The history of tennis is littered with players who excelled in the junior ranks yet failed to make a mark subsequently in the professional game. There have been winners of both junior events at Wimbledon, for example, who have gone onto great things in their careers, but there is a longer list of those who fell well below reaching their potential or totally faded from the game.
One player who conquered all before him in the junior game, however and rose to the very heights of the pro game was Stefan Edberg (Player Profile). Following in the footsteps of his compatriot, Bjorn Borg (Player Profile) (another youth prodigy), Edberg first came to notice in the early 1980s, neatly choreographed, it seems, to coincide with the demise and retirement of Borg. Mats Wilander (Player Profile) was already an established player on the scene and Edberg’s arrival was seen as another notch in the belt for Swedish tennis. Indeed, in the course of the 1980s, Edberg and a group of other Swedes helped boost further the status of Swedish tennis.
Much is known about Edberg, the professional who reached the world no. 1 position in singles and doubles and the multiple Grand Slam winner. Not a lot is known, however, about his stellar career as a junior.
His greatest achievement as a junior was to have won all four Grand Slam junior singles titles in 1983 – a feat no one had achieved before or since. While not quite up there with the achievements of Budge and Laver in the men’s game, Edberg’s making a clean sweep of all four juniors is no mean achievement, given the tough competition. Someone with such a stellar resume was bound to be expected to achieve much in his career – and he didn’t disappoint.
Let’s have a look at that outstanding year of 1983 for Edberg. In the first slam of the series, the Australian Open, Edberg beat the Australian, Simon Youl, 6-4, 6-4 in the final. At the French Open, Edberg’s opponent in the final was Frenchman, Frank Fevrier whom he beat 2-6, 6-2, 6-1. At Wimbledon, Edberg beat the Australian, John Frawley 6-4, 7-6 and at Flushing Meadows, his opponent in the final was again Simon Youl whom he beat 6-2, 6-4. With the exception of John Frawley who had a reasonable early career, Edberg’s other opponents were not exactly household names, neither of whom really figured after their junior achievements.
Putting Edberg’s junior achievements into perspective, one needs to look at those players who came close. At the outset, it should be borne in mind that it was only from 1973 that a Junior Grand Slam was possible. This was the first year in which the US authorities organised an open junior event to coincide with the US Open. Australia had a junior boys’ event since 1922, and both Roland Garros and Wimbledon had one since 1947. Interestingly, most of the great Australians players of the past made their mark with at least one junior Grand Slam title (Laver, Rosewall, Hoad, Newcombe, Roche, Emerson), while most of the great American players of the past have been strangely absent from the junior roll of honour. This is probably due to the lack for so long of an equivalent junior event at the US National event and perhaps, reluctance by young players in the past to travel outside the US. That said, of the 41 junior boys’ US Opens since 1973, only 13 have been won by Americans, so there may have been other factors at play.
No girl has ever managed to win a one-year junior Grand Slam, although some have come close. Two players have won three of the four junior Grand Slams in one year: Natasha Zvereeva in 1987 and Magdalena Maleeva in 1990, both players to eventually go on to top careers in the women’s professional game.
A number of junior boys also came close to Edberg’s achievements. In 2004, the Frenchman, Gael Monfils won the junior events in Australia, France and at Wimbledon. Interestingly, the person to deprive him of a clean sweep that year was Andy Murray. In 1988 (when Edberg was at the pinnacle of his professional career), the Colombian, Nicholas Pereira won the French, Wimbledon and the US. In 1984, the Australian, Mark Katzman won the Australian, Wimbledon and the US. A host of players have a brace of junior Grand Slams to their name.
Undoubtedly the pressure on star juniors to perform in the senior ranks is enormous. They tend to carry all the weight of expectation from those around them and for some that pressure becomes intolerable. Jennifer Capriati and Elena Djokic are cases in point. For others, they discover that there may be other facets to life beyond tennis as they mature.
Stefan Edberg is the model example of a player who made that seamless transition from the juniors to the pro ranks. There was no doubt that he reached his full potential in his career. As a pro, he managed to win two Australian Open, two Wimbledon and two US Open titles with one runner-up position in the French. He also won three Davis Cups and one Olympic bronze medal for Sweden. In doubles, he won two Australians and one US Open.
All of these achievements put him among the very best players of the last 30 years. His tough rivalry with Boris Becker was the contest to be watched in the second half of the 1980s – the ice cool Swede vs. the explosive German. Edberg had a reputation for consistency over the mercurial flashes of brilliance of some of his chief rivals. Throughout his career, he performed consistently well at the very top levels of the game – a consistency that was evident right from that outstanding display of four Grand Slam junior titles in 1983.