Stefan Edberg: The Tennis Week Interview
The Tennis Week Interview: Stefan Edberg
By Richard Pagliaro
The Scottsdale sunshine casts a golden glow across the Grand Slam champion poised to serve. He is one of tennis' most highly respected sportsman, but from the shadows across the court, Stefan Edberg is about to feel the heat of high stakes tennis in his return to the competitive court.
"Edberg, you're too old! Show me what you've got!" screams his opponent, an exuberant Las Vegas weatherman who is trying to apply the heat to the customarily cool Swede.
Edberg the target of taunts?
Even though the joking comment is issued completely in good fun, the sight is as surprising as seeing someone spray painting graffiti in Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. An unfazed Edberg takes the trash-talking in stride before responding with a bold challenge of his own.
"I'll give you $100 if you touch this serve," Edberg evenly replies.
The challenge elicits a buzz of excitement from the crowd of about 100 people seated around the hard court on white plastic chairs and nearly everyone leans forward in eager anticipation at the action about to unfold.
Most members of the crowd have paid about $775 to attend this three-day adidas Stefan Edberg Fantasy Camp conducted on the eight hard courts of the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort at Gainey Ranch last weekend. Virtually every one of the attendees have enjoyed the experience of trading shots and and stories with the six-time Grand Slam champion, 17th-ranked Meghann Shaughnessy and the energetic and entertaining staff of the ITUSA who have run the camp. The camp culminates on Sunday with Edberg, Shaughnessy and former No. 1 Martina Hingis rallying with more than 60 of us hackers who have traveled from all over the country to play with and against the greats of the game.
The challenge from the former No. 1 is so unlike Edberg, you begin to wonder if John McEnroe's bravado has briefly been implanted in his brain, but it intensifies the excitement of the tiebreaker.
The classic Edberg service motion begins: the lofty service toss, the index finger extended slightly on his right hand which is wrapped around the brown, leather grip of his Wilson racquet, the deep knee bend the exposes the bulging muscles of his quads bursting from beneath the bottom of his adidas shorts, the impossibly acute arch of his back and then Edberg explodes upward and launches a kick serve that soars so high it would easily eclipse the top tier of Wimbledon's Centre Court as well as the star that shines from atop the Christmas tree in Manhattan's Rockefeller Center.
The ball clears the net, the back fence and the towering light post overlooking the court and continues its flight path beyond the boundaries of the facility probably settling somewhere on the side of East Doubletree Ranch Road, a yellow felt companion to the cactus that dots the desert.
Everyone erupts in spontaneous laughter and applause and even Edberg offers a sly smile.
More than seven years removed from his final match on the ATP Tour, Edberg looks almost exactly as you last saw him when he glided across the court. His short blond hair is parted from the left side, he stands so straight you could balance tennis balls on his head without worrying about one bouncing off and he's clad in the clean adidas outfit that was his customary attire during his 14-year career.
The 37-year-old Edberg moves with the effortless ease of a man who looks like he could compete with world-class athletes at any sport you spontaneously select.
Edberg has a dry, understated sense of humor. At one point during a break from the camp drills, we ask where we can see him play next and Edberg replies with a smile: "You can see me anytime you like — on old match videos."
Those videos provide a view of one of the most graceful players to ever play the game
A six-time Grand Slam champion, Edberg amassed 41 singles titles and 18 doubles championships in his career. Edberg and McEnroe are the only men in Open Era history to hold the No. 1 ranking in both singles and doubles simultaneously. Edberg is such a gentleman it often obscures the truth about his game: stylistically speaking he was a revolutionary in his home country. He shattered the Swedish stereotype of swift, steady, stoic baseliners who modeled their styles on 11-time Grand Slam champion Bjorn Borg. Edberg's aggressive attacking game may have looked risky, but like McEnroe before him he was in tune with a fundamental truth of tennis: the wide serve that pushed his opponent in pursuit off the court followed by the crisp volley into the open court he created is the highest-percentage play in tennis.
His athleticism and grace made him a wonder to watch. Compatriot Mats Wilander once told Tennis Week.com that "In their prime, Borg and Edberg weren't just the best tennis players in Sweden, they were the best athletes in Sweden."
He made his mark as a champion, and Edberg's integrity, honesty and sportsmanship made him one of the sport's most admired figures. Revered and respected by players and fans, Edberg always conducted himself with class both on and off the court. His superb sportsmanship is so legendary, Edberg not only earned the ATP's Sportsmanship Award a record five times, the ATP actually renamed the award in his honor — it is now known as the "Edberg Sportsmanship Award" — in 1996. The honor prompted the mercurial McEnroe, who Edberg cites as one of his toughest opponents, to jokingly wonder: "Why wasn't I under consideration?"
In his conversation and camp demonstrations, the message Edberg imparts is clear: express your individuality on the court. Find your own style, recognize your own strengths and actively try to win the point rather than playing prevent defense in an effort not to lose the point.
His kindness cannot be mistaken as weakness: Edberg has not succumbed to peer pressure from some former fellow champions to join the senior tour. It's not that he doesn't love tennis — in fact he freely admits he's played tennis two or three times a week nearly every week since he officially retired from the ATP Tour — he's just no longer interested in riding the merry-go-round of an organized tour.
There's a purity to Edberg's approach that is refreshing and admirable: he clearly still loves to hit tennis balls and is happy to do just that without any pursuit of further fame or glory or accolades.
Asked early on in the camp if he will consider conducting it again next year, Edberg deadpans: "that depends on how nice you guys are to me." He knows what makes him happy — spending as much time as he can with his family at home in Sweden — and has little interest in turning his life into a road show.
The man who was always certain of his direction on the court — moving forward and attacking the net — is equally comfortable in pursuing his own path on his own terms. On the final day of the camp, Edberg sat down with Tennis Week — or more precisely we stood in the corner of the court and spoke for this wide-ranging interview. Tennis Week: You're up for induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this year and it seems very likely you and Steffi Graf, both great classy champions and both adidas players, will be inducted in a prestigious class of 2004 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Hall of Fame. What would that honor mean to you?
Stefan Edberg: It would be a great honor and something to be very proud of. So many players have told me so many great things about it and I've never actually been there so I would really look forward to going there and seeing it very much.
Tennis Week: Do you do many of these clinics or exhibitions now?
Stefan Edberg: I do very few things during the year. I've said that to myself since I stopped playing: "I'm not going to get on the senior tour." I do somewhere around four exhibitions a year, mostly I've done it in Sweden in small clubs. I've done it (a legends match against former foe Boris Becker) at Queen's Club this year. So that I will do. This is really the first time I've done something like this (a fantasy camp) here. I want to be restricted on what I do and you don't want to over do things. You can do it once in a while. It means a lot of traveling too. I'm quite happy being at home now after traveling around the world for so many years.
Tennis Week: Do you still spend a lot of time in London (Edberg formerly lived in London)?
Stefan Edberg: No, I don't. I live in Sweden now so I hardly spend any time in London. I moved back to Sweden in the year 2000.
Tennis Week: I frequently hear people say "serve and volley tennis is dead", but this year we saw Tim Henman win Paris, Taylor Dent win three tournament titles, Roger Federer, playing all-court tennis with a great volley, win Wimbledon and finish the year No. 2 and players like Mardy Fish come to the net. Do you think serve-and-volley tennis is going to come back?
Stefan Edberg: It probably eventually will at some stage. I think if you look at tennis over the last 40 to 50 years, I think it's gone in cycles where you have the cycle of the serve and volleyer and then the baseliner takes over. If you have everybody playing the same, then somebody comes up with some other goods they're going to be successful.
Tennis Week: Federer is so exciting to watch because his style is so different.
Stefan Edberg: Yes, that's right. He's got the goods now and he'll be the next one to take over and maybe more players will be like him and play a bit more aggressive.
Tennis Week: Federer has said in the past he liked your style. Do you see any of your stylistic influence in him or any other player?
Stefan Edberg: What I think is — if you have to put some players in different categories — I think you can put myself, Sampras and Federer in the same mold. We play — not exactly the same — but we do play similar. We all pretty much have got the goods. We sort of move well on the court and play similar with serve-and-volley. I was there. Maybe Sampras took over from me and now Federer will take over from Sampras.
Tennis Week: Of all the young players on the ATP Tour, who do you think has the ability to emerge as a long-term No. 1?
Stefan Edberg: I think Roddick has the ability, especially since he's working with Brad Gilbert as his coach, to stay near the top. I think Federer has the greatest game of all the young guys. It's a matter of if he wants to work hard enough and has enough motivation and has the mental discipline and if he does, then I think he has the game to stay at the top for years.
Tennis Week: Who do you like to watch play?
Stefan Edberg: I quite like the way Roger Federer is playing the game. He's playing some great tennis. He's got all the shots and I think he's going to be a great player going forward. If he can just get things right between the ears because that's sometimes the toughest part. But he's got the goods — there's no question he's got the game. On the women's side, I like the way Justine Henin-Hardenne hits the one-handed backhand because that's becoming such a rare shot now.
Tennis Week: So many of the Swedes were and are baseliners. Who influenced you when you were growing up?
Stefan Edberg: It was definitely Borg with all his success. But I'm one of the very few (Swedes) that went my own way. I practiced a lot on my serve-and-volley when I was younger and sort of found my own style. I got in contact with (Edberg's long-time coach) Tony Pickard, so I had an English coach where everybody else had a Swedish coach and kind of played from the baseline. So I sort of took a different route and it was probably the right route to take. Because me as a baseliner, I wouldn't have had half the success. You've got to use your strength and what you're good at. I think that's important for people to find their game. You can always copy certain things, but you can't copy someone exactly — that's impossible. You've got to find your strength and use your strength and you work really hard at your strength at the same time you work at your weaknesses. A lot of people think, "I have to work on my weakness." You can ask players: "What's your weakness?" and they can answer the question straightaway. But you ask: "What's your strength?" and they have to think about it.
Tennis Week: Because you have to know how you win points and what works for you?
Stefan Edberg: Yeah, what works for you. And that's something to do because if you work with your strengths, then your weak shots are going to get better automatically.
Tennis Week: I've heard you play squash fairly frequently now. I would imagine you're a very good squash player?
Stefan Edberg: Yes, I play squash. I enjoy it. I feel I'm getting a bit better as I play more.
Tennis Week: I spoke to Mats Wilander recently and he seems happy working as Sweden's Davis Cup captain. Would you ever consider any role with Sweden's Davis Cup team given your great success as a Davis Cup competitor (Edberg holds the record for most Davis Cup final appearances by a Swedish player with seven and his 13 years as a Davis Cup player ties him with Ove Bengston for most years played on Sweden's Davis Cup team)?
Stefan Edberg: I've been asked throughout the last couple of years and I spent a lot of time with (former Swedish Davis Cup captain) Carl-Axel (Hageskog) and we work together — he's been there (with the Davis Cup team) 20 years — and I know how much work it requires to be a Davis Cup captain. I would say it's full-time work, you know, spending 200 days a year with tennis. And I'm not prepared to do that — that's too much tennis for me. If I'm going to do it, then I want to do it properly and put in a lot of time. And I feel like I don't want to spend 200 days of the year just traveling and working with tennis. I'm not quite ready for that yet. Maybe later on life, I might be ready for the challenge, but I doubt it to be honest. And I'm not sure whether I would even be a good Davis Cup captain (smiles). Because you've got to believe in yourself that you're actually going to do some good.
Tennis Week: Do you have any interest in ever playing senior tennis?
Stefan Edberg: Well, they've been trying for five years (to get me to play) and I don't hear much from them nowadays because they know what the answer is going to be. I really don't have the interest to go back because it would feel like going back on the tour again. I don't mind playing a few exhibitions a year when you play just one night or one match — that's fine, I can do that. But to go away and play three or four matches over a week would be like picking up your old job again. And I'm not sure if I can do that mentally.
Tennis Week (question from Tennis Week contributing writer Brad Falkner): Speaking of endeavors, are you involved in any sort of business ventures not involving tennis?
Stefan Edberg: A little bit. I do some of the money management now myself a little bit. I'm involved in a Swedish company where I sit on the board and sort of look after other people's money. So that's where I have a little bit of interest today.
Tennis Week: You look so fit and so strong. I've been so impressed with the way you've played here. What do you do — either in terms of tennis or fitness — to stay in shape?
Stefan Edberg: I play tennis two or three times a week. I've done that since I've stopped (playing on the ATP Tour). I play some squash too — once or twice a week — so if you can do that three times a week on average throughout the year, you're gonna keep your fitness. It's obviously going to go down (as you age), but it's going to go down slowly.
Tennis Week: But you're already at such a high level it just brings you down a little closer to mortal level.
Stefan Edberg: Yeah, but the thing is I've kept myself in shape since I've retired. Because if you suddenly go from playing a lot and then you don't do anything, you're gonna slide down pretty quickly (Edberg holds his hand down near his waist to illustrate his point). And then it's so hard work to get back up (Edberg holds his hand up near his shoulder) so I decided I may as well keep working and then the body is going to be slower (to get out of shape).
Tennis Week (question from Tennis Week contributing writer Brad Falkner): I saw you play doubles once with Sampras in Cincinnati in '92. Was that just a one-time thing?
Stefan Edberg: We played a few times just to get some matches and just for a little bit of fun, but we never really played good doubles together (laughs).
Tennis Week (question from Tennis Week contributing writer Brad Falkner): I know. You guys got smoked!
Stefan Edberg: (laughs) Yeah, yeah, we did. I don't know, we just didn't fit each other, I guess. I don't know how much he cared, to be honest (laughs).
Tennis Week (question from Tennis Week contributing writer Brad Falkner): It seemed like you guys were both relaxed and joking about it a bit.
Stefan Edberg: Yeah. You know, we should be a good team, but we weren't (smiles).
Tennis Week: Who was the toughest opponent for you to play?
Stefan Edberg: Goran Ivanisevic was tough to play because it seemed like it was either an ace or a double fault and you really couldn't get a rhythm against him. It was tough to get into your game against him. There were many tough players. Agassi was tough because of his great returns. Playing other serve-and-volleyers could be tough as well.
Tennis Week: You were a serve-and-volleyer, but you weren't typically trying to win the point outright on serve. You were using the kick serve to set up your volley. What do you think about the impact of the big servers on tennis today?
Stefan Edberg: I think a big serve is a big key in men's tennis today. You almost need to have a big serve today. It was usually like that with my game. If I served well, then usually everything else was coming together well. If you knew you were going to hold serve nine times out of ten then it was a big advantage. And that's maybe one of the big differences between men's and women's tennis because the guys today serve really, really hard and win a lot of free points that way. Sometimes, it's not the greatest tennis to watch, but it's very, very effective.