Seven years ago, when Horst Skoff was Austria's top junior tennis player, his defiant air, incessant complaining and sudden outbursts of anger combined to make him a sort of John McEnroe of Europe's clay courts. He bullied anyone who got in the way of his self-glorification, lobbing insults at linesmen as well as at fans who cheered for his opponents. Later, while playing France's Yannick Noah, a local favorite, at the 1987 Monte Carlo Open, Skoff turned to the partisan crowd and shouted, "The more you whistle, the better I play."
The next year Ivan Lendl called Skoff "the biggest jerk in tennis." Skoff affirmed his status during an opening-round loss at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul by heading the ball back to Stefan Edberg on match point. "I thought it was funny," says Skoff, "but others thought I was mocking the Games."
Skoff sniped at anything that moved, and a lot that didn't. But it wasn't until his sponsors started deserting him that Skoff stopped scoffing. Today, at 22, he is a model of deportment on the court, an engaging mix of Teutonic stolidity and Viennese charm. He laughs often and easily, and speaks freely of his concerns and apprehensions. "At 16, the local newspapers made me out to be a god," said Skoff, who was ranked No. 23 after upsetting his countryman, eighth-ranked Thomas Muster, to reach the semifinals of the Austrian Open last month. "That was very bad for me."
Through it all, Skoff retained a loyal following, thanks in part to his game. It is most effective on clay, on which he can bludgeon forehands from the baseline, but he also is clever and creative, a master of angles and oddball shots. Last year Skoff hoodwinked Boris Becker 7-6, 6-2 at a Grand Prix tournament in Hamburg, and he outfoxed the equally sly Mats Wilander in a five-set Davis Cup match that lasted more than six hours. "In two words, Skoff is 'big worker,' " says Ion Tiriac, the exacting Romanian who manages Becker. "He's a fighter who gives hell."
Like McEnroe, Skoff was a child of the establishment who once lived to scorn the establishment. Born in Klagenfurt, he started playing at six with the help of his stepfather, Lukas Boschitz, who founded the tiny Kuehnsdorf Tennis Club. At 11, Skoff enrolled at the Südstadt sports center near Vienna. The school is an extended boot camp for Austria's most promising young athletes, who train there at least five hours a day, every day. Skoff says that the school maintains that "tennis is a martial sport" and that a trainer once told him never to acknowledge that an opponent had won with superior skill. "He said to always find an excuse," recalls Skoff. "So whenever I lost, I blamed either my back or my ankle or my stomach."
Südstadt's other big ego belonged to Muster, a persistent if plodding baseliner from Leibnitz. Though he and Skoff are hardly the best of friends, they remain Davis Cup teammates. This year they have led Austria to victories over Spain and Italy and later this month they will face the U.S. in a semifinal tie on clay in Vienna.
The Americans will have to muster all their forces to prevail against these two. In a 1989 win over Australia, Muster, who will never be confused with a Viennese choirboy himself, showed just how seriously he takes Davis Cup competition, when Mark Woodforde weakly pushed a return over the net. Instead of tapping the ball away, Muster smashed it into Woodforde's chest. "Such a hit intimidates the opponent," said Muster later. "It shows him my strength and that I do not have the slightest consideration for him."
Skoff may be less contemptuous than he used to be, but he's just as intransigent as ever. Muster suffered severe knee injuries in an April 1989 car accident and was sidelined for five months. Yet Skoff didn't send his condolences. "I'm real sad that this happened to Tom," he said, "but I can't call him. I don't think he'd believe my concern is honest."
Still, Skoff has become a Horst of a different color on the court. He's polite, even courtly, mugging good-naturedly and applauding his opponent's play. "I am no longer the angry young man," he says. "I decided there was nothing to be gained by arguing and complaining. I've learned to be diplomatic, that it's better at times to shut up."