There's a french word that has become synonymous with Brussels: ennui. Belgium, Brussels, boredom. The three B's. What a splendid setting for big, blond Stefan Edberg, perhaps the most brilliant and—if you believe the newspapers—surely the blandest serve-and-volley player since the invention of movable type.
Under a toneless winter sky, the man accused of sleepwalking his way to No. 1 wears a drab olive sweatshirt and faded jeans that match his eyes. He's folded into a chair in the locker room at the Forest National Tennis Club, silently awaiting his first-round match at the Donnay Indoor Championship in Brussels. "Stefan doesn't say much, even for a Swede," says countryman Mats Wilander. "And during tournaments he says even less."
Edberg, 25, passes the time reading newspapers: The International Herald Tribune, France-Soir, USA Today. He has learned a kind of endless patience. He sits quietly through the undercard matches, forever slightly bored but with an ear cocked toward the wall where the loudspeaker crackles as softly as a banked fire. He listens for his name to be called.
"It's a very special life you live at the top of the table," says Edberg flatly. "You have to live in your own world, back and forth between hotel and court. You go out, you come in, you eat, you sleep, you practice, you play. The more successful you are, the less time you have to do anything else."
June 23, 1991
An hour goes by. Then another. And another. Finally, Edberg glances up from his papers. He stifles a yawn. He clears his throat. His lips form words. "Why don't Norwegians eat spaghetti?" he asks.
"I said, 'Why don't Norwegians eat spaghetti?' "
"They don't have long enough plates."
Edberg smiles gently. For all his purported dullness, he's an engagingly modest, mild and diffident fellow with a sharp sense of humor—in three languages. Like many Swedes, he has a limitless fund of Norwegian jokes, which he fires broadside from behind the ambush of his benign countenance. "Why did the Norwegian take sandpaper into the desert?"
"To use as a map."
Edberg likes plain jokes, plain food, plain living. "And I play tennis the simple way," he says. "Don't wait for the other guy to make mistakes—just outplay him and finish the point off yourself. Try not to make tennis too difficult: It's difficult enough. Don't complicate it: Just hit the ball where the opponent is not."
Edberg's opponents are not often on the winning side of the net. As the top seed at Wimbledon, which begins on Monday, he will be seeking his fifth Grand Slam title, having already won the Australian Open in 1985 and '87, and Wimbledon in '88 and '90—and reached the finals of three others. Yet his coach, Tony Pickard, compares Edberg to an iceberg, with nine tenths of his talent still hidden beneath a chilled surface.
Tennis to Edberg is a cool activity, logical, rational, filled with precision. His game has been carefully calibrated, meticulously orchestrated. "The most important things in my life are order and organization," he says. Edberg finds a certain comfort in repetition, habit, routine. During Wimbledon he will try to use the same locker and shower and racket throughout the fortnight, even the same courtside chair on Centre Court. "What keeps me going is the feeling of winning a tournament, of leaving without dropping a match," he says.
A spectacularly smooth player, Edberg moves with the sure economy of a practiced artist. "Stefan has the grace of a ballet dancer," says fellow pro Horst Skoff of Austria. Indeed, Edberg's serving motion looks something like an arabesque penchèe. The way he almost hurdles across court recalls a grand jetè èlancè. And his soaring move from the baseline to the net is not unlike an assemblèe ècartèe.
"Edberg reminds me of me," says Anatoly Karpov, the Soviet who held the world chess title from 1975 to '85 and is an admirer of Edberg. "I play positional chess. He plays positional tennis."
But while Karpov is a defensive specialist who probes for openings, building his game move by move, Edberg is a slashing attacker. His arsenal features a swooping, one-handed backhand, a scathing kick serve and the best volley in the sport. With a wrist like a shock absorber on a Jeep, he can deftly deflect the most powerful passing shots onto the opponent's side of the net, often delicately dumping the ball a foot or two over the net, where it spins harmlessly away. "No other player can do it [hit a drop volley] as elegantly as Edberg," says Boris Becker, the world's current No. 2.
Becker and Edberg have squared off in the Wimbledon final in each of the past three years, Edberg winning two of the three matches. The French call Becker le grand mechant loup ("the big wicked wolf"), for the way he huffs and puffs and blows opponents away. Edberg has been tagged le grand mechant mou ("the big wicked softy").
Assessments of Edberg's game vary from wild enthusiasm about his form to doubts about his competitiveness. After Edberg was upset at Wimbledon in 1986 by Miloslav Mecir of Czechoslovakia, he said, "For sure, I'm disappointed, but there is always a tournament next week." This insouciance is often interpreted as indifference.
There's a German word that seems to sum up the Scandinavian state of mind: Angst. Dejection, despondency, depression. The three D's. Edberg once played sullenly, with his head sunk low on his shoulders as if he were cringing from an anticipated blow. "My concentration was so intense on the court that I looked sad, almost miserable," he recalls. "I'd think, How could I miss that shot! Then I'd fall apart. I demanded too much of myself."
At the moment, he's being driven through Grand Place, the main square in Brussels. Gargoyles, horned and leering, with piercing eyes centuries old, peer not so benignly from friezes overhead. "Why did the Norwegian take the car door into the desert?" asks Edberg.
"So he could roll down the window if it got too hot."
Swedes, Edberg insists, are not born brooders. "But anyone who has to wait half the year for sunshine might get a bit down," he says.
As a boy, Edberg did his waiting in Vastervik, a sleepy flyspeck of a town on the Baltic coast, where the game of choice was Guess the Car. He and his friends would sit by the road and speculate on whether the oncoming clunker was a Volvo or a Saab. "Ninety-nine percent of them were Volvos," says Edberg, "so it wasn't much fun."
Ambition did not come easily to Edberg. His parents, Bengt and Barbro, imbued him with a burning sense of his own ordinariness. "My father and mother taught me to accept defeat," he says. "They always told me, 'It's another day tomorrow, and it's going to get better.' "
Years ago a sportswriter asked Edberg, who had yet to master English, what his father did for a living. "He's a criminal," said Edberg.
He meant a cop. "My father knows every crook in Vastervik," says Edberg. It's a short list. "It's not like Miami Vice" he says. "He may not have killed one hood. He just fires at their legs." It's easy to tell the bad guys in Vastervik: They limp.
Tennis caught Edberg's fancy at age six, when his parents read an advertisement for a local sports camp in the Vasterviks-Tidningen. When his buddy Johann Victorin quit the camp after a year, Stefan wanted to leave too. His coach had to talk him out of it. Several years later, in 1982, nobody could dissuade Edberg when he quit high school at 16 to pursue tennis full-time. Bengt had to put up the family home as collateral to obtain the funds that were necessary to keep his son in tennis lessons.
Stefan was something of a cutup on the highly competitive junior circuit. He hid crumbs under other players' sheets, spiked their milk with dish detergent and stashed women's stockings in their duffel bags. "It was a way to get away from home and school and have fun," he says. "It's different today—everything's so serious."
Even as a junior player Edberg remained as cool as an arctic ice pack. The only time he ever tried to break his racket, it wouldn't cooperate. He smashed his aluminum Chemold against a concrete wall after a loss in the juniors, but the frame barely bent. "I decided there were easier ways to get rid of a racket," he says. "Like giving it away to some kid."
Some kid! is how Edberg was described in 1983, when he became the only player ever to win the junior Grand Slam, taking the French, Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian junior tournaments. Two years later, at 19, he won the Australian Open—the one for big kids. By then he had refined his game under Percy Romberg, who had also coached Sweden's legend Bjorn Borg. But Edberg and Rosberg split in 1984. "Percy was great technically, but maybe he was too nice a guy," Edberg says. "I needed a tough man to push me, so I hired Tony."
He had met the gregarious Pickard, a former British Davis Cupper, at a tournament in Italy in 1981. Pickard, scouting prospects for Wilson Sporting Goods, offered Edberg a racket contract. They became such pals that Pickard invited Edberg to stay at his home in Nottingham to train for his first Wimbledon.
"Stefan's a bit of an introvert," says Pickard. "In fact, he is an introvert. Unfortunately, his introversion tended to stifle his talent. He had so much talent that he could hide behind it. He needed someone to say that was not acceptable."
Pickard drives Edberg hard; he demands, and gets, unquestioning loyalty. However, Pickard doesn't grunt and harrumph and stump around the practice court like a stage actor trying to project to the top balcony. "I never shout," says Pickard. "Nothing's to be gained by screaming your head off. If anything, that shows weakness."
Pickard's first class with his new pupil was a language lab: He didn't like the way Edberg's body talked. "Whenever Stefan fell behind, the brain went wrong and the body language got worse," he says. "And once the body language got worse, his opponent knew what mood he was in. My philosophy is: Fix the body language, and the mind stands right."
Once Pickard had adjusted Edberg's head, he addressed his feet. "You're two yards too slow," Pickard told him.
"How are you going to make me move quicker?" asked Edberg. "Buy me a motorbike?"
Pickard tinkered with Edberg's chassis until he ran like a motorbike. "Now Stefan moves like a gazelle," says Pickard. "Sometimes he seems to be floating. It's almost mystical."
"There's a Swedish word that describes Stefan," says Jonas Svensson, a Davis Cup teammate. "Swedish." Enigmatic, elliptic, Edbergian. The three E's. "He's a great player, a great sportsman, a great all-around guy," says Skoff. "I'd say more, but I don't actually know him."
Few do. Edberg takes pains to keep his private life private. "Sometimes I wish I could be more anonymous," he says. But he never resorts to disguise. He won't even wear shades. "Sunglasses!" he says. "They're worse than a false beard. Why would I wear them? They just draw more attention."
Edberg's management firm, ProServ, Inc., has tried to exploit his reticence. The agency's slick portfolio reads: "While fulfilling the responsibilities his status demands, he still values the privacy his quiet, contemplative personality requires. Thus his decision to secure a residence in London; he commends the deferential manner of the English."
Deferential should not be confused with discriminating. Edberg has endorsed everything from prefabricated houses to the Royal Swedish Snowball—a frozen confection of whipped egg white dipped in chocolate with a coconut topping. And he says part of the appeal of his London flat is its proximity to a McDonald's. "I can step out for a cheeseburger and not worry about anyone noticing," he says.
Edberg's pining for privacy only piques a prying press. A Fleet Street tabloid scooped the world last year with a report that Edberg did his own laundry. "I saw that story and said, 'Jeez, that's not exactly what I do,' " he says. "I mean, I would know how to wash my clothes if I had to. All you need is some detergent."
Another favorite subject is Edberg's longtime girlfriend, Annette Olsen. "The papers have married us twice!" says Edberg. Olsen was Wilander's childhood sweetheart, but they split in their teens. Olsen eventually hooked up with the younger Edberg, and the two have been touring the circuit together ever since. Their vacation home in the south of France is a kind of safe haven. "It takes away pressure from tennis and journalists," says Svensson. "Without it, Stefan would constantly be under siege."
Edberg is an easy target. During a post-match press conference at this year's Australian Open, he was waylaid by a local comic, Pixie-Anne Wheatley. Posing as a sportswriter, Pixie dusted him with questions that were even more inane than the usual ones asked by real sportswriters. "Pixie-Anne with the Eyeball News," she began. "You're Steffi, you're the Number One lady. Did you have any trouble passing the drug test, Steff?"
Before Pixie-Anne was shouted down by the press corps, she asked Edberg which member of the rock group Abba he was, and whether he thought catgut strings were environmentally sound. Edberg seemed more bemused than annoyed. "I didn't understand the questions," he says. "If I knew they were supposed to be stupid, I might have posed one of my own."
"Why does a Norwegian...."