WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND, JULY 7 -- You could bind, gag and blindfold Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg, and they still would know how to play each other. Not since the early 1890s have two companions so dominated Wimbledon. The Wilfred Baddeley and Joshua Pim of their era, they are contesting the men's final for the third straight year.
Sunday's meeting on Centre Court is their 24th overall. It is the longest rivalry in their short careers. Becker is the 22-year-old defending champion and No. 2 seed from West Germany, a redhead of hulking proportions and explosive temperament. Edberg, a 24-year-old Swede seeded No. 3, is as pale a personality as his hair, a player of neat, compact strokes with little sign of emotion.
"I know him blind," Becker said. "And he knows the same about me."
The last time two players made the Wimbledon final such a regular meeting place was when Baddeley and Pim decided four straight finals from 1891 to 1894, with Baddeley winning the first two and Pim the third and fourth. The only other players to rendezvous in finals so consecutively were William Renshaw and Herbert F. Lawford, who contested three in 1884-86 with Renshaw winning all three.
Statistics will mean little, nearly balancing out between the No. 2 and No. 3 players in the world. Becker holds a 15-8 lead in their series, but on Centre Court the record is 1-1. And in Grand Slam events Edberg leads, 2-1. He defeated Becker in the 1988 final, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2, and in the '89 French Open semifinals, 6-3, 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 6-2.
"The way I'm playing, I feel I've got a good chance," Edberg said. "Anyway, it's always a tough battle between us and it's really the one who's got the best day."
Wimbledon brings Becker and Edberg together so often simply because their games are perfectly suited to the grass, albeit with differing styles. Over the last two weeks the All England Club has been the site of rejuvenation for both players after struggles earlier this season, Becker with lack of motivation and Edberg with a strained stomach muscle that forced him to retire from the Australian Open final.
Each came here seeking to reestablish himself after first-round upsets by young comers at the French Open, Becker losing to Goran Ivanisevic of Yugoslavia and Edberg to Sergi Bruguera of Spain. They have succeeded, each losing just three sets in six matches.
The 6-foot-3, 187-pound Becker is a tumbling log who rolls over opponents. His bludgeoning strokes may well be unequaled on grass, and he can become the fifth man to win four Wimbledon titles, and the first since Bjorn Borg won five straight from 1976 to '80.
Becker plays in the moment, savoring the high drama of major championships and the two weeks of drudgery it takes to make a Grand Slam final, gradually lifting his game. His thrilling victory over Ivanisevic in the semifinals, 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-0, 7-6 (7-5), might have lent him some match sharpness.
The 6-foot-2, 170-pound Edberg has a prettier, almost satin quality. When his game is not on he is one of the coldest players, but he is equally capable of sweeping the most established champions off the court. In the semifinals he inflicted top-ranked Ivan Lendl's second-worst defeat at Wimbledon, 6-1, 7-6 (7-2), 6-3.
If either can be called a favorite, it would be Becker, who has won seven of their nine meetings in finals. Of their grass-court encounters, he has won three of four. The West German may also have deeper emotional reserves, less subject to a bad day and flatness.
Edberg is regarded as something of an underacheiver, never quite meeting the promise he showed in 1983 when swept the junior Grand Slam and won the Olympic gold medal in 1984. He has been subject to some frustrating routs by Becker, most notable last year's 6-0, 7-6, 6-4 landslide in the final here.
But Edberg may simply be one of those players who quietly implodes. In 1988 he recovered from a two-set deficit to defeat Miloslav Mecir of Czechoslovakia in the semifinals. He possesses two Australian Open titles in addition to his Wimbledon, and the low profile he keeps is partly intentional. He lives in Kensington and commutes to Wimbledon each day unbothered by the sorts of pressures on the more outgoing Becker.
Both players said there was little use in trying to analyze or predict what might happen with such a long series between them. But there is one potentially telling statistic: Whoever won the first set has gone on to win 21 of their 23 encounters.
"We have played each other over 20 times, we know each other better than any other players," Becker said. "So it depends on who gets out of bed with the better frame of mind."