The arms rock up and down like a clockwork toy. Racket and ball are held close together and the blond German makes two jerky circles with his arms, as if he has to wind himself up.
Then Boris Becker throws the ball up and everything changes. All that was mechanical is now thrillingly, violently fluid. His arm swings through the ball with a crack like a ringmaster’s whip and sends a serve hurtling towards Stefan Edberg. The Swede’s forehand return sails long and Becker raises a right fist to the crowd.
The scene is Wimbledon’s Centre Court, 30 years ago in 1989. Becker has avenged his defeat by Edberg in last year’s final and proved that his two Championship titles won aged 17 and 18 were not just the first flush of youth but the start of something substantial.
Back in 1989, Boris Becker got revenge against Stefan Edberg as he went and won Wimbledon
Edburg failed to defend his title as Becker (right) beams as he stars at the winners’ trophy
‘I felt like this was a proper comeback,’ Becker, aged 21 then and 51 now, tells The Mail on Sunday. ‘I’d had a couple of good years but I didn’t win another Slam. In ’89 I needed to win that one because otherwise Stefan would have been ahead. This was my time to do it.’
That final was the second in a tri-logy that established Becker v Edberg as the most fascinating rivalry of the time. They were polar opposites on and off the court. As Mats Wilander, a contemporary, puts it: ‘Edberg moved like a cat; Becker was like a freight train.’
It was that contrast that gripped tennis fans. Among those who fell in love with the game watching their rivalry was a Swiss boy who would go on to become the greatest player Centre Court had ever known.
Coming into the final in 1989, Becker had two problems. First: he had played the longest semi-final in Wimbledon history against Ivan Lendl the previous day. Second: he liked Edberg too much.
‘It’s a lot easier to play somebody you don’t like,’ says Becker. ‘But with Stefan there was never any animosity. That made it more difficult for me than for him because I am more emotional, I get psyched up playing someone I don’t like.
‘So I just had to play better tennis and that is easier said than done. He was a hell of a player.’
Becker reached the semi-finals without dropping a set. On the Friday Edberg took John McEnroe apart in three sets of volleying brilliance. Then the rains came, so Becker was left to slug it out with Lendl on the Saturday.
After taking the first set, Becker lost the second and Lendl broke twice to lead 3-0 in the third before the weather halted his momentum.
‘Without the rain break Ivan would have won,’ admits Becker. ‘He was better than me, he was on top. It was the year that Ivan skipped the French Open to practise only on grass.’
Becker returned to the court and ran away with the fourth and fifth sets. The battle lasted four hours and one minute and was the longest Wimbledon semi-final until Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro in 2013.
Lendl gave a cursory nod to the Royal Box and stalked off. He cursed the rain and declared Edberg the favourite for the final. His logic was sound. Edberg was defending champion and had spent Saturday with his feet up.
‘I knew the longer the final went the better it was for Stefan,’ says Becker, ‘so that’s why I came out of the blocks flying.’ Edberg’s volleying deserted him in the first set and Becker steamrolled it 6-0.
‘I felt like I was playing the best tennis of my life,’ says Becker. ‘I felt like I was playing uphill,’ countered Edberg.
The Swede forced a tiebreak in the second set but Becker romped it 7-1. One break in the third set was enough. Walking to shake the umpire’s hand, Becker suddenly had a better idea. Spinning around, he hurled his racket into the crowd.
‘You’re not in control of your emotions,’ he says. ‘I just let the racket go! I didn’t want to injure anyone but everyone put their hands up and what a great souvenir to have the winning Wimbledon racket in ’89. The crowd were very much part of the match so it was a thank you note to say: this is for you as well.’
Wilander had lost to McEnroe in the quarters that year. Like everyone else in the locker room, he tuned in four days later for the final.
Both have since gone into coaching as Edburg (right) is pictured with Roger Federer in 2015
‘We would all watch because they were the two best grasscourt players in our time, from ’85 when Becker won his first title through to when Sampras started winning,’ says Wilander, who won seven Slams and is one of the most respected voices in the sport in his role as a Eurosport pundit.
‘Even though they both tried to play the same type of game there was a big contrast in styles. Becker had these modern strokes on both sides, Edberg had the old-fashioned forehand.
‘Edberg was like a cat, so smooth in his movement, whereas Becker’s movement was his weakness. Becker moved with his heart.’
And their personalities? ‘Completely opposite,’ says Wilander. ‘Becker was, ‘I want it now, not tomorrow — now!’ Edberg was more philosophical, more patient, more calculated.’
Becker agrees. ‘You couldn’t find more different people off the court. On the court I beat him more than he beat me but he got me in two Wimbledon finals and I beat him in one. He was my toughest, my most important rival.’
In a quirk of fate, their duel was renewed in December 2013. Nine days after Novak Djokovic appointed Becker as his coach, Roger Federer turned to Edberg.
‘I couldn’t believe it,’ says Becker. ‘It was a continuation of our rivalry. They played two Wimbledon finals when Stefan was Roger’s coach and I was Novak’s. Before the players went out we had a chat and he couldn’t have been more friendly and respectful.
‘We shook hands before and after the match and that is a true sign of our friendship and deep respect for one another.’
Federer has described both men as his tennis idols and it was their rivalry which infected him with the tennis bug. In a Twitter Q&A in 2014 he was asked the first match he ever watched. ‘Probably Becker Edberg Wimbledon final,’ he replied.
On Saturday Federer added: ‘I remember sitting in the living room on the carpet rather than the couch, because I was too nervous on the couch so I moved down to watch.
‘Becker was first of all my idol until some of my friends said, ‘Why Becker? Edberg is cooler’. ‘Is he?’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll be Edberg’.
‘Both were very important for me. Of course, you know, I was joking around, also hoping that one day I’d be a Wimbledon champion. This was more like, you know, just dreaming about it, not really believing it. But yes, they were both so important for me.’
That year of 1989 was the greatest of Becker’s career. In September he won the US Open, his first Grand Slam title outside Wimbledon. Then he won the Davis Cup with West Germany, beating Edberg and Wilander’s Sweden in the final.
He finished with six majors. Despite being only 21 in 1989, he would not win another Wimbledon title, thanks largely to the arrival of ‘Pistol’ Pete Sampras. Becker made the ’90 and ’91 finals but lost to Edberg and Michael Stich.
Becker, too, is a keen coach and spent time working with current world No 1 Novak Djokovic
‘I reached the Wimbledon final four times in a row, which I’m proud of,’ he says. ‘A lot of people only see titles but I’ve been in seven finals, two semi-finals and one quarter-final over 11 years.
‘Wimbledon is my home of tennis and I can’t wait for the Championships. I don’t go back as much as I should but I can’t just go to Wimbledon to have tea, it means too much to me.
‘I like to have a proper reason to enter so I still have that buzz every time I go.’
As for Edberg, Becker says: ‘He is not around as much now but whenever I see him we sit down, we chat, we hug. We are buddies.’