by M. L. Liu
photos by Marlin L. Liew
It was Wednesday, July 17, 2002, the second day of the Adidas Smash.
The day started with a breakfast at the restaurant of the picture-perfect Ocean Edge Resort & Golf Club. As I took my first sip of coffee, I looked out of the window to take in the panoramic view on a sparkling morning. Under the cloudless sky the blue horizon of Cape Cod stretched endlessly. Here and there clusters of red-roofed lodges dotted the grounds, surrounding a handful of outdoor tennis courts directly in my sight line. This morning the courts were teeming with action.
And then I caught sight of a figure playing on the far-side of the rightmost of the three courts. There was a certain familiarity in the posture and the movements. By the time I saw the winged forehand and that text-book backhand, there was no mistaking: I was beholding none other than Stefan Edberg. I thrusted $20 into the hand of the startled and uncomprehending waitress, and rushed off.
Yes, that Stefan Edberg. The Swedish tennis ace who retired in 1996, at the tender age of 30. Six-time Grand Slam champion. Holder of 42 singles and 19 doubles titles. Winner of over 20 million in prize money. Serve-and-volleyer the likes of which the world no longer sees. Namesake of the ATP Sportsman of the Year Award. And, a player who has been sorely missed.
And there he was, looking as if time had stood still since his retirement. Slender and poised as ever, Stefan, along with Jan-Michael Gambill, was playing pro-am tennis. Each was paired with an amateur in four successive sessions of doubles that was to last all morning. Dressed in loose-fitting tennis top and white shorts, Stefan could easily have passed for a college student. He was looking relaxed and happy, sliding on the green clay freely and laughing easily.
The amateurs who entered this event were not your ordinary tennis hacks, and some amazing exchanges were on display, with the lay players winning praises from their approving partners. At one point, Stefan dropped his racket to feign astonishment at a volley hit at an impossible angle by his partner. At another point, while waiting for the next session to begin, Edberg could be seen demonstrating his ball control prowess by bouncing a tennis ball on alternate sides of his racket, and then on the edge of the frame of the racquet. He is playing with Wilson Pro Staff racquets still, although the big W logo is absent from the racket face.
Seated in the first row of the stadium, I watched all morning while the players were a mere drop shot away from me. Can you say "heavenly bliss"?
How much does it mean to get to see Edberg again? Priceless. When back in May I heard that Stefan was among those to appear in an event at the Ocean Edge Resort & Golf Club this summer, I could hardly believe my good fortune. For over five years since he left the ATP, Stefan made no public appearance outside of Europe. I was tempted to fly to Sweden, where Edberg now resides, to see him play in an exhibition. And now my wish was to come true, right here in the good old U.S.A. The resort is located on Cape Cod, an exclusive island in the state of Massachusetts, two hours' drive from Boston, and a quaint destination for someone returning to the country after a long absence. But, if Stefan Edberg was to show up, nothing short of death would have kept me from trekking there.
"Next year, can we ask Adidas to send four guys who are not quite so ugly?" jeered Brett Haber of CBS Sports, who, as scorer and commentator for the day, was perched high in the umpire's chair. "It's sickening," he went on to say in mock disgust. And who were these four guys that were taking abuses from Haber? On one side of the net, we have the young Bryan twins, Bob and Mike, resplendent in tennis tops colored scarlet red. Their opponents? Guarding the ad court was ATP pro Jan-Michael Gambill, of the Most Beautiful People fame. His doubles partner? Stefan Edberg.
The four "ugly" players were dueling in a doubles match that was part of an exhibition held on the second day of the Adidas Smash, a fund-raiser for the Tim&Tom Gullikson Foundation. Only two days before, Edberg, with his family in tow, had landed in Cape Cod from Sweden. He immediately put in a full-day's work on July 16, a Tuesday, holding a Junior Tennis Clinic in the morning, playing in a golf pro-am in the afternoon, then staying throughout a dinner reception & auction that lasted till midnight. At the auction, Edberg pulled his weight. Twice he made bids on a Sampras racquet. And an autographed racquet of his own, from the 1992 US Open, fetched $2,100 from a gentleman who proclaimed his admiration for Stefan's volleying.
Edberg was not the only superstar who appeared in this event. Topping the bill was Rod Laver, the Australian legend. Stan Smith, grand-slam champion and former number one player, also lent his grace. One only need to look at these players for proof that tennis is good for your health. Laver and Smith paired up to play Jennifer Hopkins and Tom Gullikson in a doubles match that opened the exhibition in the afternoon of July 17, Wednesday, and the two all-time greats delighted the spectators by emerging winners.
The exhibition was played to a crowd of 600 who packed the 12 rows of court-side seats in the sun-drenched small stadium. The Cape Cod breeze was not present this afternoon when Gambill and Edberg stepped on court to play an 8-game single. It didn't take long for drops of sweat to drip from Edberg's brow, as I had seen so often on tapes of his matches. Stefan was dressed in all white, with matching blue Adidas logos on his neatly- tucked shirt and his tailored shorts. Earlier I had seen him, while seated and waiting for the first match to be over, go through his rackets by tapping them against each other, exactly the same way that he so often did when he was on tour.
Gambill is a top 50 player on the ATP. At 6'3' and 180 pounds, he looks stocky next to Edberg's lanky figure. Gambill's serve and return, which left deep divots in the clay, held Stefan to the baseline in the first few games. Unlike in the pro-am affair earlier in the day, neither man seemed to be holding back. The two exchanged thunderous shots in front of the transfixed crowd. When, finally, Stefan had a chance to execute his hallmark precision backhand, the crowd exploded with a loud applause. His delicate drop shot, an endangered species in men's tennis these days, drew whistles and cheers. Then came a signature backhand volley that sent the ball right to the sideline, and I wasn't the only one in the stands who stood and hollered. There was no doubt now that I was in the company of Edberg fans.
And here was Stefan sliding a good twenty feet on the clay in his rush to the net to save a drop shot. Crooned Haber: "He still has those legs." True, in more ways than one. Not only could those long legs still cover the court, but the sight of them, as always, would bring a pang to some hearts.
Gambill, the touring pro, proved his mettles by winning the match at 8-5, to the disappointment of some. The players' efforts were rewarded with a standing ovation. Then a surprise bonus: The opponents were to next pair up against the Byran twins. With Jan-Michael providing the big serve, Edberg could now volley more freely, his calculated shots clearing the net by inches and landing the ball in that exactly right spot.
Said Haber: "Let's see: How many people want to see the brothers win?" There was a mild applause. "Okay, how many want the other side to win?" An uproar rose from the crowd.
But the Bryan brothers had just won a title at the Hall-of-Fame ATP Championship, and could not be expected to yield to two guys who had never met, let alone teamed up, before. And so they, too, took the match at 8-5.
What mattered was that I had the pleasure of seeing those silky smooth Edberg strokes again: the preparation and follow-through of his classic backhand, the uncanny spins that he wielded with his racket, the kick serve that sent the ball out of reach of his opponent, the half-volleys off his shoe top, the delicate touch of his drop shots, and the outstretched overhead smashes.
Few things ring true anymore these days. But Stefan Edberg does. You can believe it when he said that he brought his '92 US Open racket all the way from Sweden for the auction. You can believe it when he reportedly said, before the event, "It's an incredible honor to participate in such a wonderful event. I'm looking forward to returning to the United States to help raise money for such an important cause." You can believe it when he said to me that he has no plan to play on the Champions tour. And you can believe it when he told the reporters of Cape Cod Times that he enjoys his life now, especially since, in person, he seemed to exude contentment and happiness. And, in these times of constant changes, it's good to see for myself that the player I so admired has changed little: he is still the affable, down-to-earth, graceful fellow that I remember. That touch of class has not diminished, I am happy to report.
A group pic of pros and amateurs. Jennifer Hopkins and Jan Michael Gambill
are to the left of the banner. Laver, Smith, and Edberg are to the right.
Perhaps that's why, throughout the two-day event, Stefan Edberg was besieged by a steady stream of people, young and old, male or female, who sought his autograph, or to have pictures taken with him. I was able to have a conversation with him directly.
Stefan, is this your first time back in the U. S. since your retirement?
Yes … I was in Key Biscayne a few years back, but I didn't play.
Is there a chance that you will play on the Champions Tour?
(Shaking his head before I finished my question) No, no. (In a recent Swedish article on www.expressen.se, he elaborated thus on this subject: It's nice to just cut all ties. The tennis always has been the focus in my life. If I were to play the Champions tour I would have to practice a lot to be able to play at a good level.")
Do your children play tennis? (I was hoping for another spectacular serve-and- volleyer someday.)
No. (Thinking for a moment) Not really.
What do you think of men's tennis these day?
They are doing okay. I haven't been watching a lot, but they are doing okay.
Attendance at men's tennis has gone way down in this country; the ratings has been surpassed by women's tennis.
I think that has been changing over the last few years. Women's tennis has been taking over for a while, which is kind of nice.
I guess it's their turn?
Yes, I think it's their turn. Although I think it's different from country to country. What's happening here may not be happening in other country. So, depending where you are from …
What do you think of serve-and-volley, or your style? Anyone playing your style these days?
I think it's rare today. I think there are very few serve and volleyers left in the game. It would be nice to see a few more, I will have to say. I think normally you see the best of matches when you have someone playing offensive against someone playing a little bit more defensive.
That's right. What's happening to Swedish tennis these days?
I think we are doing okay. I think it's not like it used to be, when there used to be player after player, but we still have some good young kids. It's different from 10, 15 years ago.
I understand you play squash a bit in Sweden?
Well, I play squash just for fun. I play once a week, so we are not talking about anything serious. But I enjoy the sport. It's a new game for me.
This past April you were supposed to play in an exhibition against Boris Becker. Then it didn't go off. What happened?
That's right. We had trouble putting it together. We were nearly there. It didn't work out.
Will you try again.
There might be another day for it … we are working on it.
Will you be playing more exhibitions?
Not right away. Maybe in Fall. (For the past two Novembers, Stefan has played in a benefit exhibition for the Kalmar Tennis Club in Sweden.)
What about playing in Australia?
(Laughing and shaking his head incredulously) Definitely no.
A little far?
Can I do something for you in the back? Something's sticking out.
Okay. (And here I got the thrill of my life: I tucked in a piece of lining that was hanging outside of the collar of his shirt.)
There you go. That's better.
Thank you for letting me speak to you again.
The exhibition came to its inevitable end. The stadium was now almost empty. Two boys came up looking for autograph. The kids took off without waiting for their pen. "Pencil," Stefan called after them. An Adidas rep came by with a stack of visors, possibly to be given as prizes, and Edberg signed them rapidly.
I was the last one to bid him goodbye as he stepped off the court to join his family. "Come back soon," I said. And, in that familiar soft-spoken, placid voice, Stefan Edberg said, "thank you."
And then he was gone.
M. L. Liu, the author, lives in California, and is a bona-fide Stefan Edberg fanatic.
You can write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.