WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND -- If you are a tennis purist, you kept your television dial on the Wimbledon men's singles final between three-time champion Boris Becker of West Germany and the 1988 champion Stefan Edberg of Sweden. If you are just a sports fan and kept your television's remote control busy, then you missed a match that showed the best and worst of both players.

Edberg began -- I should say continued -- where he left off from thrashing Ivan Lendl in the semifinal. Everything he did worked and all the net-cords and mishits seemed to fall his way. He was off to a 6-2, 6-2 lead in less than an hour. When Becker was down a set and 1-3 in the second, the spectators let out a collective sigh as they seemed to sense a rout in the making.

On grass Becker's usual plan is to begin attacking, even if his timing is off, in hopes of eventually finding the range. But he was so inept for the first two sets Sunday that he even had trouble finding the court. Some miscues were five yards off the mark. He muttered, swore under his breath, screamed and shook his head in disgust, frustration and embarrassment.

And then Edberg's momentum evaporated at 1-0 in the third set. He lost 12 of the next 18 games and the third and fourth sets at 3-6, 3-6.

At the beginning of the fifth set it was graphically clear why the sport's psychologists and coaches are so influential now. Tony Pickard, Edberg's English mentor, was quoted as saying, "the Edberg {that} Becker will face today is far stronger mentally than in the past." The major criticism of him in the past was that his game could be so easily transformed by adversity.

Conversely Becker has an aura of invincibility when playing on Centre Court. He inspires fear in opponents. At the beginning of the year, he very publicly stated his intention of supplanting Lendl atop the world rankings. A Becker victory here and an early Lendl defeat could have brought that goal tantalizingly close. He even skipped Davis Cup play for 1990 in pursuit of the goal.

So when he went ahead by 3-1 in the fifth set nearly everyone assumed that it was just a matter of time before he had his fourth title and second in a row. Still, Becker might have disagreed.

"He's a player who always tries," Becker said of Edberg. "He never lets himself down and that's what makes him so difficult to play."

But Becker's unraveling began in that fifth game when he double-faulted the first point. He ran his left hand through his hair and walked slowly back to the baseline. Although I don't know if Edberg noticed it or not, the gesture was patently one of self-doubt.

As the 2-hour 58-minute match ended, the Becker Centre Court magic was exposed as vulnerable, and Edberg can look forward to enhanced respect at the U.S. Open in September. If numbers interest you, Edberg won 137 points to Becker's 123; he converted six of 11 break points to Becker's four of 11; and he committed 30 unforced errors compared to 46 for Becker. The real story, however, is that when it really mattered, Edberg's composure remained intact. And that has nothing to do with arithmetic.