Peter Bodo: Stefan Edberg

Tennis' version of Santas and superstars

December, 18, 2014
12/18/14
4:16
PM ET
It has been a terrific year for the tennis coaching industry. It isn’t just that so many coaches found gainful employment; it's also because the dignity of the profession -- never a guaranteed thing -- was greatly enhanced by the dramatic increase in what is now being called the “supercoach” category.

The presence of former greats -- among others, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Goran Ivanisevic, Amelie Mauresmo and newest addition Martina Navratilova -- in the player guest boxes of the world has brought increased attention not just to the profession but to the game itself. Supercoaches have created a thousand new storylines because their names are so resonant -- and irresistible.

With that in mind, and with this being the holiday season, let’s imagine what the celebrity coaches and their players might produce when it comes time to exchange gifts.

ATP No. 1 Novak Djokovic has had a terrific year, marred only by his failure to achieve his main ambition for 2014, a win at Roland Garros. The French Open remains the only Grand Slam title Djokovic hasn’t won. It’s important: In recent years, completing a career Grand Slam has become almost a requisite entry on the résumé of any player who hopes to be called “great.” Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal each has a career Slam. Why not Nole?

With that in mind, Boris Becker presents Djokovic with an official FFT-endorsed Roland Garros dartboard, featuring the face of Rafael Nadal on a corkboard the color of terre battue. It comes with three darts, but Becker also gives Djokovic the special five-dart “party pack” -- in case Djokovic wants to invite a few of the contenders who might sweep Nadal out of the way to join in the game.

Djokovic, fearing that the stress of having to sit watching and feeling unaccustomedly helpless may be causing Becker to overeat, gives his coach a treadmill.

Stefan Edberg has always been famous for his phlegmatic nature and reticence. Never one to make a big to-do about holidays -- or anything else for that matter -- he gives his protégé Roger Federer a gray scarf and a $10 bottle of Chilean red wine.

Federer gives Edberg a framed, 8 1/2-by-12-inch black-and-white head shot of himself, signed with permanent marker, “Best Wishes, Roger Federer.”

WTA No. 6 Agnieszka Radwanska barely knows her new coach, Navratilova. Unsure of her taste, Radwanska decides to play it safe and give nine-time Wimbledon champ Navratilova a complete, nine-DVD collection of her Wimbledon triumphs.

Convinced that Radwanska needs a little more oooomph and aggression in her game, Navratilova gives the Polish Popgun the complete, nine-DVD collection of Navratilova’s Wimbledon triumphs.

Kei Nishikori has risen all the way to No. 5 under the tutelage of former French Open champion Michael Chang. Nishikori pulls out all the stops and gives Chang a Porsche that the player got for a sweet price off Maria Sharapova (who keeps winning the vehicles in Stuttgart).

Chang, legendary in his playing days for his frugality, gives Nishikori a coffee-table book filled with photos of cute kittens.

Former No. 1 and multiple Grand Slam champion Lindsay Davenport has agreed to coach Madison Keys in 2015. However, as the mother of four young children, Davenport will do most of her coaching via telephone. It’s not much of a surprise, but Keys will certainly get good use out of her Christmas present -- a $500 phone card.

Keys is just 19 and knows little about motherhood. She gives Davenport a really cool Nirvana T-shirt.

Being French, Mauresmo has a nice sense of the marriage between good taste and style. The sight of Andy Murray in his scruffy jeans, running shoes and ratty hoody drives her crazy. With help from Judy Murray and Kim Sears, Mauresmo gets Murray’s measurements and has a Bond Street tailor make up a smart fitted suit complete with pipe-stem slacks.

Murray, while he gets on great with Mauresmo and has decided to continue working with her for 2015, doesn’t get her anything. Christmas makes him grumpy.

Marin Cilic won the U.S. Open in 2014, surpassing his wildest ambitions, thanks partly to the coaching acumen of former Wimbledon champ Goran Ivanisevic. Feeling deeply grateful and flush from his newfound wealth, Cilic reserves a seat for Ivanisevic on a Virgin Galactic commercial flight into space.

If Ivanisevic gets lucky (or not), he might get to sit alongside fellow ticket holders Lady Gaga, scientist James Lovelock or Justin Bieber. The Christmas card with the ticket inside contains the handwritten message: Goran, I hope you enjoy this. People said you were always out there anyway.

Ivanisevic knows that Cilic is a deep thinker (sometimes to his own detriment when it comes to his profession) and wants to give him an intellectually stimulating gift. He chooses the game Boggle.

Jimmy Connors more or less launched the supercoach trend when he signed on with Andy Roddick in 2006. More recently, Connors coached WTA No. 2 Maria Sharapova for exactly one match in the summer of 2013. He’s out of the picture now, but Connors and Sharapova still exchange Christmas cards.

Happy holidays to all!
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.

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