Wednesday, 16 January 2013

1985 Australian Open: Stefan Edberg

Your starter for ten: Which country was the most successful tennis nation in terms of men's grand slam single tournaments won during the 1980s? USA? No, sorry. West Germany? No. The United Kingdom? Now you're just being sarcastic. If you said Sweden, then award yourself top marks. You see, if Google Translate is to be believed then the 1980s really was a fantastiska årtionde for the Swedes, a time of Borg, Wilander, and Edberg, thirteen grand slam titles, seven consecutive Davis Cup final appearances, and three wins in the team event. A decade that started off all about Borg v McEnroe, evolved into Sweden v America, and then Sweden v the rest of the world, as the arrival of the precocious talents of Wilander and Edberg swept across the sport. The 1985 Australian Open was a microcosm of the decade, as Sweden came, saw, and conquered all before them. Borg may have disappeared from the scene, but the baton had been well and truly passed on, and in Melbourne during November-December 1985, there was no stopping the Super Swedes.

Mats Wilander had announced himself to the tennis viewing public by winning the French Open in 1982, the youngest ever man at the time to have won a grand slam event, at just 17. It soon became apparent that this was not a one-off event; in 1983 and 1984 Wilander won consecutive Australian Opens, and in 1985 regained his French Open crown. Stefan Edberg meanwhile had managed to chalk up the small matter of a junior grand slam in 1983 - still the only man to achieve this - and by 1985 he had already reached the last sixteen at Wimbledon and the US Open, as well as quarter final appearances at both the French and Australian Opens. At the age of 19 it looked as if Edberg had the tennis world at his feet. He had already been through a great deal in his short life however. During the 1983 US Open junior final, a serve by Edberg hit the American linesman Dick Wertheim on the groin, causing him to topple backwards and crack his head on the hardcourt surface. Tragically Wertheim never recovered consciousness, and it is rumoured that a 17-year-old Edberg was naturally so upset by the accident that he considered quitting the sport. The mental toughness of the Swede, that would serve him so well during his career, helped him through this traumatic period in his life.

Wilander was seeded third for the Australian Open, looking to make it three titles in a row, and with Edberg as fifth seed, the draw offered a real possibility of an all-Swedish final. There were many obstacles to overcome though; world number one Ivan Lendl was a formidable player, two-time grand slam winner and five-times runner-up. The whole world knew about John McEnroe's abilities on a tennis court, and his somewhat suspect temper that went with it. And then there was another young sensation of the sport. Boris Becker, now aged a relatively ancient eighteen, in comparison to his 17-years, 227 days that had seen him triumph at Wimbledon (and steal Wilander's mantle as the youngest male winner of a grand slam singles event), was obviously a threat on the grass surface of Melbourne. One notable absentee was Jimmy Connors, although this was hardly a surprise, as Connors had not played at the Australian Open since 1975, due to a combination of the remote location of Australia, poor timing in the season, and the relatively low status of the event. Even so, the tournament was beginning to grow in stature, and the combination of a change in scheduling - from 1987 onwards the tournament would be held at the start of the tennis season in January - and a new venue - in 1988 the move to the hardcourts of Flinders Park was a vast improvement on the grass courts of the Kooyong Stadium - meant that the Australian Open would slowly grow into the tournament we know today.

With a field of 96 players, most of the world's top players received a bye through to the second round. Unfortunately from a British perspective, this meant that only John Lloyd made it into the last 64. Jeremy Bates led American Marc Flur 7-6 6-5 before his match was abandoned for the day due to bad weather, and with no play possible on day two, the organisers were already up against things in terms of scheduling. Bates took the second set, but then capitulated, to complete a miserable round for the Brits. Stuart Bale lost in straight sets to Israel's Shlomo Glickstein, and both Colin Dowdeswell and Stephen Shaw were forced to retire from their matches with muscle injuries, limping out of the tournament in more ways than one.

You don't need to be a tennis historian to understand that British tennis wasn't in the greatest state, on the court at least. Although the Lawn Tennis Association made a pre-tax profit of £2,880,281, the rest of the world was leaving Britain trailing when it came to playing ability. A large proportion of this profit came from television money gained from Wimbledon, which was reported to be worth a cool £8 million. But as we all know from Sky and the Premier League, when television is the paymaster it can start to dictate terms. A case in point during the 1985 Australian Open was the announcement that Wimbledon would now use yellow balls instead of the traditional white ones, due to television viewing demands. Now this may seem like a trifling matter, but back in 1985 it was big news. Nigel Clarke, writing in the Daily Mirror under a headline 'WIMBLEDON GIVES IN TO TV', was apoplectic: "So another brick is removed from the walls of Jericho that have stood for everything that was traditional about tennis in this country," raged Clarke, adding that all tradition had almost disappeared from the great tournament: "There's only the ivy and the strawberries and cream left." This, coupled with the poor first round showing in Melbourne, must have led to some British tennis traditionalists spontaneously combusting.

The tournament really got under way once all the top seeds began their quest for glory. In a round where five of the sixteen seeds were sent packing, the biggest shock of all was undoubtedly Boris Becker's five set defeat to world number 188 Michiel Schapers. The Dutchman, standing at 6 foot 6 inches tall, managed to defeat the reigning Wimbledon champion on grass, although it was fast becoming apparent that the courts in Melbourne were far from ideal. "The court is bumpy and not as firm as Wimbledon. When the conditions are that bad there is very little difference between the world's fifth best player and one ranked 188," noted Becker, and to be fair he wasn't the only player who would voice his concerns during the tournament. His 3-6 6-4 7-6 4-6 6-3 defeat in 3 hours and 15 minutes, opened up the draw for Edberg, who easily won his opening match in straight sets against Bud Schultz.

Becker's defeat was not the only surprise of the round. John Lloyd beat eleventh seed Tomas Smid from Czechoslovakia 7-5 6-7 7-6 6-3, and other seeds to exit immediately were David Pate, Henrik Sundstrom, Greg Holmes, and Scott Davis, the latter defeated by the Yugoslav Slobodan Zivojinovic, who we would be hearing a lot more of throughout this event. The number one seed, Ivan Lendl, avoided any such slip-ups, although he did lose the second set of his match 6-0 to the Wimbledon junior champion Leonardo Lavalle of Mexico, before coming through in four sets. Another four set winner was Wilander, who defeated the South African qualifier Gary Muller.

And then there were the antics of the Superbrat. Annoyed at the state of the court in his match against Danie Visser, McEnroe demanded to see the referee Peter Bellenger. Unable to get the solution he wanted, McEnroe threw his toys out of the pram, pointing out to the balding Bellenger that "If this court's all right you've got hair on the top of your head." To make things worse, British umpire Jeremy Shales then penalised McEnroe a point in the third set for an audible obscenity. In all, McEnroe's outbursts would cost him £800 and a 21-day ban after the Australian Open for exceeding the £5000 limit in fines during the season. McEnroe was adamant however that the court was not fit for play: "It is without doubt the worst grass court I've ever played on. I can't begin to describe how hard it is and you have to run uphill on each side to get to the net." This, along with his eventual four-set win, was all in a day's work for the American. He was only just warming up.

The third round was just as tetchy. Lendl picked up a £350 fine for using more blue language on court, dropping a set again before seeing off American Ben Testerman. Schapers and his compatriot Huub Van Boeckel became embroiled in an argument over a bad call in their match, which Schapers eventually won 6-2 6-4 7-6, but the slanging match continued after a cursory shaking of hands at the net. Even the usually mild-mannered John Lloyd was angered at the goings-on in his match against Jakob Hlasek, who it appeared had waved the white flag in the final set of their match. After winning 6-3 6-4 6-3, Lloyd revealed his frustration: "He got me mad when he began to hit fancy shots in the middle of the third set....He was throwing the match really because he knew I had him." The Swedes progressed without too much drama though, Wilander easily beating Leif Shiras (only dropping seven games in doing so), and although Edberg lost a second set tie-break to the American Matt Anger, he got the job done comfortably enough in four sets. Nigeria's Nduka Odizor took a set off McEnroe - even serving an underhand ace at one point - but the American moved through to the next round relatively quietly. He would be joined in the last sixteen by fellow Americans Tim Gullikson, Jay Lapidus, Tim Wilkison, Tim Mayotte, and Johan Kriek (who had become an American citizen in 1982).

Round four was all about McEnroe again, although this time at least some of the headlines were of a more positive nature. His superb fightback against thirteenth seed Henri Leconte in a five-setter that lasted 3 hours 15 minutes showed the world that McEnroe still had the stomach for the fight. "It was a crazy match. But I always expected him to crack," stated McEnroe, who at various points in the match looked dead and buried, saving five set points in the second set (already trailing by a set), and from 5-1 down in the fourth set tie-break he reeled off six consecutive points to level up the match. Obviously this stirring comeback was tainted slightly, with McEnroe warned for unsportsmanlike behaviour, arguing with a linesman, and fined £1000 for swearing at a spectator. Alas, you had to learn to take the rough with the smooth when it came to McEnroe.

There was more joy for John Lloyd, who came through an epic match with seventh seed Joakim Nystrom of Sweden, to win 6-2 1-6 6-4 6-7 6-4, coming back from 3-0 down in the last set. "I thought at one stage I was gone," admitted a thrilled Lloyd, who also got the backing of his wife, Chris Evert-Lloyd stressing that "I'm very proud of him. He's playing well enough to be among the top 25", (Lloyd at the time was ranked world number 71). The scalp of Nystrom was not to be underestimated. At Wimbledon, the Swede had taken Becker to five sets, and had beaten the German at the US Open, another fine Swedish cab on the rank. The two other Swedes in the draw moved into the quarter finals, albeit in slightly different circumstances. Wilander easily saw off Tim Wilkison, but Edberg looked in trouble when he lost the first two sets to Australian Wally Masur. However, Edberg won the third set tie-break, and then grew stronger and stronger, winning the final two sets 6-4 6-2, to complete a miserable week for Australian sport (New Zealand were to win their first cricket test series in Australia that week).

Zivojinovic continued his fine run in the tournament, beating eighth seed Mayotte 2-6 6-4 6-4 6-4, to set up a quarter final clash with McEnroe. Lendl again dropped a set against South African Christo Steyn, but won 6-3 6-2 6-7 6-2, although he was warned in the third set for ball abuse. Johan Kriek beat Jay Lapidus in straight sets, and Schapers completed the quarter final line-up, his opponent Tim Gullikson forced to retire in the second set, with Schapers already a set up.

The drama in the quarter finals again featured around John McEnroe. His 2-6 6-3 1-6 6-4 6-0 loss against world number 66 Zivojinovic, meant for the first time in three years, McEnroe would end the season without a grand slam singles title. McEnroe's struggles in the final set - he won just eleven points - led to a hasty departure from court, and a non-show at the after match press conference, resulting in yet another fine. Zivojinovic, on the other hand, was delighted at his win, pinpointing his recent practice sessions with Becker as one of the secrets to his new found success. McEnroe's defeat also meant that Lendl would collect £600,000 for finishing top of the Grand Prix standings come the end of the season.

Lendl inevitably ended the British interest in tournament, defeating John Lloyd 7-6 6-2 6-1, creating more controversy by wearing an oversized commercial tag on his shirt (tut tut). The Swedes both won in straight sets, Wilander beating Kriek, and Edberg ending the run of Becker's conqueror Schapers. For the very first time in Australian Open history, all four semi-finalists in the men's singles would come from Europe. It would also be the first time since 1973 that an American male would not win a grand slam singles event, and the drought would continue until Michael Chang won the French Open in 1989.

Although Zivojinovic had beaten Wilander in first round of Wimbledon, this time the Swede would get his revenge, winning 7-5 6-1 6-3 to reach his third Australian Open final in a row. The other semi-final was a four hour thriller. In a match spread over two days and with numerous rain breaks, Edberg defeated Lendl in a gruelling contest, finally winning 6-7 7-5 6-1 4-6 9-7. For Edberg, the match was almost a coming of age, as he saved three break points whilst trailing 3-2 in the final set, to set up the all Swedish final. "This could be the breakthrough that proves Stefan is made of the right stuff," noted Edberg's coach Tony Pickard. He was not wrong.

After two five-set marathons in his last three matches, Edberg could have been forgiven for a poor display in the final. What would transpire would be the complete opposite. Edberg totally dominated from start to finish, wrapping up his first grand slam title in just one hour 33 minutes, winning an anti-climatic final 6-4 6-3 6-3. Wilander, who had been attempting to join Jack Crawford and Roy Emerson in winning three consecutive Australian Open finals, only reached deuce on the Edberg serve once throughout the one-sided affair, and after squandering a rare couple of break points in the eighth game of the third set, his race was run. Edberg, like the rest of the tennis world, knew that he had been on a different planet on that December day back in 85: "I don't know what to say other than I don't think I can play any better. I've never been so happy in my life. It's hard to believe it has really happened." Up to fifth in the world (one place above Becker), and £65,000 better off, Edberg had arrived.

In Britain, eyebrows were understandably raised at how a British coach had aided Edberg in his victory, even more of a contentious issue considering the state of the game back home. The Daily Express' Ian Barnes wrote of the "scandal of British tennis" and included some quotes from Pickard calling the LTA "pitiful and pathetic." Whether Pickard could have made a difference at the time is arguable, but his influence certainly wouldn't have hurt British tennis. When a player as gifted as Stefan Edberg says "I really like Tony and I owe him a great deal," then you do wonder if the LTA missed a trick somewhere.

The European domination of men's tennis would continue throughout the remainder of the 80s. Only Pat Cash at Wimbledon in 1987, and Michael Chang at the 1989 French Open would break the stranglehold, in a purple period for tennis on the continent. Edberg and Wilander would enjoy their fair share of this success, achieving a Swedish grand slam in 1988, and ending the decade with ten grand slam titles between them. Sweden had a population of just over 8 million in 1985, and yet they still somehow managed to unearth two such special talents in tennis. And at the 1985 Australian Open, we all got to see for ourselves just how super those two Swedes were.


  1. The main thing I remember about Edberg was the little dance he used to do when waiting to receive serve. It never changed, he got into a rhythm and stuck with it.

    He also volleyed well, Swedes were supposed to be baseliners but him and Borg had volleys as good as the likes of Pat Cash and even McEnroe... though I remember McEnroe's net actions as being almost theatrical compared with the efficient Edberg.

    Anders Jarryd, there's a name from the past. Nearly beat Becker in 85 on an outside court, I remember. He had an intense stare, and his hair was almost as tall as he was lol. I think he won a doubles title in one GS, not Wimbledon.

  2. Also odd to think that Andrew Castle's entire tv career is based on not beating Mats Wilander.

    Why isn't Jeremy Bates on TV? He didn't beat a lot more people than Castle!!!

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