With the Rome Masters beginning this weekend, it gives TTI a chance to go back to the 90s when one of the defining players of the surface won his first big title on the red dirt of the Italian capital. Of course, we’re talking about Austria’s most successful tennis player of all time, 1995 French Open Champion and former World No. 1: Thomas Muster.
It was in this very month 25 years ago that Thomas Muster began to truly make his mark on the ATP Tour’s biggest clay court events. At the 1990 Rome Masters, the Austrian defeated Andrei Chesnokov in straight sets, a mere weeks after losing to the Russian in the final of Monte Carlo.
With a grunt that surely sent Brad Gilbert into overdrive — or maybe not, who knows, really — Muster certainly made himself heard. The lefty had been knocking on the door with increased intensity for several years until a freak accident after the 1989 Key Biscayne semifinals saw his charge come to a screeching halt — quite literally.
After upsetting Yannick Noah in five sets, Muster sustained significant injuries in his left knee in a car crash caused by a drunk driver, forcing him to leave Florida on crutches instead of facing Ivan Lendl in the final. While it was a terrible setback for the clay-loving lefty, it could have been so much worse and, in a way, it shaped the Austrian, allowing him overcome adversity and return to the tour stronger and more tenacious than before.
Putting in countless hours on the practice courts, throwing around 50 lbs medicine balls, and turning himself into one of the fittest and most enduring athletes, the “Iron man” could suddenly last forever when he was on court. The Austrian was never adamant about all-out aggression, and was happy to relinquish up to several feet of the baseline, if necessary. Both his forehand and backhand had heavy top-spin to provide crucial net clearance, not only keeping him in rallies with ease but also allowing him to exert a more offensive counter-punching and run his opponents ragged.
Over the course of his career, Muster won a total of 44 titles — with 40 of them coming on clay. In particular, 1995 would be a banner year for the man from Styria. From February until June, he won 40 consecutive matches on the terre battue, including his sole Grand Slam title in Paris, where he beat 1989 winner Michael Chang in the finals. As 1995 drew to a close, Muster had amassed 12 titles and clinched the No. 1 spot in the rankings by the start of 1996.
As adept as a Muster was on the red clay, he struggled some on the other surfaces. While playing on hard courts for a prolonged period of time proved to be problematic — a consequence of the aforementioned knee injury — the Austrian still managed to string together several quarter and semifinals at the US and Australian Opens. Grass, however, never yielded great success for the Austrian — with the exception of one semifinal run in Queen’s Club.
After going winless in four consecutive Wimbledon appearances, Muster didn’t return to SW19 after 1994. His explanation?
“Because the strawberries are too expensive”, Muster joked at the 1995 US Open. “I mean, I have nothing against Wimbledon and I am very thankful that I got the wildcard two years ago, and when I had decided to be there late and I never had a bad relationship with Wimbledon.
“Thomas Muster is Thomas Muster. Wimbledon is Wimbledon. They make their decision and I make mine. I really like to play on grass, and it sounds probably stupid — but it is really isn’t funny — I really love to play on that stuff, but I just think that there is one or two tournaments played on it, and it takes too much time to adjust to it.
“Coming after the French, there is not enough time.”
Coming into the 1996 French Open, Muster was a heavy favorite to defend his title, having already captured the Monte Carlo – Rome double for a second straight year. But the clay court contender of the mid-90s found himself upset at the hands of a red-hot Michael Stich in the Round of 16. Just one year later, the Austrian suffered an even bigger shock defeat when he crashed out of Roland Garros in five sets against then-unknown World No. 66 Gustavo Kuerten. It was around that time that the Austrian’s career and success at the top of the game began to wind down.
At his best, Muster was the stuff that clay court dreams (and nightmares) were made of for fans and the rest of the ATP Tour. There is no doubt that the lefty could’ve won the French Open more than once; twice he ran into another clay great in Jim Courier, and twice more he was outplayed by two with more attacking game-styles, those who were unafraid to come into the net and shorten points.
But for someone who might not have been the most naturally gifted player, Muster was probably one of the most hard-working, constantly fine-tuning his punishing and grinding clay court game to the utmost of his capabilities.