When Thomas Muster, tennis’ own armageddon, won the Lipton Tennis Championship, beating Spain’s classy player Sergei Brugguera in a positively gruelling match, it was the great man’s own signal triumph over tremendous odds.
For one who had his left knee crushed by an intoxicated driver on a supermarket parking lot in 1989, a few hours after beating French Missile Yannick Noah, to make the final of the Championship which he won, Muster’s most electrifying moment – after he won the French Open – was a classical case of the power of the human mind over matter.
Any other player, by any other name, in the circumstance, would have been off the tennis circuit collecting a disability pension.Â Not Muster – the ‘Moose-Man,’ the ‘Animal Mooster,’ or call him what you may.
The injury was awfully bad, yes. The prognosis was as difficult, even gloomy. Sad. It was thought that only a miracle could make Muster wield the racquet ever again. But, from the throes of adversity, or quagmire of imminent doom, Muster mustered his uncommon courage. The effect was stupendous.
A few days, after surgery, Muster was slamming at tennis balls sitting in a specially designed chair. Just two men, Muster and his coach/manager, Ronald Leitgeb, the ‘visionary’ who had designed the chair, had the ghost of an idea of the Austrian ace’s [im]probable return to the centre-stage.
Well, would you believe it, just a few weeks later, Muster was back to where he always belonged – making his first appearance at a tournament, in Rome?Â Not only that. He had a special message for his fans. That he would return, a year later, and win the tournament too. Incredible, you’d say again. But, Muster didn’t play the role of a politician. He kept his promise that only a few fancied. Champions are made of such stuff.
Yes, a host of people called Muster the clay master, the king of that surface. This wasn’t really charitable.Â It was also tantamount to saying why Steve Waugh just stuck to cricket – and, not something else. And, there hangs a tale.
From the depth of utter despair, even a possible end of a tennis career, Muster came back.Â He’d, in the process, gotten stronger every year. At 29, he’d also mellowed.Â In so doing, he made success even more savoury, notwithstanding the usual, inevitable ‘flaws’ common to the most ‘perfect’ of human beings – more so, the sporting genii.
Not as fleet-footed as Michael Chang, Muster never gave up a point. He was not blessed with the awesome firepower of Andre Agassi off the ground. No problem. Because, Muster had this innate ability to making his ground strokes just as punishing. If he could not get on top of his opponent, with his consistency, he always found a way out by setting up his inside-out forehand. More than anything else, no other player on the tour had the ‘ammo’ as powerful as Muster’s heart. This explained for his unusual tenacity.
What’s more, and amazingly so, Muster was better after his injury. One may not have liked his fist-pumping, or the way he glared at his opponent when he hit a winner, or won a game. But, this wasn’t a primitive exercise, in modern sport. Muster’s pumped-up ritual was his own tonic: his own approach to the game. Here goes. When you pressed the delete key in your mind’s computer – and, with all of Muster’s other attributes, you sure got yourself a role model, the ultimate competitive icon.
Muster wasn’t really a friendly guy, who stays next door. His look, at least, underscored that point.Â This may not necessarily be true. He may not have hogged headlines too. But, he was always trying to make his racquet talk, what with all his workmanlike qualities, day-in and day-out.
Muster’s tennis showcase has only one exhibit: his own brand of patented tennis. A volcano: full of kinetic energy, pure, uncomplicated, unadulterated vital force of life itself. He may not have had too many fans worldwide, all right. No problem, again. Because, he’s, quite simply, married to a mission, his own mission – to pulverising the tennis ball with his sword of a racquet, every time, wherever he was, or wherever the opponent turned.
Agreed that Muster was emotional.Â Who isn’t?Â He’s also loud, at times. He could be authoritative, even imposing. As Michael Chang once put it, so succinctly: “When you go into the ring to play Muster, you feel like a small moth against a big elephant.”
Muster was practical too. He had been successful in revamping his game, unlike most, when pitched against younger opponents. What made Muster something special was his emotional balance. And, when he walked into the playing arena, he’s, more or less, emotionally well balanced. His chemistry was also just right for achieving maximum performance, whatever the outcome of the match, or championship. He did not think too much. He wasn’t too concerned with stroke mechanics, or focusing on the past, his mistakes, or missed opportunities. On the contrary, he was attuned to looking at the future, focusing on it, without respite. He did not try too hard or become too critical of his own performance.Â Rather, he thought articulately in terms of constantly measuring how well he’s doing at any given point of time. This was only logical: it is the key that allows a tennis player to getting, and staying, ‘in the zone,’ or achieving the ideal performance state.
Muster understood its framework only too well. This was the essential secret of his career. Something that held him in good stead, no matter who his opponent was, or whatever the type of surface. This was also the Essential Muster for you. A never-say-die-star player who could scalp the 1997 French Open singles crown, yet again, sooner than you’d say, ‘Roland Garros.’
– Photo, Courtesy: William Hill