Stefan Edberg: The No. 1 With Grit & Grace
In the latest profile on the 26 players to rise to No. 1 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, ATPTour.com looks back on the career of Stefan Edberg. View Full List
First Week at No. 1: 13 August 1990
Total weeks at No. 1: 72
Year-end No. 1: 1990, 1991
As World No. 1
Stefan Edberg ended Ivan Lendl’s 80-week stint at No. 1 in the the FedEx ATP Rankings on 13 August 1990, the day after winning his second ATP Masters 1000 crown of the year in Cincinnati. The Swede held the No. 1 ranking for 24 weeks before dropping it to Becker on 27 January 1991. The pair wrestled for control throughout the season, swapping positions in the top spot on four occasions before Edberg pulled away for good on 9 September, one day after clinching his maiden US Open crown.
That reign would last 24 weeks before Jim Courier overtook him on 10 February 1992. They had an equally lengthy and topsy-turvy battle for No. 1, but this time it was Courier who pushed Edberg out of the top spot for good on 5 October 1992.
Edberg sat atop the rankings on five different occasions for a total of 72 weeks, putting him at No. 11 on the all-time list. He viewed becoming No. 1 for the first time as a bigger feat than winning a Grand Slam, explaining in 2008 that “it’s more difficult to become No.1, because it means you have to play very well for 12 months and probably win more than one Grand Slam.”
He and John McEnroe are the only players to reach the top of the FedEx ATP Rankings in singles and doubles. Edberg first became No. 1 on doubles on 9 June 1986, holding his position for 11 weeks, and enjoyed a four-week reign beginning on 26 January 1987.
Grand Slam Highlights
Edberg won six Grand Slam singles titles during his career, lifting his first as a 19-year-old at the 1985 Australian Open and replicating the feat in 1987. Both of those triumphs came on grass, with 1987 marking the final year that the tournament was held on the surface. But the switch to hard courts didn’t dampen his success Down Under and Edberg finished runner-up on three occasions (1990, 1992-93).
His brand of serve-and-volley tennis was a perfect fit for Wimbledon and he became one of the perennial grass-court players of his generation. His first title over Boris Becker in 1988 saw the normally subdued Edberg fall to the ground in delight and he defeated the German once again in an epic five-set championship clash in 1990, gaining revenge for his loss to Becker in the 1989 final.
The Swede struggled early in his career with the boisterous environment at the US Open, but found his stride in the early ’90s. He dismantled Courier in the 1991 final, dropping just six games with a performance that he still believes is the best of his career. He successfully defended his title the following year with a four-set win over Pete Sampras. But Roland Garros proved to be elusive. Edberg fell to Michael Chang in five sets in the 1989 final and it was the only time that he advanced beyond the quarter-finals in Paris.
Edberg also clinched the 1987 Australian Open and US Open doubles crowns with fellow Swede Anders Jarryd, and triumphed with Petr Korda in his final year on Tour at the 1996 Australian Open.
Nitto ATP Finals Highlights
Edberg qualified nine times for the season-ending championships, defeating Becker to capture his lone title at this event in 1989. The Swede also finished runner-up in 1990 (l. to Agassi) and compiled an 18-14 record in the eight-man competition. He and Jarryd qualified in doubles for three consecutive years and won back-to-back crowns in 1985-1986.
Although his Masters 1000 title count (4) is lower than it might have been since the series first began in 1990, Edberg won the first official Masters 1000 event at the BNP Paribas Open. He also triumphed that year at the Western & Southern Open and Rolex Paris Masters, and later prevailed at 1992 Hamburg (held as a Masters 1000 event until 2008).
Edberg was a reliable presence in the winners’ circle throughout his career. He won at least one tour-level title each year from 1984-1995, racking up 41 in total. The Swede’s consistency was at its peak in 1990 as he reached the final in 12 of 21 tour-level events, winning seven of them.
Overall Match Win-Loss Record: 801-270
Overall Titles/Finals Record: 41-36
Edberg’s rivalry with Becker was a stark contrast in personalities, with the mellow Swede and demonstrative German providing compelling viewing when they faced off. Although Becker holds a 25-10 lead in their ATP Head2Head series, Edberg won three of their four Grand Slam meetings and earned a four-set victory in their championship clash at the 1989 Nitto ATP Finals.
The highlight of the rivalry was their three successive Wimbledon finals from 1988-1990. Their maiden Centre Court clash saw Edberg rally from a set down to win his first title at SW19, but Becker gained revenge the following year with a dominant straight-sets victory. Edberg prevailed in 1990 by holding off a spirited comeback from the German to prevail in a five-set thriller.
“What comes to mind to me with Boris [is] playing the three Wimbledon finals and we had sort of come up at the same time basically, so that’s what people remember. That was probably one of the biggest rivalries that I had over my time,” Edberg said.
Fittingly, their rivalry even continued as coaches, with Becker coaching Novak Djokovic and Edberg working with Roger Federer for 13 matches in the Djokovic-Federer ATP Head2Head rivalry from 2014-2015.
Edberg also shared another memorable run of matches with Ivan Lendl. The Swede holds a 14-13 lead in their ATP Head2Head series, which spanned from 1984-1992.
Known as the best serve-and-volley player of his era, his penchant for net rushing led to his best results coming on grass courts, on which he won four of his six Grand Slam titles (when the Australian Open was held on the surface). His consecutive year-end No. 1 finishes (1990-1991) further cemented his status as a legend in the sport, while nine consecutive seasons in the Top 5 allowed him to square off against the best players in several generations.
His elegant play and classy demeanour continue to make him a revered figure among players and fans, leading to a warm induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2004.
“I still just think of myself as a nice guy who is capable of playing great tennis, a guy who keeps his distance,” Edberg said in 1992. “But maybe sometimes in the past, I was too nice and not so professional. You’ve got to stamp your authority sooner or later.”
One of the defining moments of Edberg’s career occurred away from the public eye. He once practised with Jimmy Connors in his early years on Tour and the American’s intensity during their training session proved to be a wake-up call.
“He insisted there was no point being out there if you were not giving 100 per cent and that every point mattered,” Edberg said in 2009. “He told me if you had that outlook in practice, then it would make you even more focussed in matches. It’s a lesson that every young player should be taught.”
Becker on Edberg
“We were actually quite close. There was always tremendous respect, never any bad blood, which was astonishing given how many big finals we played. It was never personal, just the tennis.”
Edberg on Edberg
“Serve-and-volley sort of came around at 15 years of age. I had a coach who had me do a lot of these drills, which I enjoyed. At 15, I changed from a two-handed backhand to a one-handed backhand and obviously playing on the clay was tough. Every ball would come to my backhand and I would get so frustrated. Eventually, I would miss and lose the point. I came to this fantastic idea that if I played serve-and-volley on both my first and second serve, they’re not going to get to my backhand. Problem solved.
“It ended up being pretty good because nobody else would serve-and-volley on clay, so you would probably win some matches that you wouldn’t win otherwise, [but] obviously you’d lose a lot of matches if you played against somebody who played well on clay.”
Broadcaster/Journalist Graeme Agars on Edberg
Stefan Edberg was, and still is, one of the nice guys of tennis. He was always a total professional on and off the court, played the game with integrity and a sense of fairness and was a great ambassador for the game. Therefore, it is no surprise that the ATP chose the easy-going Swede to be recognised as part of one of the game’s most prestigious annual awards.
Since 1996 the ATP has presented the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award to the player who most represented the ideals that Edberg himself lived up to: professionalism, fairness, integrity and a desire to help grow the game. Every recipient of the award has cherished it, not just as a recognition of their efforts, but as a recognition of what Edberg brought to the game.
A stylish serve and volley game with a traditional one-handed backhand made Edberg one of a dying breed in the game. But 41 singles tournament wins (including six Grand Slam titles) made for a truly standout career and stamped him as one of the best-ever exponents of the ‘get to the net’ game. He was also one of the last Top 10 players to regularly play doubles, securing 18 titles, mostly in the company of fellow Swede Anders Jarryd. Add to that 13 years of playing for Sweden in Davis Cup, securing four titles, and you have a very rounded superstar of the game.
He was once asked at a press conference why he appeared so mellow off the court. He replied that the journalist would be mellow as well if he lived in a country where it was dark for almost half the year!