Rivals question Muster's rise to No 1 spot

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reports from Dubai

Thomas Muster's credentials as the new world No 1 continued to be a source of contention yesterday. The deposed Americans, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, who are competing in San Jose this week, pointed to the Austrian's feet of clay and questioned his right to be the sport's leading man by playing predimonantly on the one surface.

Here at the Dubai Open, however, where Muster is due to play the Czech Petr Korda tomorrow, Jim Courier argued diplomatically that "the computer doesn't lie."

The ATP Tour ranking computer was not economical with the facts when presented with the equation of who would lose what as a result of a switch in the scheduling of tournaments to accommodate last weekend's Davis Cup ties. Muster was thereby elevated nine points ahead of Sampras and 95 in front of Agassi.

When a player becomes No 1, Courier argued, you have to admire his consistency over a 12-month period, "the physical and mental effort it takes to maintain that high level of winning".

Courier, it may be remembered, was considered by some to be an unfashionable, blue collar No 1 when spending a total of 58 weeks at the top from February, 1992. None the less, the Floridan's record shows two triumphs at the French and Australian championships and near misses at Wimbledon and the United States Open.

Bearing that in mind, perhaps, he, too, considered that there was "a flip side" to Muster's promotion. "There's obviously a question about someone who has had most of his success on one surface and has not had as much success in the Grand Slam events as perhaps some other players ranked below him," he said.

Even during his reign, Courier was critical of the ranking system, which only considers a player's best 14 results over a rolling 12-month period. "I don't think the computer system is far off," he said yesterday, "but I think that a system which allows you to discard a first-round loss in a Grand Slam perhaps has a few holes in it. Every match should count."

Stefan Edberg, the last European No 1 before the Americans, Courier, Sampras and Agassi, took over, also put "a little bit of a question mark" over Muster. "There are many ways to look at Thomas. In a way I think he deserves it very much. It takes a lot to get to No 1: hard work, discipline and talent," the Swede said. "He's worked very hard, he's produced the results, he's won the French Open. Most of his best 14 results were on clay, but he plays within the rules. You just have to congratulate him."

Muster's manager-coach, Ronnie Leitgeb, while acknowledging the need for Muster's barren Wimbledon record to be addressed, argued the case for Europe's clay-court tradition against the proliferation of concrete and carpet surfaces. "Eighty per cent of the tennis courts in Europe are clay, and nobody would say that you should win the skiing world cup on artificial snow in summer."

According to Leitgeb, the ATP Tour should be streamlined. "We have a problem in tennis these days because it is not the competitive sport it should be," he said. "For me, the best example happened last year. Agassi and Sampras started off playing the finals in the Australian Open, which is great. Then they went to Indian Wells [California] and Key Biscayne [Florida], the same two guys in the finals, racing for No 1.

"Then the Tour moves to the Super 9 event in Monte Carlo, and the competition is gone. That's bad for tennis."

Leitgeb advocates 14 designated tournaments, in addition to the four Grand Slams, which would be compulsory for the top 40 players, "and the ATP Tour would just have to balance the surfaces."

Muster faces a potentially difficult opening contest on rubberised concrete here against Korda, a fellow left-hander who is coached by Britain's Tony Pickard.

The Austrian's first appearance on the Tour as No 1 will take pride of place in an elegant, new pounds 3.6m stadium. The tournament is sponsored by Dubai Duty Free. Muster is in no doubt that he has paid his dues.