Gritty Muster fulfils his French dream

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The Independent Online


reports from Paris

Only people who are close enough to Thomas Muster to fully appreciate the man's determination could have imagined that he would recover from a terrible knee injury caused by a drunk driver in Miami in 1989 and fulfil his dream of winning the French Open title.

One of those who had faith in him was Ronnie Leitgeb, which is why Muster vaulted the 8ft backboard in front of the players' guest box and embraced his coach, a la Pat Cash at Wimbledon in 1987.

Overpowering Michael Chang in two hours in yesterday's final, 7-5, 6- 2, 6-4, was the culmination of an awesome fitness regimen which commenced the moment Muster came out of surgery. Leitgeb encouraged him to use a contraption which enabled him to swivel and hit balls on the court while laying on his back with the injured leg immobilised.

The 27-year-old left-hander has not stopped hitting balls since, with increasing velocity and accuracy, allowing him to become the first Austrian to win a Grand Slam singles title.

"When I was a child playing tennis I had in mind that the match points I was making were the match point of the French Open," he said. "Today it was a reality, and it feels great." That was evident. After Chang hit the ball long on the second match point, Muster fell flat on his back, arms outstretched, savouring the moment.

Disappointed not to have advanced to the French final in 1990, when he was defeated in the semi-finals by Andres Gomez, of Ecuador, Muster continued to accumulate lesser clay-court titles. Before arriving in Paris a fortnight ago, he had won 21 consecutive finals on the slow surface since losing to Karel Novacek in Munich five years ago. And when the opportunity to win the world's premier clay-court event finally arrived, he had stored the form and the willpower to take it.

The victory against Chang was Muster's 35th consecutive clay-court win since losing to the Spaniard Emilio Sanchez in Palermo last October. This puts him one ahead of Bjorn Borg for the third longest winning streak on clay in the Open era.

Appropriately, Guillermo Vilas, the Argentinian who holds the record of 53 successive clay-court matches, accomplished in 1977, was seated beside Leitgeb yesterday.

Chang, another resilient character - who could forget his astounding triumph here as a 17-year-old in 1989? - outplayed Muster at his own pulverising game at the start of the contest. His aggressive groundstrokes launched him to a 4-1, 40-0 lead, Muster having double-faulted on the fourth point.

At this stage Chang made the mistake of allowing his hungry opponent to see the tin of spinach. The American's shots landed beyond the baseline on each of four break points. Though Chang then held for 5-2, Muster had the confidence to take control of the match, breaking Chang twice to take the opening set in 47 minutes.

Muster conceded only four points on his serve in the second set, breaking Chang in the third and fifth games and showing no sign of slacking the pace. In the process he won 10 out of 11 games from being 2-5 in the first set. It was not for the want of trying by Chang, and occasionally the cries of "Yaaagh!", which accompanied some of his mightiest shots, matched the loud grunting from Muster's side of the net. They sounded like a pair of martial arts experts, and spectators revelled in the power and athleticism of their rallies.

Not that it was all brute force. Both players displayed delightful touch with their drop shots, and frequently held the crowd in suspense as one or the other would sprint to perform breathtaking recoveries.

Chang saved three break points in the fifth game of the third set, and recovered to 4-4 after being broken in the seventh. Muster's response was typical. He immediately attacked Chang's serve, driving any thoughts of a comeback out of the American's mind.

"I don't think the match was totally one-sided," Chang said, "but you've got to give Thomas a lot of credit. He's been playing great tennis for the last couple of months."

Victory has elevated Muster to No 3 in the world from No 5, but, as he indicated earlier, he does not plan to put his baseline game to the test on the slick Wimbledon lawns two weeks from today. He considers that he has earned a rest after dominating the clay of Mexico City, Estoril, Barcelona, Monte Carlo, Rome and Paris. And who, hand on heart, can blame him?

n Boris Becker is expected to escape suspension but be fined $25,000 by the ATP Tour for bringing the game into disrepute. This follows remarks made by the former Wimbledon champion after losing to Thomas Muster, 6- 0 in the fifth set, in the final of the Monte Carlo Open in April. Muster collapsed on court and received hospital treatment after defeating Andrea Gaudenzi in the semi-finals. "Either he is a very good actor, or something miraculous happened overnight, and I don't believe in miracles," Becker said.