Masterful Muster keeps Costa at bay

Tennis
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The Independent Online
Thomas Muster neglected to collect his Iron Man of the Year trophy at the ATP Tour awards gala here last Tuesday, saying he needed his sleep. Those who watch the Austrian play on a regular basis know why. Yesterday he successfully defended the Monte Carlo Open championship, his fourth title of the season, winning his 35th consecutive match on clay courts.

The only man to have beaten Muster in his last 32 finals since May 1990 was standing on the other side of the net. Spain's Alberto Costa, who cracked Muster in five sets in Kitzbuhel last August, having failed to capitalise on a two sets to one lead in the quarter-finals of the French Open. On this occasion Muster recovered to triumph, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, after three hours and eight minutes.

Muster has taken to wearing a support for his back of late after feeling twinges from his exertions, and Costa tried to make life even more uncomfortable for the top seed by mixing his shots against the left-hander. This involved an element of risk, as 81 unforced errors indicated.

The use of the drop shot in particular,proved to be as much a curse as as blessing for the 20-year-old Spaniard, who had belied his No 16 seeding by eliminating Andre Agassi for the loss of only three games in the third round but was unable to outlast the clay-court master.

Although Muster was sometimes stretched to breaking point when pulled in from the baseline by Costa's delicate touches, he managed to retrieve impressively a number of times, and occasionally gained relief when the Spaniard hit his shots into the net.

Costa gave an early indication that it was going to be another long day, staging a minor recovery from 1-4 in the opening set, although a double- fault by Muster encouraged him to linger. There were seven service breaks in the second set, Costa finally delivering a smash with enormous relief to take a 6-5 lead before holding to level the contest.

The "iron man" appeared to be wilting after losing a 3-0 lead in the third set. Muster took a bathroom break after losing his serve for 3-2 and the trainer was called to the court after the Austrian was broken for 4-5. "I just asked him to put some hot cream on my back so I didn't feel the pain," Muster explained.

Although Costa delivered an ace to lead by two sets to one, Muster let him know that he was as lively as ever, saving three break points before steaming into a 4-1 lead. Costa contrived to stall, but Muster was level after two hours and 40 minutes. Costa, to his credit, did not capitulate after finding the net in spectacular fashion with a smash to lose his serve in the opening game of the final set. He recovered the break, only to be cracked twice more, Muster's forehand drive-volley on break point in the fifth game turning the match his way.

Time, now, for a well-earned rest after pocketing another $320,000? Not a chance. Muster packed his rackets - and his corset - and set off in search of points and prize money in Munich. We must trust he does not experience meltdown before arriving at the French Open at the end of May.

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