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The Press Box

Edberg’s Surprise Success in Hamburg

No Swede has won at Am Rothenbaum since

The banner for this year’s Hamburg European Open tournament outside of the historic venue, Am Rothenbaum in the Harvestehude quarter of Hamburg [Photo: Vickey Maverick]

It is one of the world’s oldest tennis tournaments. The first edition was played way back in 1892. Even as I write this the 116th edition of the Hamburg European Open is all set to commence.

Expectedly, many of the game’s legends — John Newcombe, Guillermo Vilas, Ivan Lendl, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal — have added this trophy to their respective cabinets.

However, a look at the tournament’s roll of honor indicates that it was only in 1992, the tournament’s centenary year, that Hamburg had the unlikeliest of champions. In this case, unlikely doesn’t infer to the quality of the player but alludes more to his playing style.

It was the first occasion that the fans in Hamburg had witnessed a serve and volley exponent lift the trophy in a tournament that is played on outdoor clay courts. In fact, it remains one of the few examples of an ultra-aggressive style of play succeeding on the slow clay, where fortitude and perseverance more often than not do the trick.

Stefan Edberg beat Michael Stich 5–7, 6–4, 6–1 in the final that year. For those interested in statistics it will suffice to say that the Swede serve-volleyed off all but four first serves in the entire match, in what was a display of the highest quality of serve and volley on the slow red surface.

By 1992 Edberg was the highest ranked player alright, and a winner of five Grand Slam titles, but his clay court credentials weren’t particularly impressive. In fact, he had won only one tournament on the surface, at Gstaad (Switzerland) back in 1986.

The Swede did reach the French Open final in 1989 but the fact that he failed to convert his advantage — he was a break up in the fifth set — against a 17-year-old Michael Chang yet again reiterated his discomfort on the slow surface.

Besides, it proved to be a costly miss as Edberg would never get another opportunity to win at Roland Garros, and that remained the only Grand Slam title missing from his otherwise impressive resume.

However, the Swede did eventually get an opportunity to win a big title on clay, three years later.

It is imperative here to mention that between 1990 and 2008 Hamburg was one of the nine Masters Series tournaments on the ATP Tour, and as such a very prestigious competition. Its main draw featured many top-ranked players. More importantly, it was played in the lead-up to the French Open, in the month of May.

Coming into the Hamburg Masters, or the Panasonic German Open, as the tournament was called then Edberg wasn’t in the best of form. He had not won a tournament in the first four months of the year, having lost in the final of both the Australian Open, and in Stuttgart. In fact, he had not won a tournament since the Tokyo indoor in October 1991. There were a couple of early exits in other tournaments. Crucially for Edberg, he was yet to play a match on clay that year, even with the French Open only a few weeks away.

Having received an opening round bye the Swede began with a straight sets verdict over Jordi Arrese, the Spaniard who would go on to play in the final (take silver) at the Barcelona Olympics later that year.

Another Spaniard, Francisco Clavet, was accounted for in the third round before the Swede came from a set down to beat a formidable Italian opponent, Omar Camporese, in the quarter-finals.

The last four presented a tough test. Carlos Costa was a player in form, and his results in that clay court season underlined his credentials. The Spaniard had won tournaments in Estoril (Portugal) and Barcelona while only reaching the final in Madrid, the last two being tournaments of a higher level. Yet Edberg’s aggressive approach proved too much, the Swede winning in straight sets.

The weather had played havoc with the schedule, and the final was curtailed from a best-of-five to a best-of-three match.

The decider albeit had fans excited. It featured a home favorite. Michael Stich was the reigning Wimbledon champion. In fact the German had not only upset Edberg in the last eight at Hamburg in the previous year but also en route to his triumph at the All England Club, winning that iconic semi-final in 1991 without ever breaking the Swede’s serve. A surprising result. Isn’t it?

Stich, attempting to become the first German to win the tournament since Wilhelm Bungert in 1964, was in good form as well, having conceded only two games in his semi-final against compatriot Boris Becker. It’s no surprise that he took the opening set. Things went with serve in the second set till successive backhand winners helped Edberg secure a break in the 10th game, one that was enough to seal the set.

In what had been a rain-soaked tournament play was halted again, for 51 minutes, with the score 1–1 in the third set. After resumption, the top-seeded Swede reeled off five straight games to pocket the match. It was a closer encounter than the lopsided third-set score may suggest. Edberg won a total of 102 points, only two more than Stich.

It was Edberg’s sole Masters level title on clay, and without an iota of a doubt his best result on the red dirt. For trivia buffs it may be interesting to know that Edberg won only three titles in total on his least favored surface, the third coming at Madrid in 1993.

(Stich went one better at Hamburg in the following year, even as the Swede’s title defense was cut short in the third round)

Overall, it was Edberg’s 34th career title. He went on to add seven more to the total. More importantly, it was the Swede’s last Masters Series triumph.

That being said, Edberg was not the first Swede to win in Hamburg.

Lennart Bergelin, who later coached Björn Borg to great success, had won the tournament back in 1951. The guy he beat in that final, Sven Davidson, won on his third attempt in 1958.

It took another 30 years before another Swede, the extremely talented but perennially injury prone Kent Carlsson, could lay his hands on the trophy. Then came the most unlikeliest of champions at Am Rothenbaum.

It’s been 30 years since Edberg’s success in Hamburg. Swedish tennis has been on a steady decline since the turn of the millennium. The tournament in Hamburg is no longer as prestigious as well, having seen its status getting downgraded in 2009. For most top players it is no longer an absolute priority.

The Hamburg European Open is now not played in the lead up to the French Open, but in July, a couple of months after the regular clay court season gets over. In fact the tournament officials sued the ATP in 2007 in an attempt to stop the downgrade of the status, but the appeal was rejected in 2010.

Being an ATP Tour 500 event means it is also no longer an obligation for the best players. No points for guessing it has struggled to get the best of players in recent years. There are a few promising players alright but the tournament draw is anything but an enviable one. The roll of honor in the last dozen years include a lot of names that don’t quite ring a bell among those who follow tennis at a superficial level.

Yet, Edberg remains the last Swede to win the tournament. In fact no one from the country has reached the title round since Edberg’s win in 1992. To say that Swedish tennis has suffered a lot more in the last three decades as compared to the historic tournament in Hamburg is possibly the best way to put things into perspective.

It is not surprising that in the ongoing tournament there are no direct entries from Sweden in the men’s singles draw in Hamburg.

The way things are at the moment, both pertaining to the tournament per se and the quality of players coming in from Sweden, it looks like status quo will reign supreme in the foreseeable future.

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Vickey Maverick

Vickey Maverick

‘Ditch the Niche.’ This is a humble effort at providing short insights as also detailed narratives on an array of topics to those readers who like some variety