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WIMBLEDON : Edberg Is a Touch Superior : Volleying Well, He Puts Away McEnroe in Three Close Sets

Times Staff Writer

Staring down the barrel of Stefan Edberg’s racket, John McEnroe stood at the baseline and shifted his weight from one foot to the other, like a boxer in a ring.

Beneath a dirty-gray sky, McEnroe was fighting for his tennis life Friday on the same grass battleground where he had scored some of his greatest triumphs.

Already down two sets, McEnroe faced match point in the third-set tiebreaker. Edberg swiveled into his twisting service motion and sent the ball toward McEnroe.

He swung and returned it to Edberg, who volleyed the knee-high ball into the net.

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McEnroe had escaped again. Now Edberg’s lead was 6-5, and although it was still match point, McEnroe would serve next.

The crowd at Centre Court, sensing a comeback, rallied around their hero. England’s tennis fans have come to view McEnroe as some sort of mad genius, cooking up mischief and magic in a boiling pot and stirring it with his racket.

Maybe it would be like the first round, when McEnroe lost the first two sets to Darren Cahill but came back to win. Somehow, McEnroe would fight his way back and get to the final as he had five times in the 1980s, wouldn’t he?

But this time there was no more magic in McEnroe’s racket.

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Edberg moved wide to his backhand to take McEnroe’s second serve and scorched the ball cross-court.

McEnroe could only stare helplessly as the ball bounced away, his chance for winning Wimbledon with it.

Edberg, delayed for more than three hours by rain and for the better part of three sets by the white-hot intensity of McEnroe, arrived in the Wimbledon men’s final with a 7-5, 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (7-5) victory.

“I did the best I could,” McEnroe said. “It just wasn’t good enough.”

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It was an impressive match between Wimbledon champions present and past, where victory appeared in short flashes and hung by the width of a racket string.

“There was not a lot of difference between the two of us,” Edberg said.

The 23-year-old defending Wimbledon champion will play the winner of today’s semifinal between Ivan Lendl and Boris Becker, which was postponed because of Friday’s lengthy rain delay.

Hitting volleys with the touch of a pickpocket, Edberg displayed the kind of mental toughness that McEnroe once thought was lacking in the Swede’s game. Even McEnroe took note.

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“He volleyed fabulous,” McEnroe said. “I think that was the difference in the match.”

Edberg could not afford to be bankrupt mentally when the match was resumed in the third set with McEnroe leading, 3-2.

Play resumed at 3:13 p.m. after a 3-hour 13-minute rain delay.

McEnroe held set point as Edberg served in the 10th game, down 4-5.

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But Edberg saved the set point when McEnroe sailed a service return long and kept the match on course for the eventual tiebreaker with a stinging first volley, a forehand winner deep in the corner of the court.

Edberg held a break point for 6-5, but McEnroe saved it with a backhand volley winner off his serve. Then, after Edberg held at 30 for 6-6, the players began the deciding tiebreaker.

The first advantage went to Edberg, who quickly built a 4-1 lead, but back-to-back errors in his service games put McEnroe within 4-3 for his serve.

Edberg’s service winner at 5-4 gave him his first match point, but McEnroe’s sturdy service return forced Edberg to dump a volley into the net.

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McEnroe, serving next, quickly formulated his strategy. The obvious tactic would be to serve to Edberg’s forehand, which McEnroe considered erratic. But in this situation, McEnroe felt more comfortable hitting the ball wide to Edberg’s backhand.

Guessing right, Edberg’s cross-court winner ended the match.

“I didn’t think he’d be able to hit a winner on that shot,” McEnroe said.

If there was any factor that let McEnroe down more than any other, it was his serve. He finished the tournament with 57 double faults, nine of them against Edberg, including one that gave Edberg a 3-1 lead in the third-set tiebreaker.

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McEnroe refused to blame his problems on his sore left shoulder, which began bothering him Tuesday.

“That wasn’t the reason I lost,” McEnroe said. “Just leave it at that.”

There were perhaps more tangible reasons for Edberg’s victory.

“The great players have a tendency to play the big points better,” McEnroe said. “When you get two great guys playing, it really comes down to that.”

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McEnroe broke Edberg’s serve only once and that was in the first set, but Edberg got it back in the eighth game, helped by two double faults by McEnroe, the second on break point.

Two stunning winners by Edberg put McEnroe into an 0-30 hole as he served to stay in the first set at 5-6. At 15-30, McEnroe chased Edberg back with an overhead, but did nothing with the ball when he got it back and backhanded it into the net.

McEnroe came in behind his first serve at 15-40, but volleyed the ball into the net. That first set his, Edberg pumped his fists.

Both players saved a break point early in the second set. Eventually, McEnroe was looking at another set point against him. But at 5-6, 30-40, he served an ace down the center of the court.

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McEnroe held serve and moved with Edberg into a tiebreaker to decide the set. It belonged to Edberg. His backhand cross-court volley winner gave him a 4-1 lead. A lob that McEnroe could only turn to watch made it 5-2. Two Edberg service winners later and McEnroe was reeling, down two sets to none.

Even after the rain delay, there would be no McEnroe comeback. At age 30, he had failed to win his semifinal match for the first time since he was an 18-year-old qualifier in 1977.

Afterward, McEnroe knew he had come very close to his sixth Wimbledon final this decade.

“I just wasn’t able to, when I really needed it, pick it up that little bit--and it was just a little bit,” he said.

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“It was just a couple of points here and there. And then the tiebreakers . . . I just . . . I had that chance.”

His 11th Wimbledon over for him, it is now the tournament for Edberg or Becker or Lendl to win. McEnroe was asked at a press conference after the match if he would like to see one player win this Wimbledon more than another.

“The player that I wanted to win it is sitting at this table,” he said.

Tennis Notes

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Looking ahead, Stefan Edberg is 7-10 in his career against Boris Becker and 5-8 against Ivan Lendl. . . . Rick Leach and Jim Pugh reached their first Wimbledon doubles final with a straight-set victory over Javier Frana of Argentina and Leonardo Lavalle of Mexico, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4. Leach and Pugh, the top-seeded team, will play either two-time defending champions Ken Flach and Robert Seguso or 1988 finalists John Fitzgerald of Australia and Anders Jarryd of Sweden. After being halted by darkness Friday, Flach and Seguso will resume their match at one set all. . . . Five-time Wimbledon doubles champions and top-seeded this year, Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver lost their women’s doubles semifinal to Jana Novotna and Helena Sukova of Czechoslovakia, 7-6 (7-4), 7-5. Third-seeded, Novotna and Sukova will play the second-seeded team of Larissa Savchenko and Natalia Zvereva of the Soviet Union in the final. . . . Becker and Lendl probably weren’t surprised at having their semifinal disrupted by rain. Last year, with Becker leading, two sets to one, their match was suspended until the next day.


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