Pete Sampras wasn't in Vienna. O.K., so the refreshing, new U.S. Open champion doesn't speak the language on Europe's slow, copper-colored clay just yet. Andre Agassi wasn't there either. O.K., O.K., he was there, resplendent in those wunderbar image-is-everything glad rags. But once again on a significant occasion, Agassi, "Amerikas Tennis-Punker," as Austria's largest daily, Kronen Zeitung, called him, turned into just another shagged-out, earringed ad for Neon-R-Us.
America's teenage tennis resurrection continued in Austria only because that worldly little watch charm, Michael Chang—with roots in Taiwan, Hoboken, N.J., Placentia, Calif., and the throne room of the French Open—single-handedly (well, double-handedly) bailed the U.S. Davis Cup team out of a semifinal tie against Austria it had almost blown.
Talk about the sound of music. The U.S. visitors seemed hopelessly von Trapped after the home country's hero, Thomas Muster, and his not quite comrade-in-arms, Horst Skoff, had, one after the other, swamped Agassi and Chang in singles in five straight sets on Sunday, leaving the Austrians one set from victory. However, right then, two sets down to Skoff in the deciding match, Chang gritted his teeth, his brain and his racket and made believe he was a nerveless ingenue of 17 and it was springtime in Paris, rather than face the actuality of the moment—that he was a slump-and injury-ridden veteran of 18 wallowing around a court in a soccer stadium on an ugly, rain-drenched autumn evening in Vienna with 15,000 natives shouting "Auf Wiedersehen" at him.
What Chang did in 1989 at Roland Garros—he was the youngest player and lowest seed ever to win the French Open—was precocious, flukish, practically a miracle. What he did over 25 hours on Sunday and Monday in Vienna's Prater stadium made for some even more spectacular history.
September 30, 1990
By outlasting Skoff through a 6-4 third set before play was suspended by darkness on Sunday; by out-game-planning him during the overnight hiatus—a middle-of-the-night call to brother Carl back in Berkeley, Calif., resulted in the tactic of Chang's moving over to the alley and kick-serving wide to Skoff's backhand in the ad court—and by nervelessly outexecuting Skoff and sweeping the last two sets after still another long rain delay on Monday, Chang won 3-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 to carry the U.S. into the Davis Cup finals for the first time since 1984.
Oh yes, once before an American player had come from two sets behind to win the deciding fifth set in the deciding fifth match in a Davis Cup tie: Wimbledon, in 1937, Don Budge over Germany's Gottfried von Cramm, in the most famous match ever played. The little Changer has some kind of knack for timing.
To fully appreciate last week's Austria-US. tie, it must be understood that Austria is about as important to the upper echelons of international sport as Mozart is to, say, Aerosmith. Take away a few fast drivers and skiers and what you have left is the Austrian soccer team, which humiliated its homeland recently by losing to something called the Faroe Islands.
But this time, in tennis, the Austies posed an uncharacteristic threat to the Americans. There was Muster, ranked No. 7 in the world. A husky lefthander with mighty groundstrokes, Muster had worked himself back from a horrid 1989 accident in Miami in which his left knee was shattered by a drunken driver. This spring he won the Italian Open and reached the semifinals of the French Open. And there was the 21st-ranked Skoff, the outspoken squatty body who had recovered from May knee surgery to win a clay-court tournament in Geneva two weeks ago. And there was Alex Antonitsch, No. 60, Muster's doubles partner, who, like Harry Lime in The Third Man, emerged from nowhere, or from that place where they still give crew cuts, to reach the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.
Was this a team, or what? The problem for the Austrians was that Skoff just doesn't get along with the guys, though he seems to do fairly swell with the girls; he's the current Horstthrob of the 1987 Miss World, Ulla Weigerstorfer. In past Davis Cup ties Skoff has had separate cars, locker rooms and even celebration parties from the rest of the Austrian team. More recently, so the story goes, Skoff threatened to file a lawsuit when he heard that Antonitsch had said he "didn't respect" Skoff. In response Antonitsch guaranteed he could come up with 100 people who agreed with him. No suit.
But Skoff versus Antonitsch is small sausage compared with the animosity between Skoff and Muster, who for several years have exchanged such niceties as "stupid," "farm boy peasant" (both are from rural backgrounds) and the ever-popular "ass——." Skoff cleared the air last week when he said, "Look, Thomas and I have played each other since we were 14, and we didn't like each other then. This isn't like soccer, where you have to pass the ball to the other guy."
Not that Muster is Phil Donahue or anything. In a 1989 Cup match, he demonstrated his coachability by instructing the Austrian captain: "I want you to do three things. Bring me water. Bring me towels. Keep quiet."
On Friday, after a slow start, Thomas easily passed muster by defeating Chang 4-6, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 while wearing a lime-green headband that looked like something out of Baskin-Agassi's 31 flavors. "I think Michael is more used to a crowd being for him because he looks so skinny and tiny and poor," said Muster, who got ample support from the crowd tucked into a corner of Austria's largest soccer stadium.
The Wiener (i.e., Vienna's) Praterstadion was the proper setting for a meeting between Agassi and Skoff, two of the bigger hot dogs in the game. They matched each other through a thrilling first set, which ended in a tiebreaker, but Skoff ran out of shots, not to mention legs, and lost 7-6, 6-0, 6-1. "The guy makes you run like a dog," said Skoff in tribute. "Out-of-mind tennis. I've never been put under such pressure, never, ever."
Skoff was asked if he would "talk" to his close personal friend, Muster, about what to do against Agassi. "Yeah, I tell him what to do," Skoff snapped. "Hit winners. Lots of them. All the time."
Agassi, as always, was a revelation. No, it wasn't the fact that he had changed earrings—from the Like a Virgin dangler to a diamond stud. Or that he was favoring a beard again, plus a chartreuse girdle ensemble. (He's much cuter in the pink he wears in those ads.) Or even that he looked more than ever like Charles Man-son in drag. What was truly amazing was that Agassi, runner-up at both the French and U.S. opens this year, had shown his hirsute face in Vienna at all. He had rejected team captain Tom Gorman's invitation to play the quarterfinal tie against Czechoslovakia last March because he didn't cotton to Gorman's more-team, less-entourage rules. Then he insulted Gorman, calling him a "glory hound" and a "chameleon."
Surprise. Gorman had to swallow his pride and invite Agassi to play against Austria because USTA president David Markin ordered him to do just that. So, there was Agassi last week with all his 'ils: Phil (the brother), Gil (Reyes, the trainer-bodyguard) and the Thrill (Nick at Nite Bollettieri, his coach). Bill (Shelton, the agent) was nowhere to be found, although sightings from the tourist line at Sigmund Freud's house were incomplete at press time.
Gorman acknowledged that the team was not distracted by the plethora of "guests" (Gorman's word) looking after Agassi and that Agassi had attended all team functions. "It's the practicality of the thing, not the philosophy, that Andre was worried about," said Gorman.
"The team environment is tough for me," Agassi said. "Eating dinner with Michael Chang, Rick Leach and Jim Pugh [the latter two are the U.S. doubles team] is not going to make me play better. I have my little idiosyncrasies that let me do that."
Leach and Pugh were obviously so thrilled that they had been spared pillorying by their teammate that they went out and beat Muster and Antonitsch on Saturday 7-6, 3-6, 6-0, 7-5 in a rain-interrupted match that had the partisan sights and sounds—fans with painted faces doing the wave and chanting "Zu-ga-be! Zu-ga-be!" ("More! More!")—of a World Cup soccer match.
"It was the worst headache I've ever had," said Leach, whose quickness and marvelous hands made him the outstanding player on the court. "I was sweating bullets out there."
"This is a different emotion from [winning] Wimbledon [this year]," said Pugh. "It's not that we beat just two people but 15,000. We took something out of Thomas, but more important we kept him from getting on a super high for tomorrow."
Wrong. Muster arrived in Vienna with a 23-0 record on clay in Davis Cup competition, and he wasn't about to let style prevail over his considerable emotional substance. Screaming, stoking, feeding off Agassi's pace as well as the roaring arias from the crowd, Muster annihilated Agassi 6-2, 6-2, 7-6.
"I know what to do against Andre," Muster said afterward. "I wanted him the first day."
Agassi, who appeared equally as out of rhythm losing to Muster as he had in dropping the French final to Andres Gomez and the U.S. final to Sampras, acknowledged that "it's just nerves. I never promised anybody I'd win."
Right. Just that he would look cool. But Agassi said he had given Chang some encouragement to combat "all the noise out there." Paraphrasing that famous old tennis guru, Rod McKuen, he told his teammate to "just listen to the beat of your heart."
Meanwhile Muster revealed that he hadn't seen or talked to Skoff since the matches began. "I got my two points. It's up to Horst now," said Muster.
At least Skoff seemed pumped up enough on Sunday as his bellowing grunts—he's a regular basso profundo Monica Seles—and huge forehand echoed through the vast stadium, relegating Chang to observer status. However, as they played into the gloaming, Chang, backboarding everything, broke serve early in the third set and held on until dark.
When play resumed on Monday, the rain had left the court sluggish, the conditions heavy, and the sting of Skoff's forehand was a memory—that is, when he got to use it. In the last two sets Chang kept the ball on Scoff's vulnerable backhand wing, especially when serving those wacky kickers, which Skoff often failed to put into play.
Feeling the onset of cramps halfway through the fifth set, Chang went to one of the tricks he had used to upset Ivan Lendl on the way to his French Open title, namely, sneaking up to receive serve just behind the service box.
"Obviously, he tried some new things. He makes you think a bit," said Skoff. Chang also kept breaking serve—Skoff won only three of his 10 service games on Monday—until his opponent succumbed.
"The idea was to be aggressive against Chang," said Filip Krajcik, the Austrian captain. "But he is a great champion. When he won the fourth, I knew we had a problem." Indeed, Chang has won seven straight five-set matches since losing the first he had ever played, at the 1987 U.S. Open. "But this didn't feel like five sets," he said. "I mean I looked at the clock, and I was cramping up after an hour and a half. That's kind of ridiculous. But I guess the circumstances were unique."
What gives you that idea, kid? Budge and Chang coming from death's door in the Davis Cup happens at least twice a century.