Of Wimbledon, Edberg, Chang and Ivanišević

Written by  //  June 18, 2011  //  Sport  //  14 Comments

Wimbledon, which begins on Monday, somewhat peculiarly isn’t my favourite Grand Slam tournament. The honour belongs to Roland Garros for reasons explained in an earlier post. It represents, though, something more. It isn’t merely about the tennis currently on display but the tennis that was once on display. It provides an opportunity to reminisce about the past. In many ways, my life as a tennis fan can be chronicled through the history of the Wimbledon Championships.

It was at Wimbledon, after all, that I fell in love with Stefan Edberg. My family wasn’t tennis-crazy, but my Grandfather in those days watched the sport, and particularly Wimbledon with rapt devotion. It was a time when the Becker-Edberg rivalry was at its zenith. I was too young to have an idea about the mechanics of the sport, but a choice had to be made between the pair. I would be giving myself undeserved credit if I were to say that it was the regal elegance of the Swede’s play that made me chose him over the German, but I doubt I was prone to such aesthetic-minded decisions at that age. For some reason or the other, though, Edberg, playing in his classic Adidas kit, captured my imagination like none before or since. To this day, when I watch re-runs of Edberg playing, I am glad, and even proud, that I made the right choice – for no player more artistically pleasing has ever graced the sport. Somehow, my earliest memories of Edberg have nothing to do with his actual on-court skills, but the jump over the net that he made to greet his opponent who would surely have been slain with sinuous, easy grace.

To me Edberg’s tennis epitomised beauty. His classical service action – which is now used as the Australian Open’s logo – I tried replicating on the courts on many occasions, only for the attempts to end in glorious failure. His single-handed backhand was again a thing of beauty – often hit with the perfect amalgam of power, timing and placement. It was at the net, though, that he was at his finest. A more competent, finessed volley-er you will not see. He struck volleys on both wings with crisp ease that they were bizarrely both imperious and languid. To me the numbers matter little. Perhaps, his six Grand Slam titles do little justice to his talents, but it was his style of play that I was in thrall with. In fact, very soon after I became an Edberg fan, he was on the decline – he won the last of his Grand Slams in 1992 at Flushing Meadows, a tournament which I remember even if not vividly with much fondness.

The era of the Americans – Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi – had arrived. Outlandishly, though, it wasn’t anyone from this triumvirate that I supported, but it was the other American Michael Chang who caught my fancy. I am not as proud of this choice for Chang was but a baseline slugger. He retrieved balls from every corner of the court and counter-punched with magnificent vigour. His game was scarcely suited to the serene grass of Wimbledon and as I was not old enough to watch him win at Roland Garros in 1989 – ironically he defeated Edberg in the final – my time as his fan never saw him win anything substantial.

Sampras had, by now, begun to dominate tennis, and particularly Wimbledon, with tedious, yet impeccable excellence. Those around me were left in awe by the American’s play, but I remained dogged in my opposition – excellence isn’t necessarily a trait that one identifies with when growing up. I needed a player to counter his machine-like efficiency and again my choice was curious. The enigmatic Goran Ivanišević was a popular player, but one who was ultimately flawed. He could serve with monstrous power and remarkable accuracy, but his game was otherwise limited. The Croat lost in the final at Wimbledon in 1992 to Agassi – in a five set humdinger – and in 1994 and 1998 to Sampras who polished him off during the big-points like he was swatting a fly.

Tragedy and Ivanišević rarely seemed too far apart, but his tennis had a magnetic pull to it. One wanted to be attached to his solitude, to feel the catastrophe of his losses. There was something innately human about him, as much as there was something robotic about Sampras. And when in 2001, the Croat, as a wildcard entrant, hiccupped his way into the final against Patrick Rafter, the stage was set for the ultimate tennis story. After five sets of gruelling, heart-wrenching tennis, Ivanišević clinched his first and only Wimbledon, 9-7 in the decider. It was a titanic struggle, but the victory was amongst the sweetest I have experienced as a fan of the sport.

This, the last paragraph from Guardian’s game-by-game report of the 2001 final captures beautifully the concluding moments and the sweet joy of Ivanišević’s victory:

“Drama, drama. This game encapsulates Goran. A bad decision sees him go 0-15. Then a double-fault to take it to 15-30. Then a second service ace at 116mph. 30-30: he calls for the same ball. He aces it to give him championship point. The crowd have gone ballistic. Goran is weeping. Boom. Is it an ace? No, it’s out. And then he double-faults. On match point! Deuce. A big serve gives him the advantage. Guess what? Yup – another double-fault! Rafter pushes one down the line. But it’s out and Goran goes to his knees and lifts his eyes to heaven. He kisses the ball. But what nerve and presence of mind from Rafter to lob from there. And so perfectly. Deuce. But another chance for Goran. He asks for the same ball again. Rafter puts it into the net. GORAN’S WON.”

About the Author

Suhrith Parthasarathy is a journalist currently living and writing in New York. Suhrith grew up in Chennai, India and studied law at the National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata. He practiced as an attorney for two years before giving up the law for journalism. He is presently studying for his masters at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. You can find him on Twitter (@suhrith) or on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/suhrithparthasarathy)

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14 Comments on "Of Wimbledon, Edberg, Chang and Ivanišević"

  1. Dhiya Susan Kuriakose June 18, 2011 at 8:57 am ·

    I know exactly what you mean about Wimbeldon not being your favourite Slam. I feel exactly the same way, Roland Garros does it for me too, but my love for tennis too begin with the Wimbeldon.

    Loved this. I like how simply and honestly you give your readers a peek into your mind and opinions.

  2. Tushar June 18, 2011 at 9:31 am ·

    Ivan Lendl. Better than Edberg. ANY DAY.

  3. Harsh June 18, 2011 at 12:38 pm ·

    A superb piece! Edberg was the first tennis player I watched as well! there was grace and beauty in the game and over the years I have felt that it had so much to do with the quality of the videos/the print/the green courts of Wimbeldon look yellowish in a nice kind of way, that makes them feel older and true classic aside from the great Edberg-Becker finals!

  4. Arghya June 18, 2011 at 5:11 pm ·

    Loved the piece Suhrith. Like Tushar, my favourite player was Lendl too. but I liked Edberg a lot particularly do you remember this really energetic shuffle of feet just when he was about to receive serve? And the banana at almost every break? Etched in my memory for ever.

  5. Rachit June 18, 2011 at 5:20 pm ·

    nice. i have very very vague memories of Edberg, remember liking him, but not more than Agassi :)
    Goran is an inspiring story.

  6. Suhrith June 20, 2011 at 3:11 am ·

    Thanks, Dhiya. Very kind of you.

  7. Suhrith June 20, 2011 at 3:13 am ·

    I don’t remember much of Lendl at all, but the banana at every break and Edberg’s shuffle of feet, like you say, are well etched in memory.

  8. Suhrith June 20, 2011 at 3:17 am ·

    Thanks, Harsh. Ya, when you look back now, there was a greater tranquility about Wimbledon in those days. But that said, it’s one of the few sporting events that has embraced change while retaining its core traditional value. Read this piece by Tim de Lisle on why we need more Wimbledons: http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/lifestyle/tim-de-lisle/wanted-more-wimbledons

  9. Suhrith June 20, 2011 at 3:18 am ·

    Thanks for your comment, Rachit. Somehow neither Sampras nor Agassi captured my imagination. I enjoyed their rivalry, though.

  10. Kerryanne E December 17, 2011 at 10:36 pm ·

    When I discovered tennis it was in the 3rd Round of Wimbledon in 1986. Tennis had never held anything resembling interest to me. I was round my first boyfriends house and his family were tennis fans. I had to politely sit and watch it. However on this particular day, a certain Stefan Edberg was playing (and to this day I don’t remember who is opponent was). He lost, but I was surprised at just how much I wanted him to win that match. You see I LOVED his game and right there and then I discovered Tennis and Edberg. That was it for me. My love for tennis was born and I am now a devoted tennis nut. Roland Garros will never live up past Wimbledon for me, quite simply because Edbergs game suited the grass and never the clay. I love my grass court tennis because of Edberg, his legs and his game. His retirement caused me great sadness and it was going to be a few more years of grieving before Andy Roddick caught my attention (and I have still have no idea why!!!!). However, my favourite tennis player remains Edberg (nobody else has attained such a loving devotion from me – tennis wise) and although I never got to see him play when he was a professional (although I tried on many occasions). I did get to meet him at Wimbledon 1991 during a rain delay and finally got to watch him play tennis at the Royal Albert Hall in December 2009 when he played the ATP Champions Tour.

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