Thomas Muster turned 50: he has lived before

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Thomas Muster turned 50: he has lived before

He’ve lived before. Thomas Muster, recently turned 50, rewrote his history in a tale of two lifes, or perhaps even more. The first time of his career covered exactly ten years. On 1 April 1989, in his fifth season as a pro, Muster found himself in hospital. Two hours before, he had just come back from two sets down to beat World No. 13 Yannick Noah to reach the Miami final. He would broke for the first time into the top 10. Yet his career seemed a downbound train at that moment as a drunk driver – 37-year-old Norman Sobie – severed cruciate and side ligaments in his left knee.

Muster, his coach, Ronnie Lietgeb, and two others had stopped for sandwiches downtown when the accident happened. Muster was getting something out of the trunk of a car when it was struck head-on by Sobie who pushed the parked car into Muster's leg and knocked him back about 15 feet.

It wasn’t even clear if the former junior French Open and orange Bowl finalist would ever walk easily. But Muster, S.L. Price wrote in 1995 on Sports Illustrated, “attacked rehabilitation with the same ferocity that marks his tennis”. Leitgeib designed a special chair, so Muster could sit and hit balls while still in a cast. The first day when he put Muster on court on it, Leitgeib remembered, was “the most remarkable day I ever had with Thomas”.

That summer he came to Rome, on crutches. “Next year, I’m coming back to win” he promised. And nobody seemed to take him seriously. Twelve months later, he would beat Andrés Gómez in the semifinals and Andrei Chesnokov in the final to realize his prophecy. The King of Clay was born.

He won 24 straight clay-court finals between May 1990 and July 1995. In 1993, he lifted seven trophies and won 55 of his 65 matches on his preferred surface. At the time, they called him “Musterminator”. Under the surface, however, he remained an artist. Thanks to their shared coach, Leitgeib, he became friend with Andrea Gaudenzi, the Italian No.1 ranked player during those years. As Gaudenzi studied law, he often host the Austrian who read philosophy essays, played drums and painted landscapes.

Their friendship was shortly in danger in Montecarlo in 1995. Muster looked ill, though he managed to win 6-3 7-6 that semifinal. His friend, furious, believing Muster had faked a bad condition didn’t shake hands. “What happened is I didn't eat for the last two days” Muster said. “I slept probably a total of six hours last two days and I have no explanation for that. What happened, it is just that I dehydrated completely. When I came into the -- I mean, I had no memory what happened until I was in the locker room and I was just told I had 40 degrees temperature and I am going to the hospital now to make all the tests and check for the blood and heart, and so we will see”.

The next day, he beat Boris Becker, who never managed to seal a clay court title in his whole career, fter a tough match, by 4–6, 5–7, 6–1, 7–6, 6–0, surviving two championship points in the fourth set tiebreak. On the first, Becker double-faulted after going for a big second serve. The Montecarlo Masters became on of the six titles, ot of the 12 he claimed that year, Muster clinched after saving at least a match point. He went on to win his second Italian Open title, defeating Sergi Bruguera in the final, later becoming in 1996 the first player to win in Rome three times in the Open era.

That year he won 40 consecutive clay-court matches – the longest winning streak on the surface since Bjorn Borg had won 46 between 1977-1979. A streak marked by his greatest feat. 

When he came to Paris, he predictably played the role of the man to beat at the French Open. Never before a player without a Grand Slam title was such a huge favorite to get the first one. Unexpectedly, he came also close to defeat in quarterfinals as he faced 19-year-old unheralded Albert Costa. The Spaniard was two games from a sensational 4-set victory.

“I really believed that I could win, and I wasn’t impressed by the fact he hadn’t lost,” said Costa, playing his first match on Centre Court. “But I felt tired in fifth set. When you’re feeling tired, he’s still feeling fit.” Muster, in turn, said he wasn’t surprised by Costa’s strong play, but he said he could have avoided such a struggle by converting some break points in the second set.Later on in 1995, Costa took a revenge on Muster overcoming the Austrian in five sets in Kitzbuhel.

In the semifinal, he simply rolled past Kafelnikov. “I felt like a small mouse against a big elephant,’‘ the Russian said said after the one-sided match. “I felt that he is something unusual. I didn’t think that I could beat Thomas. Thomas is something like a wall, he’s unbeatable.” “I’m not unbeatable, I’m just a human being. It takes a lot experience to play a Grand Slam semifinal” admitted Muster after claiming his maiden Grand Slam final. “One more to go for me, but winning or losing is not going to change my life,” he said. 

On Sunday, he moved past Michael Chang 7-5 6-2 6-4.The 121-minute final was his 30th straight victory, longest streak on the men’s tour since Ivan Lendl in 1985.I always believed I could do it,” he said. “It’s great that I could prove it today… that makes me happy even six years later.” 

In 1995, his aura of invincibility extended throughout the entire season. At the Eurocard Open, a then Super 9 event in Essen, Germany, he upset Sampras in the semifinals and beat MaliVai Washington to collect his first indoor title. The surface in Gruga Hall was described by many players as slower than usual indoor carpets, and the balls used were heavier and slower. "I hope my first win on carpet will help dispel my image as only a clay-court player," Muster said.

He made his point in 1997, his best season on hardcourt. He reached the semifinals of the 1997 Australian Open, losing to eventual champion Pete Sampras. He then went on to win the tournament in Dubai, defeating Goran Ivanišević in the final. Muster went on to win his biggest title on hardcourt at the 1997 Miami Masters,.where everythin began to ruin, Muster became the oldest Lipton champion at the time and the second player to win a Mercedes Super 9 title on all three surfaces, matching Pete Sampras.

“I had no idea what it meant to have torn ligaments” said Muster after beating Bruguera. “I had no idea what it means, except maybe you can stand up tomorrow and play again. But my coach, he studied medicine, he was like the color of this wall here. He probably knew what it meant. We just talked to the doctor who actually did the first arthroscopy in Mercy Hospital that night. We just said it's amazing what happens in eight years, what happened eight years ago. I mean, as I said, it's just really a great feeling. Maybe after the French Open, the most emotional moment in my career”. 

His farewell came at the Roland Garros in 1999’ a year after his 55th and last final he played at Estoril. In his anti-climactic comeback, he built resilience but didn’t beat his age. On October 25, 2011 he baptized the new Austrian big thing, Dominic Thiem, at Vienna. Thiem would become the first Austrian in top 10 since Musterminator. What goes around comes around.