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Muster’s Style Makes a Statement at Jensen’s Expense : U.S. Open: Colorful American is putty in 7-6 (7-3), 6-3, 6-0 loss to clay-court specialist.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The ongoing debate between substance and style finds many forums. Tennis is not exempt. Wednesday’s U.S. Open first-round match between Thomas Muster and Luke Jensen offered a blatant example of the arguments.

Muster, the French Open champion from Austria, pounded style into fearful submission, closing out the debate for a least one day. His 7-6 (7-3), 6-3, 6-0 defeat of Jensen did not gain him points for fashion but did bolster his reputation as a relentlessly efficient opponent.

The third-seeded Muster does not give the impression as one who picks out his tennis outfit the night before a match. He’s always a bit of a mess on the court, a look amplified by his near-constant presence on clay courts, which will turn the whitest of socks red in minutes. He doesn’t have any sartorial pretenses. Nor do his clothing sponsors. His tennis shirt is designed to be worn outside.

As usual, Jensen was beyond the cutting edge of fashion Wednesday. He arrived wearing a black football jersey with the number 42 emblazoned on the back, honoring his favorite player, Ronnie Lott.

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Late in the first set, Jensen changed to a brown T-shirt with stripes. And in the second set, he moved to a green polo shirt. Finally, he fished out another version of the football jersey to finish the match. It was also noted that the 29-year-old kept his long ponytail neatly in place with two scarves over his head.

Muster claimed to take no notice.

“It was his show, my win, so that is all right,” he said.

Whim seems to dictate much with Jensen. He was known as Dual Hand Luke while he played at USC because of his ability to play with either hand. At times against Muster, he served right-handed and at other times left-handed.

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Neither bothered Muster, who concentrated on winning. Jensen is ranked No. 279 in the world and better known as half of a doubles team with his brother Murphy. He was given a wild card into the main draw here.

Muster too is a specialist. He rarely ventures onto surfaces other than clay. His appearance at Indian Wells last March was his last tournament on hard courts before arriving here. He played a few Davis Cup matches indoors and no tournaments on grass.

There is a reason Muster prefers clay. His clay-court run was remarkable as he won 40 consecutive matches on the surface stretching from February to July. He has won more tournaments than anyone else this year, 10, all on clay.

Yet, rather than being celebrated for his accomplishments, he has been intensely criticized by other players, who say the world’s No. 3 player has an obligation to play at least in all Grand Slam events.

So dedicated a clay-courter is Muster that his U.S. Open warm-up was in Umag, Croatia. He won the tournament, on clay.

The point many players make is that he doesn’t deserve his ranking because he scours the calendar, seeking only tournaments on clay.

“It makes no sense to me,” Jensen said. “Think about it: The guy got on an airplane from Umag. It’s not a direct flight--Umag to New York. He probably took some mule and got on one of those U.N. things, a troop transport, so, you know, just pulled right into New York. He’s still got Umag on his breath.”

Muster does not apologize for it. Rather, he says: “I am better on clay, that is one thing. Then, physically, I cannot play too many weeks on hard courts. It wouldn’t make sense for me to play four or five weeks, because I couldn’t make it physically.”

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Although renowned on the tour for his fitness, Muster’s reconstructed left knee limits his effectiveness and durability on hard courts. Knowing that his time is limited, he races through matches, never taking the full time during changeovers and pacing the court until his opponent arrives.

“The guy really is an animal; he is one of the most fit players,” Jensen said. “He is not going to take a lot of time between points. He is always leaning on you.

“When you think of a full-court press in basketball, he is always pushing you to play faster and harder. He moves you all the time. He makes you work for points and he just chews you up and spits you out. He goes, ‘Next victim, please.’ ”


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