The Number Ones

Thomas Muster: Tragedy To Top Spot

The hard-working Austrian is one of the greatest clay-court players of all time

July 16, 2020
Thomas Muster first rose to No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings in 1996.
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Thomas Muster first rose to No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings in 1996. By Tom Allen

As a part of a series highlighting all players to reach World No. 1, looks back on the career of Thomas Muster. View Full List.

First week at No. 1: 12 February 1996
Total weeks at No. 1: 6

At World No. 1
Best known for his impressive balance off both wings and attritional game style, Muster overtook Andre Agassi to reach World No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings for the first time on 12 February 1996. The Austrian’s rise was largely built on a phenomenal clay-court record in 1995, when he captured the Roland Garros trophy and a further 10 titles on the dirt. The left-hander also defeated Pete Sampras en route to the ATP Masters 1000 Essen title, an indoor carpet event. “My No. 1 in 1996 was based on my 12 tournament wins in 1995… I don’t know how many people can say that, measurably, they have been No. 1 at something, the best in the world. I loved that moment,” said Muster. He held his World No. 1 ranking for just one week, before Pete Sampras climbed above him. After three weeks at No. 2, Muster began his second stint as the top-ranked player in the game following his fourth straight title run in Mexico City. The Austrian maintained his position at the top of the sport for five weeks and lifted his second consecutive Estoril trophy during that period.

Grand Slam Highlights
Five years on from a semi-final loss to eventual champion Andres Gomez in the 1990 Roland Garros semi-finals, Muster entered the clay-court Grand Slam championship with a 28-0 unbeaten record on clay. After dropping just one set en route to the quarter-finals, the Austrian was forced to recover from two-sets-to-one down against a 19-year-old Albert Costa to make his return to the last four in Paris. Following a straight-sets loss to Muster in the semi-finals, Yevgeny Kafelnikov stated that he felt ‘like a small moth against a big elephant’. In his only Grand Slam final, Muster lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires with a dominant 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 triumph against 1989 champion Michael Chang. “To have a Slam in your pocket is very special. You can imagine that rock that falls off your shoulders when you actually win that match point... I enjoyed that moment. I was very emotional,” said Muster. He advanced to semi-finals at the Australian Open in 1989 and 1997, losing on both occasions to the eventual tournament winner. The Leibnitz native also made three quarter-final appearances in four years at the US Open, reaching the last eight in New York in 1993, 1994 and 1996.

ATP Coach Programme

Nitto ATP Finals Highlights
Muster made four appearances at the Nitto ATP Finals between 1990 and 1997. On his tournament debut in Frankfurt, the 23-year-old defeated Gomez in three sets to finish his group with a 1-2 record. After losing each of his three matches in deciding sets in 1995, Muster came closest to moving out of the group stages in 1996. The Austrian overcame World No. 2 Chang in straight sets but, once again, finished with a 1-2 record after a three-set loss to Richard Krajicek. Muster made his last appearance at the elite eight-man event as an alternate in 1997.

Tour Highlights
After turning professional in 1985, Muster claimed five titles and established himself as a Top 20 player by the end of the 1988 ATP Tour season. In the following year, the 5’11” Austrian reached his first championship match of the season at the Miami Open presented by Itau, coming from two sets down to beat Yannick Noah. With a Top 10 ranking assured in the following week, Muster’s career was on the rise. But, in the hours after his semi-final victory in Miami, Muster was hit by a drunk driver while searching the inside of his car. The impact left the Austrian with severed tendons in his left knee and Muster flew back to Vienna for surgery. The 21-year-old was famously pictured hitting tennis balls in a special chair, with his left leg in a cast before making his comeback more than five months later at the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell. Muster soon returned to winning ways and was named ATP Comeback Player of the Year in 1990. "I was very lucky to survive that," said Muster. "It could have been much worse... It was a terrible situation, but it was also a way for me to get grounded again, to focus more on what I wanted to do."

Between May 1990 and July 1995, Muster won 24 consecutive tour-level finals on clay. During his best season on the ATP Tour in 1995, Muster claimed 65 victories from 67 clay-court matches, including 40 straight wins. The 40-match winning streak was the longest winning run on the surface since Bjorn Borg’s run of 46 straight victories between 1977-1979, leading to Muster being nicknamed ‘The King of Clay’. Muster captured 12 trophies during his 1995 campaign, an ATP Tour record he has shared with Roger Federer since 2004. Fittingly, the Austrian captured his 44th and final tour-level trophy in Miami in 1997, eight years after his career-threatening accident. Eleven years after his retirement at Roland Garros in 1999, Muster followed a number of ATP Challenger Tour appearances with a return to the ATP Tour at the 2010 Erste Bank Open in Vienna. “Many people will say, ‘What does the old fool want?,'” said Muster. The 43-year-old lost his opening match to Andreas Haider-Maurer, before committing to play at further ATP Tour events in Kitzbühel and Vienna in 2011. Muster lost in the opening round at both events to Philipp Kohlschreiber and Dominic Thiem, respectively.

Biggest Rivalries
Muster contested many rivalries during his career on the ATP Tour. Between 1990 and 1997, the Austrian met Sergi Bruguera on 15 occasions. Muster claimed 12 victories from 15 ATP Head2Head contests against the Spaniard and won each of their four meetings in finals. The left-hander also enjoyed a combined 20 matches against Sampras and Agassi. Muster managed just two victories from 11 ATPHead2Head contests against Sampras, but fared better against Agassi with four wins from nine ATPHead2Head encounters.

As the only Austrian to reach No. 1 in the PIF ATP Rankings, Muster is Austria's most successful player to date. In between the eras of Bjorn Borg and Rafael Nadal, the 1995 Roland Garros champion was labelled as his generation's ‘King of Clay’, winning 40 of his 44 tour-level trophies on the dirt. He is considered one of the greatest clay-court players of all time. Muster was notoriously difficult to beat in finals, winning 81.5 per cent of his championship matches (44-10). It remains the greatest winning percentage of any player to have contested 15 or more tour-level finals. With 45 wins, Muster also holds the record for most Davis Cup victories by an Austrian player. In 1990, he guided his nation to the semi-finals, Austria’s best result in the tournament’s history. In 2020, at the inaugural ATP Cup in Australia, Muster also represented his country as Team Captain.

Overall Match Win-Loss Record: 625-273
Overall Titles/Finals Record: 44-10

Memorable Moment
After struggling with fatigue, dehydration and a lack of sugar in his blood in his 1995 Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters semi-final victory against Andrea Gaudenzi, the current ATP Chairman, Muster returned to the court just 24 hours later to face Boris Becker in the final. Becker led by two sets and held two match points at 6/4 in a fourth-set tie-break. But with help from a double fault on the first opportunity, Muster won four straight points before cruising to a 4-6, 5-7, 6-1, 7-6(6), 6-0 victory after three hours and 16 minutes. “I don’t know how I won the match,” said Muster. “After what happened yesterday, I didn’t think I could be able to play today. I would like to thank the medical service that got me ready to play.”

Sampras on Muster
“You just have to listen to him out there. He sounds like a bulldog who’s chewing on your leg and will not stop chewing, no matter what.”

Muster on Muster
“I have so many things to tell. I hope I can one day have grandchildren and they will ask me… I would love to tell them those stories. I think they are fantastic and they have been part of my life, but you can learn so much out of these situations. I really enjoyed what I did. I will never regret anything I did and that decision to become a tennis professional was the best decision I have ever made. There is a wish, there is a dream and sometimes there is success. You have just got to believe in it.”

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Broadcaster/Journalist Graeme Agars
The enduring image of Thomas Muster will always be the image of him sitting in a specially made chair, his left leg in a cast, hitting balls on a practice court. The hard-hitting Austrian found himself in his predicament after being injured in a freak accident in April 1989, just hours after winning his semi-final in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Muster was hit by a drunk driver and immediately returned to Vienna for emergency surgery. Any hopes of a quick return were dashed when doctors found severed ligaments in his left knee, but the courageous Austrian defied the odds anyway and remarkably returned to competition after only five months on the sidelines.

Muster was a fierce competitor and reached his pinnacle in 1995 with victory at Roland Garros. After that he was named the ‘King of Clay’, as his amazing 65-2 record on clay in 1995 attests. That year he went on to win a record 12 titles for the season, a mark only equalled, but not surpassed by Roger Federer. His supreme fitness and heavy topspin game saw him a win a remarkable 44 of his 55 tour-level singles finals.

Not surprisingly, Muster was twice named the Austrian Sportsman of the Year and also earned the ATP Comeback Player of the Year award in 1990. Off the court, his interests were many and varied. He had a licence to fly helicopters, was an excellent drummer, dabbled in art and photography and had business forays in wine and fashion.

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