NEW YORK -- The melancholy Stefan Edberg, who in previous stays has been disconcerted by almost everything peripheral to this tournament -- noisy airplanes, raucous crowds, difficulty in getting through the New York traffic and to the courts -- was determined this year would be different. Befitting his new stature as the world's No. 1 tennis player, Edberg hoped he'd finally find tranquillity at the U.S. Open. "This time I wouldn't let things bother me. I said I'd take it one day at a time."
One day is all he got.
Straight sets to Alexander Volkov, a slashing lefty from Kaliningrad, a Soviet port on the Baltic Sea, "where fishmen live." (NBA fans please note, this is not the same Alexander Volkov who plays for the Atlanta Hawks. If it was, any sharpie with a camcorder would hop the next plane to Moscow and start filming location shots for a series of "Alexander Knows" commercials.)
The 6-3, 7-6 (7-3), 6-2 wipeout concludes Edberg's bizarre feast-or-famine EKG in the 1990 Grand Slams. He won Wimbledon. He reached the final at the Australian, and was ahead by two sets to one when he had to retire with stomach cramps in the fourth set against Ivan Lendl. But at the French, where he was seeded first, Edberg was booted out in the first round by Sergei Bruguera. And here he was gone, phhfft. Edberg made it easy on fans who wanted to see him in the Slams: They could either buy tickets for the first day or the last.
It shouldn't be that much of a surprise that Edberg exited the Open in a hurry. Granted it's rare when the No. 1 seed gets dumped in the first round -- once in the last 40 years, back at West Side Tennis Club in leafy Forest Hills, in 1971, when unseeded Jan Kodes showed John Newcombe the door. But if the Racing Form were to capsulize Edberg's chances here, the line would read: "No factor." He's barely visible in this tournament, he floats about like gauze paper. Edberg has played eight Opens, and only twice gotten as far as the semis, an embarrassing underachievement for a player who has been ranked in the top five each of the past six years. Edberg's most recent defeats here have been cringers. Three years ago Aaron Krickstein beat him in the fourth round. In last year's fourth round a 37-year-old Jimbo pounded him, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1. This year it's Volkov, in the first. Volkov, No. 52, a well of talent with the consistency of a pogo stick; Volkov, who's never gotten a sniff of the quarters in a Slam.
Others might have gone wild after such humiliation. One shudders to think what sum in fines John McEnroe would have drawn for racket abuse. As usual, the pacific Edberg revealed nothing. Once, Edberg dismissed a loss to Becker in a Wimbledon semi, a Wimbledon semi mind you, by saying, "There's another tournament next week." Some veterans of Edberg's dispassionate ways -- 30 seconds in the same room with this guy and you want to check his pulse -- assumed he'd begin his post-Volkov remarks by saying, "Well, there's still the doubles." Using Bjorn Borg as a model, it has often been said that the Swedish tennis players are reserved and unemotional, but Edberg is a flatliner. He can be unconvincing saying "Happy birthday."
Disappointment has generally shrouded the Swedes at the Open. New York has not been hospitable. For all his steely brilliance, Borg never won here. Mats Wilander won once -- not coincidentally, a year after he'd settled in suburban Connecticut. It may well be that New York City is too much for Edberg. Even if you wanted to explain away last year's dry cleaning to Connors by saying it was night, and there were airplanes, and it was Jimbo, the vampire of Queens, what would you say about sun, no planes and Volkov? "You have to accept that there are places where they feel comfortable and play well, and places where they don't," Edberg's coach, Tony Pickard, observed. "Here, Stefan hasn't put it together." Pickard paused deliberately. "It isn't the place."
The implication is that Edberg's emotional baggage is clearly tagged. He's known to play better where he feels comfortable. One year he skipped the Lipton tournament at Key Biscayne because he didn't like the hotel. He hates New York traffic and his results reflect it. Yet since moving to congested London four years ago, Edberg has won two Wimbledons. Seed him less than one, he'll entrance you. Seed him at the top and hit him a clean shot, he'll burst apart like a pinåata. What a fragile, reluctant No. 1 he could turn out to be.
And what of Volkov, with his small-town haircut and hawk nose? How confident was he facing Edberg? Not very. When he saw the draw, he allowed his name to be placed in the draw of a tournament in Berlin that starts this Friday. In fact, Volkov planned to take a flight over this afternoon. That's all changed now, of course. The 23-year-old Volkov is the flavor of the day. We want to know all about him, from his devouring service return to the note that he started playing tennis at 10, when a coach went to his school and had to ask for volunteers because all the kids would rather play soccer and ice hockey. How long Volkov sticks around this Open is anybody's guess. Kodes went all the way to the final after ejecting Newcombe, but Bruguera hit the bricks in the second round in Paris. Even if we don't hear more of Volkov, we will certainly see more of him thanks to recent liberalization in the Soviet Union. "I can play anywhere I want," Volkov said, explaining that travel restrictions are lifted. "I can go everywhere." Somebody asked Volkov, Did you get this freedom because the Soviet Union's top player, Andrei Chesnokov, can go everywhere now? Volkov smiled. "No," he said, "it's because Mr. Gorbachev can."