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Criticism Not Hard to Muster When It Comes to No. 1 Player

March 13, 1996|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Moments after Thomas Muster, clay-court specialist, gained the world No. 1 ranking a month ago, the squalling began. Now that he has done it again this week, the 29-year-old Austrian is settling back and absorbing the blows.

They've come from all quarters. From mild-mannered Pete Sampras on whether Muster, the French Open champion who gains his ranking points on clay, deserves the title of world's best:

"I feel that Thomas is the best player in the world on clay and as far as him being the best player on anything but clay, I don't quite swallow that quite as well. The way the ranking system is with defending points, and I didn't do well in Australia, it just so happens he had snuck up and became No. 1. It really just comes down to the end of the year. . . . That is the true indication of who the best player in the world is."

Andre Agassi has been most vocal about the situation, stating flatly several times that Muster does not deserve the ranking.

Muster, preparing for his opening match at the Newsweek Champions Cup, is still puzzled by the reaction.

"I don't understand why Andre, who is a champion himself and knows what it takes, would say what he did," Muster said. "It's a little disappointing in one way, we had a friendship. Suddenly, I'm ahead of him and now it's changed. But the only language that counts on the court and in the locker room is winning. Who wins is right, who loses fails."

Ever the opportunist, Muster has found a way to use the controversy to his advantage. The criticism feeds Muster's persecution complex, says Ronnie Leitgeb, Muster's longtime coach and manager.

"They give him fuel, no doubt about it," Leitgeb said. "We've always played the underdog game. That's the way it's been for 11 years. He doesn't have to prove anything. He wants to play well, but not to prove other people wrong."

Muster bristles at not being given credit for having accomplished anything of note.

"If you want to, you can find anything negative about anyone in the world," he said. "That's what society is about now. Watch TV, read the paper and talk to people. We're more or less being pushed in this direction."

Muster set up his rise at this time last season. He was ranked No. 19 going into the tournament at Mexico City in early March. After winning that title, Muster fell in behind a slipstream of success on clay that stretched to 40 consecutive victories and an overall record of 65-2 on the surface.

Muster won 12 titles in 1995 and appeared in 14 finals, 11 titles coming on clay. The building block for his rise in the rankings came from clay, but because the tour schedule is so heavily weighted toward fast surfaces, Muster needed to win nearly everything on clay to offset the points available from fast-court tournaments.

"Three of the Grand Slams are on fast surfaces, and six of the Super Nine are on fast," Muster said of the tour events that offer the highest purses and computer points. "So how can it be that I am cheating to get to No. 1? This is the system. As I've said, it's not like I'm buying the points at a supermarket."

Seldom has anything come to Muster that he has not worked for.

Muster's reputation among players is of a tireless machine fueled by high-octane aggression. He plays fast, he glares and he makes a lot of noise. One player compared being on court with Muster to being a gnat facing an elephant.

In person and off the court, Muster appears self-conscious and a little shy.

In 1989, as Muster was about to rise to his highest ranking ever, his left knee was shredded when hit by a drunk driver. He then put together a well-chronicled and improbable comeback.

After returning to the tour, Muster's knee forced him to make clay his surface of choice because of the strain hard courts caused. Even with that as a reality, Muster has been criticized for his schedule.

As politely but emphatically as he can, Muster points to a certain ignorance to this line of reasoning.

"When I hear all the talk about clay courts--where did tennis start? On grass and on clay," he said. "Hard court is the invention of American promoters. Don't blame Europeans that we play on clay.

"As far as me being No. 1, I have the feeling that Americans don't want it too much, they want to play this game between themselves and Nike. They don't like to see a European, like [Boris] Becker or [Goran] Ivanisevic and myself. We have to admit that most of the money for tennis comes from Europe. But the ATP is an American organization."

Muster does take Sampras' point that to be judged as truly great, a player must conquer all surfaces.

"Pete is a different level of player than I am. Andre is not. Agassi is not a Pete Sampras," Muster said.

"Sampras is the most complete player, like Becker. He will always judge himself by winning Grand Slam titles. I've never been on that level. I will not, and I have never compared myself to Becker and Sampras. I think you have to understand your limits. I always have."

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