| File picture of Stefan Edberg (right) with Steffi Graf and Pat Cash
London: He does not throw temper tantrums like John McEnroe or have the Gallic charm of Henri Leconte, but Stefan Edberg was the most sought-after man at this week’s seniors tournament at the Royal Albert Hall.
While the shy Swede was happy to stay in the background throughout his 14-year professional career, leaving Boris Becker and a young, charismatic Andre Agassi to dominate the tabloid headlines, he found himself thrust back into the limelight at the Honda Challenge on Thursday.
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and Edberg certainly found that was the case when his legion of fans packed the 3,800-capacity arena to catch a rare glimpse of the twice former Wimbledon champion.
With six Grand Slam victories, three Davis Cup trophies and more than $20 million in prize money banked, the 36-year-old has not felt the need to relive his glory days.
Edberg, who also won two US Opens and two Australian Opens, even dared to turn a deaf ear to McEnroe’s frequent pleas to join the seniors bandwagon and was adamant that his days of playing in front of a crowd were over.
“Every time John sees me he reminds me that he wants to see me on court but I’m still keeping the defence (of not playing competitively) up,” said Edberg after enjoying a half-hour warm-up with McEnroe.
“I still enjoy playing tennis but this is a totally different scene for me, playing in a big arena like this. I don’t know if I would enjoy going around on the seniors circuit. It would mean practising a lot more than I do, it would mean travelling and it would mean competition again and I’m not quite ready for it yet,” added the genial Swede.
Despite his reservations, a gentle nudge from his friend Tim Henman finally convinced Edberg to end his tennis exile on this one occasion — all in the name of charity.
Henman had initially suggested the pair play an exhibition match to raise funds for the Kids at Heart charity, but the British number one’s shoulder problems put paid to that idea.
Instead, Edberg was lined up to face his compatriot, doubles specialist Jonas Bjorkman.
For the British crowd, Edberg’s reappearance was long overdue. They took the Swede to their hearts after his memorable battles with Becker in three consecutive Wimbledon finals, winning the title in 1988 and 1990.
“This is big for me but it’s nice because it’s London and the Albert Hall has a fantastic atmosphere...it’s one of the best places to come to,” Edberg said before stepping on court.
“It will give me a little bit of a taste (of the seniors tour) but whether that would sway me, probably not,” he added shaking his head and smiling.
Once the former London resident stepped on court, it was hard to believe he had not played in Britain since his second-round Wimbledon exit in 1996. Having enjoyed a number of concerts at the Albert Hall during his decade-long stay in the English capital, Edberg showed his classic serve and volley game was still perfectly in tune as he beat Bjorkman 6-4, 3-6, 10-8 (champions tiebreak) in a highly entertaining match.
Looking as fit and lean as he did during his reign as world number one, Edberg rolled back the years to defeat Bjorkman, who still plays on the main tour.
Edberg, who also showed his backhand was still on song, poured cold water on the myth that ‘Swedes do not have a sense of humour’ by sharing several on-court gags with his fellow countryman.
To the delight of the fans, Edberg mimicked the service action of McEnroe and then set the pulse of a lineswoman racing when he ended up on her lap after fruitlessly chasing a Bjorkman winner.
Despite his obvious appeal on the circuit, Edberg said he was not about to give up his laid-back lifestyle. “It’s been pretty quiet for me for the last six years. I still do some work with tennis back home but I’m quite happy leading the quiet life,” said Edberg, who now runs a low-key academy back in Sweden.