Confident Muster wins third title

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The Independent Online

Thomas Muster, continuing to secure the considerable clay-court gains he made last season, successfully defended his fifth title of the year here yesterday and became only the third player to win the Italian singles championship three times.

The Austrian's two-hour victory against Richard Krajicek, 6-2, 6-4, 3- 6, 6-3, put his name alongside Jaroslav Drobny and Marty Mulligan as the most successful singles competitor at the Foro Italico. Just as important for Muster, it served as a timely warning to Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and other rivals that he is warming up nicely for his defence of the French Open, which starts a week today.

Were he the type to need omens to bolster his confidence, Muster would like his chances of repeating the triumph in Paris, having already won in Rome and Monte Carlo for the past two years.

Krajicek, who failed to impose his serve and volley game with the consistency to tax Muster as much as he had hoped, said: "He's not completely unbeatable on clay, but almost." Two young Spaniards, Carlos Costa and Carlos Moya, are among the few who have proved that - but the fact remains that the Austrian has lost only three of 98 matches on the surface in the past 14 months.

Moya defeated Muster in his previous tournament, in Munich, his one defeat in his last 45 matches on clay. Muster then took a week off before coming to Rome, resting for two days and then training harder than ever, on the court and in the gym, "to build myself up again". He said: "When playing for four weeks in a row you lose a little bit of you muscle tension and your physique goes down a bit."

Today finds him back in Austria, defending in St Polten, one of the smaller titles of the 11 he won on clay last year. Characteristically, he scoffed at the suggestion that he might be in danger of overloading with the French Open and Wimbledon looming.

"My goal is to make a certain amount of points to stay in the top 10, and playing next week is good, better than taking a week off," he said. "I just want to continue playing well, and that's it."

Fitness and confidence were likely to be factors in yesterday's final, and the unseeded Krajicek's self-belief began to waver when a swirling wind made it difficult to sustain the sting in his serves. The Dutchman was also taken aback to find there was more clay on the court than usual, causing him to adjust his movement to the net to avoid slipping, although he admitted that he had been asking for extra clay all week.

If Krajicek's serve was less than reliable, his volleying almost deserted him, particularly in the opening sets. "It was a combination of three things," he said. "His shots are very dipping; I was not as sharp as the other days, and the wind was very difficult."

Even in the third set it seemed that Muster would consolidate his lead before the Dutchman found his timing. But Krajicek's volleying was sound enough for him to save three break points in the opening game, and the relief of still being in the match suddenly emboldened him.

He broke with two impressive backhand passes, held to love, and then led 3-0, 30-0 with Muster serving in the fourth game. When the Austrian recovered and snatched the break back at 3-4 it seemed that the contest would peter out in straight sets. But Krajicek gained the initiative again in the eighth game with a forehand drive after pulling his opponent wide, serving out to love.

The Dutchman's sixth double-fault put him on the slide at 0-2 in the fourth set, Muster converting the break point with a topspin drive which Krajicek netted with one of his wayward low volleys.

Muster held for 3-0, but the Dutchman's cause was not completely lost. He had two chances to break for 3-2 and two more for 5-4 when Muster served for the title. He missed the first, mistiming his return on a second serve, and steered a backhand wide on the second, Muster noisily following the ball's progress, urging it to miss the line.