Although the 28-year-old Austrian's reign as emperor of Roland Garros ended yesterday, when he was outsmarted by Germany's Michael Stich in the fourth round, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1, 7-6, his record on clay courts remains a testimony to fitness and dedication. Going into yesterday's contest, Muster had lost only three of his previous 102 matches on the surface.
Conversely, Stich's advance to the quarter-finals says much for the value of taking a break from the tour, albeit one enforced by injury. Before arriving in Paris, the No 15 seed had only played two matches since March, following surgery to his left ankle. His main reason for competing here was to improve his match fitness for Wimbledon, where he was the champion in 1991.
"After Rome," Stich said, "I sat down with my coach [Sven Groeneveld] and said: 'I don't know if I should go to France and look like an idiot playing on the clay'. He said: 'Listen, just go there and use it as practice, a couple of matches maybe, and get ready for the grass-court tournaments'."
By eliminating the favourite, Stich has opened the tournament even wider and added an extra bounce to the steps of predominantly attacking players such as himself, Pete Sampras and Richard Krajicek.
Goran Ivanisevic and Stefan Edberg will not be around to participate in the excitement. Instead of progressing to meet in the last eight, both were eliminated in straight sets.
The fifth-seeded Ivanisevic was hampered by a blister on his left foot and also by the steady play of his German opponent, Bernd Karbacher, ranked No 56 in the world. Karbacher won, 6-3, 6-1, 6-2.
Edberg, who brought such pleasure to his last visit to the championships, was unable to extend his campaign beyond the passing shots of his Swiss opponent, Marc Rosset, once the Olympic gold medallist had clinched a first set tie-break, 7-4. Rosset won, 7-6, 6-3, 6-3, finishing with his 10th ace.
The most surprising aspect of the Stich-Muster match was that it did not stretch to a fifth set. The defending champion appeared to have regained his verve, but was broken when serving for the fourth set at 5-3. Although Muster hung on for the tie-break, he was unable to counter Stich's confidence and salvaged only one point in the shoot-out. Stich hit 23 aces and 22 other unplayable serves, and his expertise at the net also helped compensate for 45 unforced errors.
"I don't think it was his serve that was the problem," Muster said. "I didn't play well enough on my baseline game. I broke in the first game of the match and lost my serve the next minute. I had chances in the second set, I had chances in the third. My game was tied up and wasn't good enough. I wasn't aggressive enough from my footwork. That was the reason why he could always come back, even when he was down in every set."
Muster will take a couple of days to recover from his disappointment before travelling to London to prepare for next week's Stella Artois Championships at Queen's Club. The world No 2's progress there will be watched with interest. With only Sampras ahead of him in the rankings, Muster is sure to cause a good deal of debate among members of the Wimbledon seeding committee.
Stich now faces the prospect of meeting the unseeded Frenchman Cedric Pioline, who will be backed by every voice in the house. Yesterday in defeating the ninth seed, Marcelo Rios, 6-4, 6-1, 6-2, he demonstrated to the 20-year-old Chilean how much there is to learn about competing in Grand Slam tournaments.
It will be Pioline's first appearance in the quarter-finals here, having been beaten by Russia's Andrei Cherkasov in the fourth round in 1992. Pioline, it will be remembered, reached the final of the United States Open in 1993, losing to Sampras in straight sets.
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