In 1992, Stefan Edberg played Michael Chang in the semifinals of the US Open, in what would become the longest match at the tournament since such records have been kept. Edberg won in an excruciating five hours and 26 minutes, after attacking the net 254 times against one of the great grinders of all time.
People rarely bring up that performance when they talk about the greatest matches of all time, but it surely deserves a place among them. But then Edberg was a genius in a number of ways, not least of which was his ability to duck the limelight. He won six Grand Slam singles titles, including back-to-back triumphs at the US Open -- the tournament many critics felt he would never win because he was “too laid-back” or just not temperamentally suited for success in the boisterous, hurly-burly atmosphere in New York.
Edberg is back among us now, and no less self-effacing than ever. He’s no longer torquing out those ridiculous high-kicking, American-twist serves or slicing backhand volleys that appear to be hit with a carving knife instead of a racket. He’s sitting in the player-guest box of Roger Federer, quietly contributing to the late-career success of the Grand Slam singles career champion. Although low-key to the point of being all but invisible, Edberg has played an enormous role in keeping Federer in the hunt.
It might not be the sexiest line item on Federer’s résumé, but at age 33 he still hasn’t been out of the top 10 since late in September 2002. Federer was ranked as low as No. 8 as recently as March -- just two months after he hired Edberg. Now he’s firmly entrenched at No. 3, and he’s been in the championship match at seven tournaments this year (with wins at Dubai and Halle). Don’t let anyone tell you Edberg’s coaching has nothing to do with this, even if he isn’t signing up to sell car insurance on television or huddling with reporters after every match.
The reality is that Edberg, whom Federer has described as a “childhood idol” of his, has had a profound effect on Federer’s vision of the game. It was never more apparent than in Federer’s win over Gael Monfils in the third round of the Cincinnati Masters on Thursday night.
Federer won that match, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, and he did it with swift assurance, winning in 1 hour, 48 minutes. That’s double time for a match as competitive as this one, and it underscores the extent to which both men stepped up, stuck out their chins and took their best shots.
The statistic that jumps out off an otherwise nicely balanced stat sheet (in the unforced error department, Monfils had 35 to Federer’s 33) is the one tracking points won at the net. Federer took the forecourt 44 times, winning 26 of those attacks.
OK, 44 is a far cry from 254. And a success rate of 59 percent might not sound so devastating. But in reality, the willingness to attack can have a shaping influence on a match, and in this one, it certainly helped Monfils decide that playing from 12 feet behind the baseline was not really an option. For the holdouts who still believe that too few players embrace the attacking game these days, this match was like cool water for parched throats.
We know Federer to be a stubborn cuss; it comes with the territory for a champion. Yet, over the course of this year, he seems to have made a decision to play bolder, more aggressive, risky tennis. He has decided that he needs to end points more quickly than in the past. He has accepted the dangerous mandate to change, to adapt.
The serve-and-volley strategy or even attacking at every hint of opportunity might not get the job done against a Novak Djokovic or a Rafael Nadal -- not unless the courts are made quicker. But, as we saw Thursday, the willingness to press forward to the net certainly can bear fruit against a lot of the other talented players on the ATP Tour -- against the players you have to beat to get a crack at a Djokovic, Nadal or Andy Murray.
Federer is a different, better player than he was at the start of this year, and a lot of the credit for that goes to that iconic exponent of the serve-and-volley game, Edberg. And it’s OK with him that few seem to have noticed. Edberg likes it that way; he’s more than accustomed to working at his craft with few distractions.