Victorious Muster exorcises the past

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There was plenty of fearsome driving - but mercifully not fuelled by alcohol - as Thomas Muster returned in triumph to the scene where a drunken motorist nearly wrecked his career eight years ago, almost to the day.

The Austrian defeated Sergi Bruguera, of Spain, 7-6, 6-3, 6-1 to win the men's singles title at the Lipton Championships, silencing Bruguera's large body of Hispanic supporters on an afternoon when the temperature on court reached 116F, the fans had fans and fans were used to cool down the players during changeovers.

Both men, former French Open champions, are renowned for their expertise on the slower red clay courts of Europe. Muster has won all but four of his 44 titles on clay, but few have been sweeter than this one achieved on concrete.

"It's a great day of justice for me," an emotional Muster told the crowd, referring to his horrific experience in 1989. On that occasion, Muster had reached the final - and risen to the top 10 for the first time - by beating Yannick Noah when a car crashed into the front of his parked vehicle in Bayside, Miami, as he was removing his bags from the boot.

Ligaments in Muster's left knee were severely torn, and he returned to Austria for surgery, leaving Ivan Lendl to lift the trophy on a walk-over. Within days of his operation, Muster began hitting tennis balls from a wheelchair contraption, and he came back to become the dominant clay-court players of his generation.

In February last year, he became only the 13th world No 1 since computer rankings began in 1973, but some of his American rivals, notably Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, questioned his status, arguing that he spent most of his time on the clay.

Agassi lost his fifth match in a row when eliminated by Australia's Scott Draper in the opening round here, while Bruguera defeated Sampras, the world No 1, in the semi-finals, having accounted for Michael Chang, the world No 3, in the third round. Muster, the world No 2, advanced to the final with a semi-final victory over Jim Courier.

It is the first time that a non-American has won the Lipton men's singles title since that fateful April day eight years ago, when Lendl still campaigned under the flag of Czechoslovakia.

Yesterday's contest promised much until Bruguera began to be troubled by blisters on his feet, which were treated during an injury time-out when he already trailed 0-3 in the second set. With Muster in full cry, this was no day for a Catalan on a hot thin hoof.

The first break was likely to be crucial, and both men strove for it without success in the opening set. Muster did not endear himself to Bruguera's supporters by persisting in demonstrating his footwork to a line judge who had called a foot-fault against him in the sixth game, but as the match wore on his tenacious play was applauded by the entire Stadium Court audience of 14,000.

Bruguera had the first opportunities to clinch the set tie-break after Muster double-faulted for 4-6. The Spaniard missed a second service return with his backhand, and netted a backhand when serving on the second set point.

A thrilling duel of smash and lob ended with Muster creating a set point by luring his opponent into netting a backhand, and the Austrian converted it with a forehand down the line for 8-6.

The match began to drift away from Bruguera when he hit a low backhand volley wide to be broken for 0-2 in the second set, and there was no halting Muster after the Spaniard netted a forehand drop shot to lose serve at the start of the third set.

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