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EDBERG : His Coming-Out Party Shows That More Than His Shirt Is Colorful

September 27, 1987|LISA DILLMAN | Special to The Times

Images of Stefan Edberg . . .

To most American sports fans, he's another blond, cold-blooded, emotionless, expressionless product of the Swedish tennis assembly line. Son of Borg.

To most American sportswriters, he's a dull interview.

To New York's Village Voice, his roots can be traced back to a giant pod, left over from "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

To most Swedish tennis players, he's a firebrand, for sure.

It's all relative, of course, and as with most generalizations, none of these truly hit the mark. Especially not the Village Voice's, which ran a fictional sidebar on Edberg during the U.S. Open entitled "Tip of the Edberg." In it three unnamed tennis players and a coach secretly meet a reporter behind a concession stand to give them the "real" story of Edberg chanting at the moon, Edberg acting like an other-world zombie with planters and pods in his hotel room.

That's the extremist and somewhat funny view, which, if anything, is an outdated view. The perspective from the cutting edge failed to notice one of the more significant trends to come from this year's U.S. Open--the coming out of Stefan Edberg.

The fortnight of Edberg showed he possessed more than just a superb serve-and-volley game; it revealed an often whimsical young man with a dry sense of humor. Perhaps the turnaround came when he was challenged by Washington Post reporter John Feinstein to tell a couple of jokes.

So, Edberg obliged and told some Norwegian jokes. You see, Norwegians and Swedes have poked fun at each other for years. However, Edberg wouldn't tell the jokes--which were actually harmless and inoffensive--until he was given the assurance they were off the record.

After that, Edberg seemed to loosen up, or maybe he had before but nobody noticed. At the Open, when someone accused Edberg of "not being colorful," he pointed to his impressionistic tennis shirt, featuring a Joan Miro-like design with the initials, S.E., and said, "I'm colorful," with a smirk.

These shirts are in such demand that several of them were stolen from Edberg's locker at the National Tennis Center during the Open.

Here, at the Volvo/Los Angeles tournament this week, Edberg has shifted his attention from the levity to his primary purpose.

"I'm not a joker," he said. "I'm a tennis player."

But as Edberg asserts, his emerging ability to partake in give-and-take with the media is merely an example of a gradual progression. On the court, he's becoming more and more comfortable in big matches. Off the court, Edberg, whose shyness contributed to many of the images people have of him, is getting used to talking about himself.

"It's also a matter of learning, getting more and more comfortable," he said. "It's now different from before."

He admitted to feeling slightly apprehensive before trying to use funny lines.

"Very hard, it's not easy," he said. "It's going to have to come naturally. Sometimes you get asked stupid questions, and sometimes you give stupid answers."

Unlike Ivan Lendl, Edberg's development has seemed natural. There are times that Lendl--who is not the forbidding presence people make him out to be--seems more of a public relations creation than anything else.

Edberg, for one, has remained his own person. He went against the grain in Sweden as a youngster, switching from a two-handed backhand to a one-handed stroke and played serve-and-volley when the rest of his peers were swinging from the baseline.

After he won the Junior Grand Slam in 1983, Edberg took the next step in his tennis development by winning the the Olympic gold medal when tennis was a demonstration sport in 1984 in Los Angeles. Then, he told a Times reporter that he thought hitting groundstrokes was boring.

Now, three years later, Edberg, 21, has revised his stand.

"They're not boring, but they're not my style," he said. "I play better from the baseline now, but you always want to use the best part of your game. It's different when you're in tight situations. And (at the net), that's when I feel safest."

This year, Edberg has quietly moved into the No. 2 spot, behind Lendl, in the world rankings. He started off by completing a successful defense of his Australian Open title, promptly won a tournament in Memphis and a week later took the runner-up spot at Indian Wells.

Including the Australian Open, he has won four tournaments and only suffered so-called "bad losses" at Monte Carlo and the French Open as he lost in the second round of both. However, Monte Carlo was one week after Edberg won a tournament in Tokyo, and the French Open is on Edberg's least favorite surface, clay.

In many ways, Edberg's path couldn't have been planned better as far as his development is concerned.

"I haven't had a lot of pressure; I've sort of sneaked through," Edberg said. "It's worked my way and it suits me."

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