Thomas Muster, 1990.

Thirty-one years ago today, Thomas Muster won the Italian Open. So why does that mean anything? After all, Muster won a staggering 40 titles on clay.

But a good case could be made that none of those 40 trophies meant more to this high-intensity Austrian than the one he earned in Rome—arguably even greater his 1995 Roland Garros triumph.

For there was a backstory to Muster’s road to Rome that did not involve a clay-court tournament.

The word “natural” is often associated with such concepts as grace, elegance and smoothness. But in Muster’s case, “natural” applied to his remarkable prowess on clay. This was a man who loved to work, putting in long, hard hours on the practice court. In large part, Muster’s left-handed game was an ancestor to Rafael Nadal’s punishing style. Like another lefty clay court titan, Argentine Guillermo Vilas, Muster hit powerful one-handed topspin drives off both sides, his off-the-charts fitness, movement, concentration and tenacity torturing one opponent after another. You didn’t just lose to Thomas Muster. You were beaten.

But like the actor who wants to direct or the comedian hoping to be taken seriously, Muster naturally sought to prove himself more than a one-surface pony. In January 1989, he reached the semis of the Australian Open, losing to eventual champion Ivan Lendl, 7-5 in the fourth set.

Then came the fateful night of March 31, 1989. In the semis of Miami, a near-Slam level hard-court tournament, Muster had just fought back from two sets to love down to beat Yannick Noah. Afterwards, on his way to dinner, Muster went to get something out of the trunk of his car and was slammed by a parked car that had just been hit by another vehicle. The hit car’s bumper jarred Muster so violently that it severed the medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments in his left knee. Muster’s coach, Ronnie Leitgeb, was told Muster might not even walk again.

But nothing ever stopped Thomas Muster. A vivid image of that time showed him in his cast, taking repeated practice swings.


The next month, Muster came to Rome. Hobbling on to the court, Muster said to the fans, “I want to come back next year without a cast and win this tournament.”

Muster returned to competition in September. But not until February 1990, when he returned to his beloved clay, was Muster able to kick his game into high gear. He tore his way through North Africa, winning a Challenger in Cairo, an ATP event in Casablanca, another Challenger in Morocco. In April and May, Muster went all the way to the finals in Monte Carlo and Munich. He was gathering steam by the week.

It all came together in Rome. A semi versus fellow lefty, seventh-ranked Andres Gomez, went to the limit, Muster winning it, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6.

Muster’s opponent in the finals was 15th-ranked Andrei Chesnokov, a rock-solid Russian. In those days, the Rome final was a best-of-five sets match.

How would Muster hold up? Are you kidding? Muster handily disposed of Chesnokov, taking just under two hours to win, 6-1, 6-3, 6-1. “When you stop playing for so long, you wonder if you won't be able to do it anymore,” he said. “To win this tournament is very satisfying. But my biggest victory was beating the injury.”