Muster proves mastery

TENNIS
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The Independent Online
When Thomas Muster is fit and playing on clay, he is an awesome opponent. When he is sick and playing on clay, he wins in straight sets, apologises for a below-par performance, and still leaves with the victor's cheque.

Yesterday morning, the 27-year-old Austrian awoke with a stiff back, which was eased by a visit to a chiropractor. He then had lunch, forgot about the back problem, and became nauseous after the opening games of the Estoril Open final on a bakingly hot afternoon.

Alberto Costa, who knew Muster only by reputation, must have been relieved that the third seed was not feeling 100 per cent for their first encounter. Muster defeated the 19-year-old Spaniard 6-4, 6-2 in 76 minutes. It was Costa's second appearance in a final; two weeks earlier he had lost to Gilbert Schaller in Casablanca.

Muster has now won 25 singles titles in his 10 years on the professional tour, and all but one (on rubberised concrete in Adelaide) have been accomplished on the slowest surface in the game. Yesterday's first prize of $77,000 (£48,000) took his career earnings to $3.62m.

To underline the statistical evidence of Muster's mastery of clay courts, he is unbeaten in 18 consecutive finals since losing to Karel Novacek in Munich in 1990. An amalgam of supreme physical fitness, punishing groundstrokes and impressive will-power has made the left-hander one of the most feared and awkward competitors.

However, the French Open, the most coveted title for clay-courters, has eluded the Austrian. He advanced to the semi-finals in Paris in 1990, only to lose to Andres Gomez in straight sets.

"I had a chance that year," Muster said, "but I don't think I was ready to win the French Open at that stage. Afterwards, everybody started to put a lot of pressure on me for the French. I'd love to win it, but it isn't as if I feel I've failed in my career if I don't win a major."

This philosophical outlook can be traced to an evening in Miami in 1989 when a drunk driver almost took his life. "Since then, I don't make any promises about what's happening the next day," he said.

Muster could not fathom why he had a bad back yesterday, having felt fine the night before after a straight-sets win against Emilio Sanchez in the semi-finals. "I don't know what happened overnight," he said, "maybe somebody was in my room!"

Costa, who breezed past the Frenchman, Fabrice Santoro, 6-1, 6-0 on Saturday, said he would have to attack the net more if he was to avoid being pinned to the back fence by Muster's drives. The Spaniard's plan failed to materialise, partly because he lacked the power of serve to avoid being pierced by the Austrian's returns.

Muster was already leading by a set and 1-0 with a break when Costa created his only opportunity. Muster offered him a short ball, and the Spaniard passed him with a backhand for 1-1, before resuming his customary position on the back foot. It was difficult to believe that Muster was the one feeling dizzy.

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