1990: Stefan Edberg beat Boris Becker 6-2, 6-2, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4
By just getting to the final, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg had equalled over a century-old Wimbledon record.
From the final in 1884 on the fabled lawns at South West London, to the title clash two years later, three consecutive editions of Wimbledon would see Herbert Lawford and William Renshaw vie for the title – the latter winning each of those three finals.
But when Becker and Edberg stepped on Centre Court to contest in the 1990 final for the third successive season, the pair had already shared one title apiece.
Edberg, the graceful Swede beat Becker in four sets to take the first title match in 1988. The athletic German, known for his flying dive volleys at Wimbledon, won in straight sets the following year.
The final in 1990 though would go the distance. And it had all the ingredients of a great drama: stellar serve-and-volley play, an array of mersmerising passing shots, an almost-comeback, a perfectly executed backhand lob winner, and a scramble for a clean shirt before raising the trophy.
By the time these greats of the game retired, they would have played each other 35 times.
Wimbledon 1990 though, would be the fourth and last time they’d meet at the Grand Slams, and it would possibly be the greatest chapter in a rivalry that Roger Federer, after winning his the title in 2009, claimed pushed him towards playing tennis instead of soccer.
The final people wanted
Becker and Edberg entered the tournament seeded second and third respectively, while world no 1 Ivan Lendl was the top seed. But the fans in the bleachers wanted another rematch between Edberg and Becker.
In the semi-finals, when Edberg took out Lendl in straight sets, and Becker beat a young pretender to the throne, Goran Ivanisevic, the wish for Round 3 was granted.
For all the anticipation however, it seemed like the match would end quickly. Edberg, then 24, stormed to a two-set lead, winning the first two sets with an identical score of 6-2.
The Swede, a three-time Grand Slam winner at that time, had been playing an impeccable brand of serve-and-volley tennis that allowed Becker no room to find a foothold. In the first game of the third set, Edberg had another break point opportunity but failed to convert.
That was when ‘Boom-Boom’ Becker woke up. The German, a four time major winner coming into the final, broke Edberg’s serve early in the third set and would not give his opponent any chance, taking the third set 6-3, and then the fourth with the same score to level the match at 2-2.
Becker’s fifth set record
Up until that match, Becker, 22 at the time, had won a five-set match after coming back from being down two-sets to love on three different occasions. The only time he came back from 2-0 down to lose in the fifth set was at the 1989 French Open semi-finals, where he lost to Edberg.
At the start of the fifth set, the German rode on the momentum and broke Edberg in the fourth game to go up 3-1. All he had to do now was hold on to his powerful serves, and he would become the first player since Henri Cochetin in 1927 to win the Wimbledon men’s singles final after losing the first two sets.
But Edberg was not one to give up easily. He rallied in the next game and broke back.
Becker stepped up to serve at 4-4 in the fifth set. If there was ever an ideal time for Edberg to find the break, this would be it. And the Swede reacted accordingly. He started to force the cause, and was aided by a few mistimed efforts by the German and suddenly had break point at 15-40.
Becker served and came up to the net. He played the return on the volley, striking the ball near the baseline, slightly towards the ad-court but without much angle. This was a good position for the German.
He had physicality to lunge and dive to get the ball while he was at the net. Any passing shot that got through him had to be of the highest order.
Edberg took a few paces behind the baseline, but instead of driving through the shot, played an audacious backhand topspin lob that sailed over his 6’3 opponent, but had enough loop to comfortably fall back into court.
The then world no 3 fell to his knees to celebrate the break.
“That was a very crucial point,” Edberg would say to CNBC Europe years later. “It’s one of those shots that, if you watch on video few years from now, shots like that you do remember from a final like that.”
Victory was within reach, and Edberg raced to a 40-15 lead to hold two Championship Points. Becker demolished the first attempt with a sublime backhand inside-in return winner. But his forehand return on the next point caught the frame of his racquet and the ball sailed wide.
The third bout of the Wimbledon went to Edberg.
“Stefan was so much on top of Becker in this match and then all of a sudden there’s Boris on top in the fifth,”’ Tony Pickard, Edberg’s coach told The New York Times. “(Becker)had him 3-1; let’s face it, he was gone. People think he’s got no fire; I’m telling you he has. If anybody thinks the way Edberg plays is boring, I feel sorry for them.”
Edberg smacked a ball into the stands, and then tossed his shirt into the crowd as he celebrated his second Wimbledon crown. Then he had to hurry to find a clean shirt before he met the Duke and Duchess of Kent at the trophy ceremony. But in the haste, he put his shirt on backwards.
Both players would go on to win two majors each, but never faced-off in a Grand Slam again. At the end of their playing days, Becker had a 25-10 record over Edberg. But it was the Swede, who had won their final fling at Wimbledon.