The world's most diffident tennis player rakes a hand through
his thin crown of blond hair and revels in having ascended to
the summit of his sport. "Making Number 1 was great," Thomas
Muster says, with a withering stare, of the lofty--if, in his
case, controversial--ranking that he first attained in February
and then briefly regained in March. "But what am I supposed to
do? Jump out the window of the 50th floor of a building? Hang
myself? Listen, 10 years from now no one is going to raise a
flag for me."
In the seven years since his remarkable recovery from an
apparently career-ending knee injury, Muster, a broody Austrian,
has emerged as the game's Hamlet, or perhaps its Nixon. "It
wasn't a smooth transition to Number 1 for Muster," says Jim
Courier, who held the top spot for all but 12 weeks in 1992.
"It's more like he became Number 1 with an asterisk."
Muster's Roger Maris-like status derives from the fact that of
the 12 tournaments he won last year, 11, including the French
Open, were on clay--the surface most suitable for his gimpy knee
and never-say-die baseline game. Both the American he displaced
at the top on Feb. 12 (Andre Agassi), and the American who
displaced him on Feb. 19 and whom he displaced for five weeks
beginning on March 11 (Pete Sampras) have suggested Muster was
undeserving of No. 1 because he skipped Wimbledon and excels
only on dirt. "I don't see him as Number 1 in the world on
anything but clay," says Sampras, "and I think people know that."
What they may not know is that it was an indoor victory, on a
carpet in Essen, Germany, last October that provided the crucial
ranking points Muster would need to vault over Agassi and
Sampras. At Essen, Muster beat Sampras in the semifinals. Since
then, the three have swapped the top spot. Muster has won the
four most recent clay court tournaments, including last week's
Monte Carlo Open, to run his string of championships on dirt to
seven in a row, but Sampras has held on to No. 1 by a handful of
computer ranking points. "Some people make me feel I have to
excuse myself for being Number 1," Muster said recently, his
pale blue eyes darting above a sweatshirt that reads ACTIVE
ATTITUDE. "They talk like I got the points in a supermarket.
What do they expect me to do, write the computer a letter of
May 5, 1996
If the rankings came down to a survival of the fittest, the
indefatigable Muster would be the uncontested No. 1. "He doesn't
have the natural ability of Pete or Andre," says veteran South
African pro Gary Muller, "but they don't have his tenacity and
pure fight." Such testimonials aside, Muster has few boosters.
No Viennese choirboy, he mocks opponents, spits in their
direction and smashes returns into their chests that easily
could be tapped away. "Such a hit intimidates the opponent," he
once said. "It shows him my strength and that I do not have the
slightest consideration for him."
Which is why many pros regard Muster as a real turnip. "He'd do
anything to win, including taking you out," says South Africa's
Wayne Ferreira. "If Muster isn't the most hated player on the
tour, he's a close second."
"Muster is arrogant, unapproachable and standoffish," says
Muller. "There's no reason to dislike him, but there's
absolutely no reason to like him."
"Muster has no respect for limited players, which is odd since
he's limited himself," says Stephen Noteboom of Holland, a
doubles specialist whose lack of a ranking in singles puts him
in that category, too.
Muster greets these digs with an insouciant shrug. "I'm not Mr.
Nice Guy," he says, grinning like an altar boy who's been
cherrying his lips with Communion wine. "I'm a tough cookie."
It takes a lot to get Muster to climb out of his punk armor. "I
don't admire any other player," he says, "but I have a lot of
respect for a few." Muster chips in an appreciative comment
about Sampras ("He doesn't think of winning tournaments, he
thinks of winning Slams to be the best player ever") but is
backhanded in his remarks about Agassi ("He's not the player
Pete is, but he's better to advertise with") and Boris Becker
("At his age, motivating himself to play must take a lot of
effort"). By the way, Becker, like Muster, is 28.
The praise Muster gets in his homeland is slightly less
stinting. An Austrian newsweekly named him the nation's 1995 Man
of the Year and his memoir, Aufschlag: Mein Leben (Service: My
Life), is a best-seller, but even his countrymen have a few
reservations about Muster. "Austrians identify with artistry,"
says sportswriter Michael Sabath of the Klagenfurt daily Kleine
Zeitung. "Thomas is not an artist. There's no love in his game,
just strength and hard work."
Mus-Terminator is what they call him back in Styria, the
province that also produced Arnold Schwarzenegger. Muster's dad,
Heinz, was an army administrator; his mom, Inge, ran the pro
shop at the Leibnitz country club. "I got my spirit from
Mother," Thomas says. "She didn't spoil me, but I always got
what I wanted."
What he wanted most was to be a tennis player. Every day from
the time Thomas was 12, Inge would pack him off to a tennis club
in Graz. "I'd be on buses and trains for 3 1/2 hours," he says.
"I'd do homework on the train, come home at eight and do more
Did he ever feel like quitting tennis?
"No," he says. "I felt like quitting school."
He did that by enrolling at Sudstadt sports center, an extended
boot camp for promising Austrian athletes. Though Muster
achieved some success--at 16, he won the Austrian national
championships--he felt his game was being stunted by his
country's tennis federation with its "tradition of
underachievement." In 1984, Polish pro Wojtek Fibak hooked
Muster up with Ronnie Leitgeb, a Sudstadt-trained figure skater
who covered tennis for Austrian radio.
"I want you to coach Thomas," Fibak told Leitgeb, who had
written his biography.
"But I've never coached tennis before," Leitgeb protested.
"Come to the Austrian Open in Kitzbuhel. Thomas will be there
and you'll coach him."
Leitgeb came. Muster came. Fibak said, "You two are from the
same country. You're nice boys, so shake hands. Ronnie, from now
on you're Thomas's coach and manager." They've been a team
pretty much ever since.
It turned out Leitgeb knew about as much about tennis as Muster
knew about figure skating. Eschewing technique, Leitgeb stressed
training; the marathon conditioning drills he designed for
Muster lasted up to eight hours. "Thomas is very laid-back and
lazy," Leitgeb says without a hint of irony. "The difficulty is
convincing him to work. Once you do, he'll give 105 percent."
Leitgeb's psychologist father was enlisted to hone Muster's
concentration. "I took many tests to make me mentally tough,"
Muster says. "They later helped me conquer injuries." Leitgeb
was the mind behind Muster's us-against-them ethos. "In Austria,
nobody wants you to make it," he says. "So Thomas and I became
outlaws against Austria and the rest of the world."
Muster has built his game on ruthless efficiency and powerhouse
ground strokes. But his psychological strength is what makes him
a winner. His discipline is unyielding, his will unflagging, his
confidence almost pulverizing. "The guy's so sure of himself, he
could win on any surface," says Goran Ivanisevic, the world's
No. 6 player. "Not just clay, but carpet, outdoors, indoors. He
could win on water."
Despite Ivanisevic's contention, Muster seems allergic to grass.
He has played Wimbledon four times and never reached the second
round, although earlier this year he led Austria to a
first-round Davis Cup win over South Africa on grass in
On clay, Muster's persistence from the backcourt can rattle even
the canniest veteran. In his 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 rout of Michael Chang
in the 1995 French Open final, he broke Chang's seemingly
unbreakable will with a succession of stunning saves and
relentlessly accurate returns. "Most guys you can see getting
tired," says Ivanisevic. "But with Thomas, you never know. Four
hours into a match he'll still be bouncing on his feet, bouncing
on his feet. That kills you a little bit."
Muster's career nearly ended on the night of March 31, 1989.
Muster was 21 years old and had just cracked the Top 10. He had
reached the semis of that year's Australian Open, and in the
preceding year he had been in six finals and had won four of
them. On the night in question, Muster came from two sets down
to beat Yannick Noah and reach the finals of the Lipton
Championships in Key Biscayne. To celebrate, he had his courtesy
car stop at a restaurant in Miami for a midnight snack. Leitgeb
was with him. As Muster gathered gear from the trunk, the car
was struck head-on by a car being driven by a drunk driver. As
the courtesy car hurled backward, its rear bumper struck Muster
and severed the medial collateral and anterior cruciate
ligaments in his left knee. When Leitgeb asked if Muster was all
right, he replied, in a fit of youthful disbelief: "Just tell
the trainer to strap it up and I'll play the final on one leg."
Then Muster tried to walk. "I was shocked," he says. "My leg was
A Miami physician advised against immediate surgery, so Leitgeb
and Muster flew to Vienna to find a specialist. "I wanted an
Austrian surgeon, so there'd be more pressure to do the job
right," Leitgeb says. "I'd been told Thomas might not walk, much
less play again."
The Battle of Wounded Knee was longer and more hard fought than
any of Muster's matches. His leg was in a cast for two months.
"There was only one way for Thomas to avoid depression," Leitgeb
says. "That was to pretend he was actually in training." Several
times a day orderlies would take off his removable cast and flex
Muster's stiff knee by pushing down on it. "The pain was
excruciating," Muster says. "I can remember nothing worse."
Between knee bends came electrotherapy, weightlifting, crutch
races. Four weeks after surgery, Muster was swatting balls again
from a swivel bench that he and Leitgeb designed, allowing him
to sit at midcourt in his cast. "Thomas loved that machine,"
says Leitgeb. "He was hitting hard from the very first ball."
When the cast came off for good, Muster hopped on a bicycle.
Leitgeb rode alongside, with his hand on Muster's stiff, sore
left knee, helping Muster push down on the pedal. "Thomas fell
off the bike many times, screaming," Leitgeb says. "It was just
terrible." If Muster said he wanted to quit, Leitgeb snapped,
"Quitting is not an option."
Nor was hiding out. A month after the operation, Muster hobbled
to the Italian Open on crutches and told the crowd, "I want to
come back next year without a cast and win this tournament." A
year later he returned to Rome as a player and left as a champion.
By May 1990, Muster was back in the Top 10. At a price. Worn
down by rehab, he hurt his elbow and had a falling out with
Leitgeb. The two were supposed to leave for Melbourne the day
after Christmas to prepare for the Australian Open. Before
Leitgeb headed to the airport, he heard from Muster, who told
him: "I don't want to practice. I don't want to play. I won't go."
"If you won't go, bye-bye," said Leitgeb.
Muster lost a coach but regained his adolescence. He smoked a
pack of cigarettes a day, put on 15 pounds and spent more time
in discos than at practice. "This was serious freak-out," says
Leitgeb. After dropping six straight opening-round matches on
his beloved clay, Muster decided he'd had enough of the good
life. His rapprochement with Leitgeb in April 1990 was painful
but rewarding. "I trained the crap out of him," says Leitgeb.
Six weeks later--with his rank hovering at 116--Muster won in
Florence. The rest is current events.
As for the private Muster, he's ... private. It is only with
great reluctance that he who is known for his lack of artistry
on court acknowledges his hobby: painting. Muster's
masterworks--oils in the style of Miro and Kandinsky--vie for
space on the walls of his Monte Carlo apartment. "They're
nothing much," he says. "It's better to have something colorful
on the walls than white." He's equally dismissive of his
drumming: "It's mostly just noise." And what of the Ferrari in
his garage? "I drive it less than 1,000 kilometers a year. It's
just a toy."
His habit of clutching privacy around him like a warmup jacket
makes the media pry even more vigorously. Earlier this year
British tabloids linked him romantically to the Duchess of York.
Rumors began to simmer after he and Fergie chatted over a beer
at a bash in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. The rumors began
to boil when Fergie flew on to Australia and showed up at one of
Muster's matches at the Australian Open. With British reporters
clamoring for an explanation, Muster skipped practice and holed
up in his hotel room until the tournament began. (Asked about
the reports now, he snorts derisively. Even the tabs seem to
have lost interest.)
Ducking Wimbledon again is not in Muster's plans. It's important
that he broaden his image, and he'll do that with a vengeance by
entering two grass court prep events before the tournament.
"Borg was a baseliner," says Ivanisevic, "and he won Wimbledon
five times." But Borg was quicker and had a better serve. And
the player pool wasn't as deep then. "If Muster does well on
grass, the rest of us will respect him more as a player," says
Noteboom. He offers a rueful scowl. "As a person, I don't know."