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Muster Is Aced Out by Stich

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With not a bang but a whine and a grunt, Thomas Muster, the defending French Open men’s champion, was sent packing Monday, the ignominy compounded by the fact that springing the upset was not a clay-court specialist but a serve-and-volley player.

Losing in the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament whose title you hold is bad enough, but losing on terms dictated by your opponent was more than Muster could bear. The No. 2 seeded Austrian refused to acknowledge that Michael Stich’s attacking style might have given Stich a tactical advantage, despite Stich’s convincing 4-6, 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 (7-1) victory Monday.

Muster and other clay-court stars who thrive on the normally slow surface have been thwarted by the fast conditions this year. The weather has been one culprit--mostly sunny days have baked the red clay into an asphalt-like slickness. Also playing a part are the French-made Dunlop balls, which have been reduced in size to the legal minimum and are 10% faster.

The advance of attacking players such as Stich, Pete Sampras, Goran Ivanisevic, Stefan Edberg and Marc Rosset to the final 16 indicates that conventional wisdom about winning on clay can be discounted, at least this year.

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“For the attacking players this week, the last 10 days, the courts are fast obviously,” Stich said. “That can change in a second, you know. Two days of rain and everything is going to go the other way. This year, everything has been going perfect for the guys who serve and volley and can use their serve as a weapon. I think it’s been high-quality tennis. The fact that a lot of serve-and-volleyers are still in the tournament right now just proves that.”

Still, the only person shocked by Stich’s victory was Muster, who--even in the face of Stich’s 23 service aces to his zero--maintained that a big serve is not a factor on clay.

The loss is only Muster’s second on clay this season. In two years of clay-court play, Muster has compiled a record of 99-4. There is no one on the tour, or on the horizon, remotely close to that kind of dominance on any surface.

And Muster’s preparation for the French Open was meticulous. He played in a clay-court tournament in his hometown of St. Polten and the obliging promoter trucked in eight loads of clay from the same quarry in the south of France that supplies clay for the courts at Roland Garros.

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Muster said only a few weeks ago that he’d rather win here than be No. 1 again. Yet on Monday he downplayed the disappointment.

“I’ve won this tournament,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to take my name away on Court 1 because I lost [this time]. It’s a disappointment right now, but when I wake up tomorrow morning, I hopefully have the same hair, so I cannot be worried too much.”

It was Stich who was worried coming into the tournament. He pulled out of the Australian Open because of an ankle injury and eventually had major surgery in March. At the Italian Open in mid-May, he talked of not playing in Paris.

“I said [to myself], ‘I don’t know if I should go to France and look like an idiot playing on clay.’ ”

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Stich was hardly an idiot Monday.

Muster started well, attacking balls early and pinning Stich on the baseline. Then Stich began to find the rhythm on his serve and Muster began muttering to himself. The chair umpire heard the muttering and Muster was given a code violation.

Muster’s game then unraveled uncharacteristically. First, any trace of touch or finesse fled him, then even his power and will left. In the end, Muster simply stopped going after balls, something rarely seen in him.

He had no explanation.

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“Dinner last night, woke up in good mood this morning, no diarrhea, no problem. No excuse, I just lost,” Muster said.

Stich battled in the fourth set, coming back after being down, 4-1, to drawing even at 5-all. Stich had his way in the tiebreaker as Muster sent shots into the net with an alarming frequency.

“He was not up to his game the way he normally is,” Stich said. “Maybe that was because I played very different than all the other players he played before. He was definitely not on top of his game, whatever the reason was for that. But, you know, I didn’t mind.”


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