Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You’ll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
14. Stefan Edberg
Years played: 1983-1996
Titles: 41 (per ATP website)
Major titles: 6
Serve-and-volley was the dominant style of play over the last half of the 20th century. So it was fitting that one of that century’s last great champions was among the smoothest and purest purveyors of that style.
There have been plenty of players who owned bigger serves, and a few who had volleys as deft. But with Edberg, the two shots could never be disconnected. His kick serve, which he nearly broke his back to hit, wasn’t designed to win points outright; it was designed to give him just enough time to scurry forward and punch home a winning volley, which he celebrated with a trademark sideways skip known as the “Eddie Shuffle.”
When he made his pro debut in 1983, there had never been a prospect quite like Edberg. That year he became the first and so far only junior to sweep all four boys’ Grand Slams. On the one hand, he was only continuing the new tradition of reticent Swedish male champions that had been started by Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander. On the other hand, Edberg played nothing like the standard, cautious, baseline-hugging Swedes. At 6’2”, he was taller and rangier than his predecessors, and he grew up playing not on clay, the way they did, but on lightning-fast wooden indoor courts. For him, every point was a race to the net.
Like many serve-and-volleyers, it took Edberg a little while to sync up all the elements in his game. He would win his first major title at the Australian Open in 1985, but he didn’t reach the peak of his powers until the end of the decade. Starting in 1988, Edberg won two of three Wimbledon finals over Boris Becker; in 1990, he ascended to the No. 1 ranking for the first time; and after a series of early frustrations at the US Open, he finally conquered New York, and put together the most supreme tennis of his career, in 1991 and ’92. Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, Edberg also helped Sweden to four Davis Cup titles.
Since then, only a few pros have made serve-and-volley the core of their games. Maybe they knew they could never do it better than Edberg.
Defining Moment: Edberg went 10-25 against his rival Boris Becker, but he won two of their three Wimbledon finals. In the rubber match, in 1990, Edberg came from a break down in the fifth set. For his fans, nothing topped the sight of him exulting on Centre Court, as Becker’s last errant return fell from the sky and landed out.
Watch: Stefan Edberg beats Boris Becker in 1990 Wimbledon final
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