. It’s very different this time around.

“I think for many ways it’s worse sitting in the stands, because you can’t really do anything sometimes. You wish you could. But it’s actually been okay. I think the final there were a lot of feelings because it is a Wimbledon final. I think sometimes, because I have my son playing tennis, that’s been even tougher!”

But what does Edberg feel he can bring to the game of a man he has won just about everything, and many times over?

“Well, I would say I’m sort of part of a team. He has Severin who does most of the work. I would say that he is really the main coach who he has with him, and I step in for a few weeks where we’re together.

“I’m here on my own this week, and I think I’m coming in probably with a few ideas how [Federer] can handle different things, you know, maybe technically and a few small things. I can’t make that much of a difference, but a little bit of a difference I think I can make.

“What is great is that he still has the determination to go out there and work hard and still has the motivation, which I think is something that’s really, really important as he gets towards the end of this stage. And the way he is as a person, you know, on and off court, it’s been a great experience.”

He went on to talk about Federer’s renewed form after his relative drought of a season in 2013:

“He had a lot of troubles with injuries last year, and now he’s been healthy. I think that’s really been a key factor why he’s playing so much better than he did last year. So it’s been good to see him making some progress this year.

“As we all know, he was very, very close to winning at Wimbledon. There were one or two points that made a difference in that final, which was one of the better finals I have watched in many, many years.

“But that’s the way it is in tennis. I still believe the way he’s playing, and if he can keep working and stay healthy, he’s got a shot of doing very well here going forward.”

Edberg went on to talk about the huge influence Bjorn Borg had had on his own career, and about the chances of Federer winning one of the few titles missing from his resume—the Davis Cup—when he joins Stan Wawrinka in the semis in September.

All the while, the Swede looked just as contented as Federer had done the day before. Smiling, he went off to join the Swiss for a Q and A session with fans and finally, it was off to the practice courts, a calm and still smiling presence just within Federer’s field of vision, just sharing a few words here and there.

Ahead of his first match, he used one of Federer’s new rackets to knock up with him: Edberg, Federer and a tennis ball in perfect harmony.

Federer talked, this weekend, of a slight speeding up the courts here, and a hope that there may be room for more serve-and-volley play on the horizon. If he’s right, there can be few better players to have in your corner than Edberg, but also—to use a rather old-fashioned word—few nicer players either.

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