The Becker/Edberg rivalry cannot be said to have been the greatest of titanic struggles in the men’s games. Both players got on with one another socially and relations on court were, if competitive, conducted with civility. In their junior days, Edberg was the clear superior, but over the course of their professional careers, he was to be decisively eclipsed by Becker.
This was no Lendl/McEnroe relationship of the early 1980’s. It had more of the Borg/McEnroe quality. Edberg was Borg to Becker’s McEnroe: cool reserve meets the irascible and explosive. It lacked, however, that quality of the ‘bear pit’ that makes for the most compelling rivalries.
However, even if the rivalry was less dramatic than others, the contests between these two blonde Teutons was the rivalry in men’s tennis of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. It also represented the beginnings of a trend strongly evident in today’s game of Europeans (to the exclusion of Americans), dominating at the top of the men’s game. It was also the main rivalry sandwiched between Connors, Lendl and McEnroe of the early 1980’s and that between Sampras and Agassi of the 1990’s and the 2000’s.
In terms of total wins, Becker comes out firmly on top by 25-10. Again, this decisive superiority somewhat dulls the effect of the rivalry. That said, their rivalry particularly at Wimbledon did captivate the public. Becker was the ‘Wunderkind’ who had won the Wimbledon Championships at the tender age of 17, lunging and diving his way to victory – a German whom the British public could at last take to their hearts. Edberg carried himself with classic Scandinavian ‘cool’, letting his racquet do the talking. They had a little of that famous ‘Fire and Ice’ made famous by McEnroe and Borg a decade earlier.
In their first encounter in a Wimbledon final in 1988, Becker arrived with two previous titles under his belt and as clear favourite. What resulted was a dramatic reversal of expectations with Edberg coming out on top in four sets. Becker exacted his revenge the following year by beating Edberg in the final in three sets – Becker’s last Wimbledon win. In 1990, the pendulum swung in Edberg’s direction in a much more hotly- contested five set final. Becker, having beaten Edberg in straight sets only the week before at Queen’s Club, must have rated his chances, but this was not to be. Despite Becker’s overall career superiority, Edberg’s record against Becker in Grand Slam events was, in fact, superior –at 3 wins to 1. He also had a superior record head-to-head with Becker at Wimbledon, even on a surface that was tailor-made for Becker’s explosive serve/volley game. Becker, ever the competitor, was himself quoted as admitting that even despite his superior career record, he would have liked the chance to overturn Edberg’s superiority in their Wimbledon head-to-heads – but that was not to be. Losing more of the ‘big ones’ clearly rankled with Becker.
The period between their first and last encounter stretched over 12 years (1984-1996). Edberg won the first two of these, but over the longer term Becker asserted his dominance. Of their last 11 contests between 1991 and 1996, Becker won 10 of these. In Davis Cup encounters against Edberg, Becker won 3 out of 3, all of them comfortably.
Interestingly, their rivalry inspired a later master of the game, Roger Federer. Federer admitted following his 2009 Wimbledon win that he was so transfixed by the Becker /Edberg rivalry as a youth that he settled on abandoning hopes of pursuing a football career in favour of committing himself to tennis. Football’s loss was clearly tennis’s gain.
As a tennis stylist, Edberg had few equals. An elegantly produced backhand, a testing kick serve and good net game enhanced by his towering frame, meant that he was an intimidating opponent. This style also extended to his demeanour on court: one of the best sportsmen in the game, a characteristic also shared by his compatriot, Bjorn Borg. The explosive Becker was a ‘confidence’ player, buoyed by his own self-confidence and capable of intimidating his opponents. Determination, commitment and a boyish enthusiasm combined with natural talent were his hallmarks.
They were both also quite different from the heroes of today in being dedicated ‘serve/volley merchants’ – one reason for their encounters at Wimbledon being so memorable. This connection with Wimbledon and London has carried on. Edberg made his home in London and Becker is one of the BBC’s regular ‘wise head’ commentators during The Championships each summer, bringing his past experience at the top of the game to bear on his commentary. Edberg, in keeping with his more subdued demeanour, has a more low-key profile.
Theirs was a rivalry of a different era, of different styles of play and different technologies. Although it may not have had the dramatic quality of other top rivalries, it provides an instructive lesson to players of any era that even the most intense competition can still be conducted with a measure of civility and respect for one’s opponent. Such tennis relationships only enhance the game.