Tuesday, July 08, 2008

On Classic Rivalries At The Wimbledon

With all due regard to the subjective nature of sport appreciation, the 2008 finals was not the best finals that I've ever witnessed. That honor should go to the Ivanisevic-Rafter final of 2001. On the topic of great Wimbledon rivalries, commentators often highlighted Borg-McEnroe and more recently Nadal-Federer as an example of a long-standing intense rivalry. Possibly because the commentators are US-based, Becker-Edberg rivalry gets fleeting mention. When reminded about their rivalry, these people say 'ah those were the times' and move on. Another possible reason for this great neglect coud be that both Becker and Edberg didn't have a great record outside of Wimbledon and neither of them were #1 ranked players for a record period of time (Becker was #1 for a handful of weeks though Edberg was #1 for much longer).

Federer and Nadal have met in the finals for the past three years much similar to the way Becker and Edberg clashed between 88-90. This weekend's finals in someways reminded me of the 1990 Becker-Edberg finals. Both finals were considered classics in retrospective - because of the way the scores eventually turned out. However for the first two sets in both finals, Becker and Federer respectively sucked. The level of unforced errors and erratic play was surprising. I haven't seen Federer squander so many gifts from the opponent. He had so many chances in the first two sets and he literally threw them away by the way of unforced errors. You wouldn't associate Federer with this sort of trait. Both Becker and Federer in their respective years weren't this erratic up until the finals and I thought facing an old rival made them play badly.

They might look as different as chalk and cheese. However, when he threw away break-point after break-point after break-point that was handed to him as gifts, I thought I saw traces of Becker in Federer. He squandered all the opportunities and pushed himself into a corner and then dug his way out with booming serves. Similar to the way it did for Becker, the serves alarmingly clicked at times when it was needed the most. The only difference was you didn't see an angry Federer throwing his racquet around and cursing in anger. Federer also went for those toe high volleys, which was very perplexing. Edberg was a specialist in lunging forward and converting a high percentage regular forehand to a low-percentage half-volley/volley. Almost every time Federer played it he was put into a defensive position, which is usually the case when one tries to convert regular forehands into low volleys just because this is Wimbledon.

Moving on further down the memory lane, Becker pioneered the art of pushing the self-destruct button much before Ivanisevic (Quoted as saying: "The trouble with me is that every match I play against five opponents: umpire, crowd, ball boys, court, and myself.") mastered it. Its interesting how the surface symptoms are closely correlated with self-destruction. On the surface, people saw both Becker & Ivanisevic literally break-down (with their on-court mannerisms). But where they really self-destructed was in their poor shot selection and missed opportunities. One expects a 'Rolex' Federer to be well-mannered and hit those winners with laser-sharp perfection. One is confused and surprised when he doesn't deliver the latter. That Becker (and Ivanisevic) were far more flawed probably made them more entertaining. Becker surprised people when he stopped yelling and throwing his racquet around in the late 90s. But his faults remained and never went away. He ceased to be entertaining when he self-destructed silently. The eccentric characters of yesteryears are cerainly being missed today.

Here are some vignettes from the 88-90 series of Edberg-Becker finals. Edberg, the graceful and elegant Swede, lost many Indian fans by refusing to come to India claiming that he didn't want to "catch some unknown disease". However, the way he arched like a bow during his serve was sight to watch. His serve wasn't that fast and he'd mostly work on getting the angles right. Becker probably had the worst 'return of serves' in the men's circuit. He'd just block it back and Edberg capitalized on that. At that time I (and every youngster I knew) was a massive Becker fan. As far as I can remember most of the 'kazha-bolts' (old people) were Edberg fans. As a sidenote, I am yet to meet a person who calls himself a Lendl fan. I have even met a Jim Courier fan but never a Lendl fan.
Becker, with his stylish/ritualistic/trademark front-back tapping of the ball while walking towards the baseline before his serve, usually made his fans suffer and become complete 'nutcases' by the end of the match. His constant switch between excellence and self-destruction was too much for the blood pressure. It was hard being a Becker fan. The prolonged pre-serve ritual of Becker during key points compelled one to walk to the nearby temple and do a quick "archanai" on his behalf ( Thank god Nadal has toned down his pre-serve rituals of kumbuddufying to all the saamis in the world). The 1989 final was the only exception where Becker spared some agony for his fans. My friend Ozdude (and he might not even remember this today) and I spent a good part of that day, before the match, discussing if we would ever see a 6-0 in a Wimbledon final. Doordarshan tried its best to spoil it for us by cutting the match off for news midway. However, Becker compensated for that and gave his fans a treat that day by completely dominating Edberg.

The 1988 Final

This was played over three days.

The 1989 Final

The 1990 Final


Sunil said...

Sheesh...comparing Federer in the first 2 sets to Becker's self destructive tendencies is blasphemy. Federer's issue was simple - He was playing an opponent like no other.You could take all of Becker - Edberg's matches, stack them on top of each other and it still wouldn't measure up to the quality of Federer - Nadal '08. I understand your urge to present an alternate view point but idhu konjam "too much "

Hawkeye said...

the comparison ends at the point where both played badly in the first 2 sets, squandered opportunites and dug themselves out with serves. I didn't intend to compare becker's mental fragility with that of Federer.

While I agree with quality of men's tennis being very high now compared to 80s - regarding your comment on stacking up, the first sentence of the post should answer that.

Hawkeye said...

edited the post a litle bit

Anonymous said...

"regarding your comment on stacking up, the first sentence of the post should answer that." - romba smart dhaan ninga.

Anonymous said...

Given his levels and standards I though Federer looked very distracted for the first two sets. Very dissapointing.

Maha said...

Yet to meet Lendl fan?!? were you truely in India at that time? - in madras? really?!
We had a Ivan Lendl rasikar narpani mandram - I opted out of it mostly because the guys in that were either rajini fans or gavaskar fans or both but still wanted to stick on because mostly they were all anti-West Germany - because of graf and becker.
I admit though that Edberg was a little irrelevant.

Sunil said...

I am glad you called your analysis "subjective" because the metrics you use to compare Becker's and Federer's play are also subjective.

Case in point - Unforced errors. Who decides that they are unforced ? Just like baseball tracks "errors", subjectively - Tennis has for long allowed opinions of official scorers to masquerade as "stats". As far as I am concerned, all errors are forced.

Sriram said...

It was apparent from the very beginning that Nadal will win based on Chaos theory. His name is anagram of Andal and Vaishnava revival was bound to happen.

Anonymous said...

The greatest ever game is subjective. Depends on the viewer. I did see the Federer-Nadal Game and it was one of the best. No question. Becker-Edberg games were like seeing two ladies play.

To date I think these three games rank as the best I have ever seen in my life.

1995 Wimbeldon QF between Becker and Pioline.

1999 French Open Final between Agassi and Medvedev

and this one will be very surprising 1993 Davis cup QF between Ramesh Krishnan and Rodoplhe Gilbert.

I have seen quiet a few agassi-samparas games that were good as well. some how i think these three rank as the best i have seen...

of course i'm not following tennis as i used to since agassi retired.. so my comments are restricted..

- Ganesh

Anonymous said...

The best wimbledon finals I have seen is the agassi - ivanisevic final in 1992. I don't think even the rafter-ivanisevic game was as exciting.


Venkat said...


I don't understand why the self destructive tendencies can't be compared. The methodologies adopted to self destruct are in stark contrast, but the tendency exists nevertheless.
Federer was a zombie in the first 2sets and allowed Nadal to all but walk over him..happens in the French all the time too.
The first 2 sets were ordinary, I missed the crucial 3, but we are looking at a match that was ~50% mediocre. So it is not all that suprising that the image of the players and the last set have majorly contributed to the hype.

As far as good matches go, I always believed that the best matches have not been the finals.
I don't quite remember the year, but the sequence was - Becker Vs. Cedric Pioline which went to 5 sets, then Becker Vs. Agassi where Becker whooped Agassi in an amazing serve and volley game.
Have to add that Agassi returned the favour in the same year at the US open-making me maha happy :)

The point I guess is that it's perceivable that the 2008 finals was not the greatest match.

Anonymous said...


U have also specified the becker-pioline game...it was a great game...


Anonymous said...

While i agree with you on the fact that the matches you have mentioned deserve their credit, i am sure the finals of 2008 stands up there with the best.
People's tastes differ and i completely honour your preferences. You have also mentioned the 'subjective nature of sports appreciation' in the very first line.
But reading through your other blogs for sometime now, i find that you always end stirring up controversies (intentionally or unintentionally) by questioning some commonly held opinions. While you have every right in the world to have your choices, you needn't be critical on things that you dont acclaim as the best.
N.B.: Now don't show me your disclaimer. I have read that as well. It was just a suggestion. It is upto you to take it.

Hawkeye said...

just a note. i abbreciyate the discussion on best ever tennis matches. Its always an interesting discussion.

However, the second sentence sort of qualified the post with the 2008 finals was not the best finals that I've ever witnessed .

so, the post does not even venture into best ever tennis matches etc. It only compares the goodness/averageness/badness of the 1990 finals with the 2008 one.


Agree with most things with you said. Just 2 items worth mentioning

1. /* (intentionally or unintentionally) */

as long as you understand the causality of opinion Vs controversy. I am okay. Controversy unintentionally follows opinion. Opinion does not intentionally follow controversy.

2./ *you needn't be critical on things that you dont acclaim as the best. */

its just an integrity issue. If one thinks X is the best and A is not the best. one is implicitly criticising A whether one says it or not.Being one among the many people who say it explicitly is nothing wrong.

Anonymous said...

ROFL@Sriram's comment.


Anonymous said...

Am one of the 'nutcases' who lived through that rollercoaster ride called 'the life and times of Boris Becker in a tennis court'..I personally think his showdowns with Edberg deserves to be classified as a great tennis rivalry so much so that it led to so many fights at home between me and my mom who loved those mild mannered Swedish blokes (Wilander and Jarryd, Lundgren, Nystrom completed the picture and we had fights over even Davis cup matches with Becker, Jelen, Steeb and Kuehnen on my side).... *sigh*....

Btw, I see more common ground with Sunil on that point about forced and unforced errors...I think most of the 'unforced' errors that Federer committed in the first 2 sets of the final were because he knew the man on the other side of the court was Rafa..In every rally he was forced to play 2 extra strokes to have any chance of winning the point and give 20% more than he would have done against the likes of Safin and Ancic.

Though Nadal-Federer had a lot of drama, on a personal level it didn't quite match the agony of Goran losing to Agassi or the drama when he finally defeated Rafter... to each our own..

- Jupe

Anonymous said...

Its tennis ... not romance ... things dont have to be "Magical" all the time for it to be interesting.

The Talkative Man said...

Lot of nice points there. The part about DD slashing the '89 final for news is a good pick.

Ivanisevic-Agassi(92) was one of the best finals ever, as was Samps vs Goran(98). My pick for the best Wimbledon game of all time goes to the SF 89 between Lendl-Becker, which I captured here

Edberg did visit India in 1985 for the Bangalore Davis Cup tie, where Vijay stunned Wilander.

A lendl fan, btw.

The Talkative Man said...

@anon above,
thanks for bringing up Steeb, who often threw a spanner into (wilander's) works to get the Davis 89 & 90. Before that it used to be a Casabianca act for Boris..a case in point is the heroic final v Sweden 1985

anantha said...

Boris Becker was the only man that reduced me to tears after a tennis match - his Wimbledon loss to Sampras in '95. I stopped watching tennis after that day, barring a few games here and there. But I see familiar names from that era thrown up here - Patrick kuehnen, Carl Uwe Steeb, Andres Jarryd.

*Sigh* Those were the days! I had a friend who was a huge Edberg fan. His older brother was a Lendl fan. So I have met a *Lendl* fan :)

Anonymous said...

Nadal v/s Federer was feast for eyes but I would vote on Edberg and Baker rivalry....
It was fun to see baker bumping racket on the court and showing his antics. It's turning out to be gentleman's game now.....
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Anonymous said...

Well I simply loved it because I always thought if anyone can come close to beating federer in wimbledon its nadal. And he did deserve this victory!
So when everyone else went damn, I went Yohooo!!

sexy said...