Muster's grand ambition

French Open: Austrian hero hopes to cap a singular career while a young American heroine records a famous victory; Simon O'Hagan charts the triumph over adversity of a clay-court master
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The Independent Online
FOR someone who, in the words of his coach, "would basically love to be lazy", Thomas Muster has a funny way of showing it. As the Frenchman Cedric Pioline said here after losing to him in the second round of the French Open, "Thomas is so aggressive you never get a chance to sort out your own game."

Muster once compared himself with an animal, and there is a lot of that in his raw power and the relentless way he hunts down his prey and strangles the life out of it. Roland Garros may, superficially, be the most refined of the Grand Slam tournaments, but in reality it's a jungle out there - and as he goes into his fourth-round match against Andrei Medvedev today, nobody is looking more leonine than the 27-year-old Austrian with the most singular career history of any player on the men's circuit.

In Britain, Muster means little, having made first-round exits in all four of his Wimbledon appearances. But on clay he at present has no equal. Since the season began in Mexico City in February, Muster has won five successive tournaments on the surface, and with his three wins so far in Paris has taken the number of clay-court matches he has won on the trot to 31.

Whether Muster can make it six titles in a row here is another matter. He is in the tougher half of the draw, which, if he gets past Medvedev, gives him prospective matches against a resurgent Jim Courier in the quarter- finals and Andre Agassi in the semis, before a possible meeting with Sergi Bruguera in the final - although it is a measure of Muster's form that he beat the mighty Spaniard in the final of the Italian Open last month.

Then there is Muster's record of never having won a Grand Slam title. In this he is the second most successful player without such a prize since tennis went Open in 1968. Tom Okker won 31 titles but never got closer to a Grand Slam victory than when he was runner-up in the 1968 US Open. Muster has 28 titles - 27 on clay - but has a mere two semi-finals to show for 26 Grand Slams, in Australia in 1989 and France in 1990. But for all that is still in his way, this year in Paris may be his best chance ever of joining the elite.

If he were to, it would be just reward for a man who has taken more than his fair share of battering, both physically and mentally, starting even before the car accident in 1989 which would have ended the careers of weaker men. So resolutely did Muster respond that he became one of the most respected players on the Tour - as much for his fitness and drive as his talent.

Muster grew up in Leibnitz - non-skiing country close to the border with Slovenia. His father was in the army, his mother worked in a sports shop - jobs which they still have today. By Austrian standards, it was a humble background, and Muster cites it as a factor in toughening him up. His tennis career took off at the French junior championships of 1984. Ivan Lendl was looking for a left-hander to practise against before a match against Henri Leconte, and Lendl's coach, Wotjek Fibak, had the 16-year- old Muster recommended to him by an Austrian student, Ronald Leitgeb, with whom Fibak had worked on a book. Fibak saw enough of Muster to suggest to Leitgeb that he coach the boy himself.

Thus began the longest player-coach partnership in the men's game. Eleven years on, Leitgeb, aged 36, and Muster are still together, an amazing record given the volatility that often sur- rounds these relationships. "We are both determined to reach our goals," Leitgeb offered by way of a coach-speak explanation.

The big test for both men came in 1989 when the routine business of unloading his kit from the boot of a car in Key Biscayne in Florida suddenly turned Muster's life upside down. The next car along, rammed from behind by a drunken driver, lurched forward, smashing into Muster and damaging his right knee so badly that he was in rehabilitation for six months. The story of how Muster, guided by Leitgeb, had a special chair designed so that he could practise while sitting down, and then came back to win the Italian Open the following year, is the stuff of tennis legend.

Although Muster says he feels no pain in his leg, the legacy of the accident lies in his technique, and in rendering clay not just his preferred surface, but the only one on which he can realistically compete. "He still has great difficulty bending his knee," Leitgeb said. "On clay, where the ball is bouncing rather than sliding, he can compensate with very good footwork. He ought to do well on hard courts as well, but it is much less forgiving and the doctors say he should play on it very little because in the long run it could shorten his career." As for grass, forget it.

Muster is also notable for the way he has adjusted his game to keep up with the younger generation of clay-courters, whose experience of only ever having played with graphite rackets - Muster goes back to the age of wooden frames - has made for a more aggressive game in which the ball is hit flatter and from not so deep.

But then Muster rarely misses a trick. Among a number of run-ins he has had with his fellow pros, not least with Boris Becker when the German all but accused him of taking drugs, was one he had with his fellow Austrian Alex Antonitsch during a live television discussion ostensibly about Austria's Davis Cup team. Eventually Antonitsch accused Muster of getting upset because he - Antonitsch - had gone off with Muster's girlfriend, which he had. "She was good," Muster said scathingly, "but not that good." Muster is good too, and getting better.