August 12, 1990: The day Stefan Edberg won Cincinnati to become No. 1
- 12 Aug 2020
What happened exactly on that day
On this day, the 12th of August 1990, Stefan Edberg outclassed defending champion Brad Gilbert in the Cincinnati final. The 6-1, 6-1 victory in less than hour made him world No 1 for the first time. Edberg, who had just claimed his second Wimbledon title earlier in the summer, had been chasing the top spot since he became world No. 2 for the first time in 1987 – but Ivan Lendl had managed to stay out of reach. After finally ascending to the top, the Swede would remain No 1 for 24 consecutive weeks – and ultimately 72 weeks in total.
The players involved
Stefan Edberg was born in 1966. Very successful in junior tournaments (he achieved the junior Grand Slam in 1983), he almost quit tennis the same year at the age of 17 after one of his serves accidentally killed a line judge in New York. He continued, however, and surely didn’t regret the decision. As soon as December 1985, a few months after young Boris Becker had broken through by winning Wimbledon, Edberg claimed his first Grand Slam on the grass courts of the Australian Open – defeating fellow Swede Wilander in the final (6-4, 6-3, 6-3). The tournament was not held in 1986 due to its indefinite change of date to January, and Edberg would successfully defend his title in January of 1987 – defeating Aussie favorite Pat Cash 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 5-7, 6-3.
In 1988 he added a Wimbledon title to his achievements by beating Boris Becker 4-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-2) in a final that started one of the most famous rivalries in tennis history. In 1989, Edberg lost confidence after losing two major finals in a row. The first one came at Roland-Garros, where he was stopped by Michael Chang 6-1, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2) in a heartbreaking match during which he missed 10 break points in the fourth set. The second one came at Wimbledon, where his Becker took brutal revenge from the previous year’s final by triumphing over Edberg 6-0, 7-6, 6-4. The Swede lost in the final of five other important events that year, but in the end he managed to edge Becker in the final of the Masters Cup (4-6, 7-6, 6-3, 6-1). He started 1990 by reaching the final at the Australian Open, but he was forced to retire in the second set of his clash with Lendl because of abdominal injury. After a new disappointment at the French Open, where he lost in the first round, Edberg reclaimed the Wimbledon crown by getting the best of Becker in five sets in their third consecutive final at the All-England Club (6-2, 6-2, 3-6, 3-6, 6-4). Finding himself closer than ever to become world No. 1, Edberg started a busy American tour in order to seize the opportunity.
Brad Gilbert was born in 1961. He turned pro in 1982, and within a few months he claimed the first of his 19 titles in Taipei. Unlike many other professional players of his era, Gilbert did not have a major offensive weapon and his game relied mostly on his great tactics. Although he managed to climb as high as world No. 4 in early 1990 after he had won five tournaments in 1989, his best Grand Slam results were two quarterfinals reached at the 1987 US Open (lost to Jimmy Connors 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-0) and at Wimbledon in 1990 (lost toBecker 6-4, 6-4, 6-1). Gilbert had also obtained a bronze medal at the Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988 after he lost in the semifinal against fellow American Tim Mayotte (6-4, 6-4, 6-3). In August of 1990, Gilbert held the seventh spot in the ATP rankings.
The Lindner Family Tennis Center in Cincinnati, Ohio had been holding a prestigious men’s event continuously since 1899. In 1981, the tournament became a part of the prestigious Grand Prix and many great players came to prepare the US Open. In those years, the Cincinnati Open was won by champions such as John McEnroe (1981), Lendl (1982), and Mats Wilander (1983, 1984, 1986, 1988). In 1990, with the establishment of the ATP Tour as the only professional circuit, Cincinnati entered the Super 9 category (now known as Masters 1000), becoming the third-most important tournament in the United States after the US Open and Key Biscayne.
In August of 1990, when Edberg arrived in Cincinnati, he was on a mission to become world No. 1 for the first time. Following his second triumph at Wimbledon, the Swede was closer than ever to Lendl- who had skipped the French Open to focus on London (where Edberg defeated him in the semi-final 6-1, 7-6, 6-3). In the first tournament of his American summer tour in Los Angeles, Edberg took one more step toward the top by claiming the title. He bested Michael Chang 7-6, 2-6, 7-6 in the final despite a sprained ankle. In Cincinnati, the Swede faced Chang again in the quarter-finals. When he edged the American 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, Edberg was mathematically sure to become the new world No. 1 at the end of the week – but he stayed focused on his goals and delayed any form of celebration
”I wanted to wait until I had won the tournament to celebrate; I want to do the things that will keep me No. 1. I’ve been waiting to get there for a long time.” – he told The New York Times. In the semi-final, he beat Roland-Garros champion Andres Gomez 7-5, 6-3 to set up the final clash against Gilbert. It was a rematch of the 1989 final, in which Gilbert had claimed the title at Edberg’s expense via a 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 decision.
This time the outcome was different, and the final was the most one-sided in the tournament’s history. In a demonstration of classic serve-and-volley tennis, Edberg showed why he was about to become world No. 1 – winning 52 points out of 79. He didn’t face a single break point and made only eight unforced errors in the entire match. It took him only 50 minutes to dismiss Gilbert and reach the top of the rankings in style.
According to The Washington Post, an exasperated Gilbert admitted, “The guy thoroughly beat on me. That’s the bottom line. He just beat on me.”
Meanwhile, as reported in the same paper, Edberg – who was now on 17-match winning streak dating back to Wimbledon – was proud of his achievement, saying, “This is one to remember, with all the things that have happened this week I became No. 1 after the quarter-finals, and then I proved it. I proved it by the way I’ve played over the last month and a half.”
As he would say later to the New York Times, now was the time to celebrate. “Then we went out and popped a bottle of champagne – Dom Perignon – not too bad.”
What happened next?
Edberg would continue his winning streak in Long Island, claiming a fourth consecutive title by edging Goran Ivanisevic 7-6, 6-3 in the championship round. The Swede would not be able to confirm his run at the US Open, where he would be defeated in the opening round for the first time of his career (lost to Alexander Volkov 6-3, 7-6, 6-2 in one of the biggest upsets in tournament history). Edberg would eventually triumph at the Paris-Bercy Open, but although he would finish the season as world No. 1 he would be defeated by Andre Agassi 5-7, 7-6, 7-5, 6-2 in the final of the last major tournament of the year – the Masters Cup. Edberg would claim two more Grand Slam titles in his career, both at the US Open (1991 and 1992). In total, he would spend 72 weeks as world No. 1.
Gilbert would slowly decline in the early 1990s and he would then become famous as a tennis coach, leading Andre Agassi to become world No. 1. He also wrote a book, Winning Ugly, in which he explained his views on the game. His coaching career now over, Gilbert continues to work as a TV commentator.
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