Driving With Stich: A Life Fulfilled
By Arthur King Friday, July 17, 2009
They use to comment that any German car is a good car, it is still respected by the English. If tennis players could be compared to cars, Germany's Michael Stich would fit into three categories: the sleek style and speed of a Porsche, the smoothness, elegance with exclusiveness of a Mercedes and the approachable, reliability, and playful, down-to-earth quality of the Volkswagen Beetle.
Stich, whose service motion was so smooth and fluid, Hall of Famer Fred Stolle once remarked he preferred the German's motion even to Pete Sampras' serve, beat compatriot Boris Becker to capture the 1991 Wimbledon singles title, partnered John McEnroe to claim the 1992 Wimbledon doubles crown and reached the 1994 US Open final, falling to Andre Agassi, and showed that serve-and-volley skills can be successful on clay when he made it to the 1996 Roland Garros final, bowing to Yevgeny Kafelnikov, 7-6, 7-5, 7-6.
The 40-year-old Stich is one of the few men in the world who holds a winning record over 14-time Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras, having won five of their nine meetings. In his book, A Champion's Mind, Sampras said Stich was the one player whose presence across the net frightened him most.
"Out of all the guys who were real or potential rivals, Stich was the one who scared me the most — just look at his superior head-to-head record," Sampras wrote. "I didn't play Stich a lot — he didn't seem to enjoy life at the top, so he left the game at a relatively young age. But if he had played a little longer, and wanted it as badly as I did, he would have been extremely tough. Stich had such a huge first serve and a big second serve that he could come in behind confidently, because he was such a gifted volleyer. He moved very well and could do it all — stay back, chip and charge, serve and volley. He really had an all-court game and, among all the guys I played, the best combination of power, movement and mental strength. Unfortunately for Stich, Germany was in love with his contemporary, Boris Becker. The rivalry between them was bitter and intense."
Michael Stich in action at the Liverpool International.
Clearly, though, Stich is a man who knows how to navigate the crowded, ultra-competitive path to Grand Slam glory. I was going to take an imaginary ride with him on the autobahn of Germany as he sat with me in the bright sun shine overlooking the public grass courts at the Liverpool International Tournament. Stich was into his fourth day of playing, teaching tennis and fulfilling his media work for the sponsors.
Moments earlier I had seen him coach tennis to a beginner, the obligatory format for tennis legends at these events. Stich gave a lesson that was serious and practical to the novice. His efficiency was evident but the fun and joking from Stich was always surfacing: "10 push-ups if you let the ball bounce twice" was the threat from him as he smiled. He then went over to the guest and quietly spoke words of encouragement with practical instruction. The guest laughed and enjoyed the final few minutes of the lesson, subconsciously he had been given a lift by this "Beetle."
Then two local radio station presenters guided him into a tent for a quick word on his thoughts on Andy Murray and his opinions of the city of Liverpool. Stock questions were answered with the smoothness and comfort of a Mercedes.
Michael came striding over to me with speed as he took his seat. I wondered how I could keep this finely tuned piece of German engineering the attention and comfort after the rough ride he had just been given by the two non tennis radio football aficionados presenters in the tent..
I decided to ask him about his favorite book,The Discovery of Slowness (original German title: Die Entdeckung der Langsamkeit), which is a novel by Sten Nadolny.
What intrigued me why this athlete who had all the natural talents and speed was attracted to the the protagonist Sir John Franklin who was the opposite , slow, uncoordinated but with perseverance he attains his ambitions.
"Well I just think it just shows in our society that you don't have to be gifted with obvious talents but you sometimes have to make the best of talents that you have and sometimes, something that seems more as a disadvantage you maybe you can use to your advantage and that is what I liked about the book so much," Stich said. "John Franklin became one the great sailors and adventurers of the time. He did not have a lot of talents when he grew up when he was a kid but he learned to use his being and his way of seeing things to his advantage to become the great man that I really appreciated. It would be good if people would look upon life like that a little bit more. It's not so much referring to my life or talents or not my talents but referring to life in general . We shouldn't exclude people who don't fit into the public view basically and just look out to get the best out of people."
I sat back in my seat, this sincere regular guy who thought deeply about life and not just on the tennis court, as he was to reveal tennis was not his life but more important values were to attract his attention.
At the peak of his tennis profession, a then 25-year-old Michael Stich founded the Michael Stich Foundation in 1994 with the aim to support children living in Germany, infected by HIV or living with AIDS.
"Well it shows that I I was not only about tennis which may be kept me away from winning more Grand Slam titles obviously," Stich said. "You know life is so complicated in general that it has so much to offer and I was so lucky to have been able to do and I wanted to give something back I set up the foundation rather than give money to a big institution where I don't know where the money is going to. I set up the foundation not knowing the consequences would be for the rest of my life that is why I did it. It was something that came naturally to me to set this up and start the work. It is still going good. It's my fifteenth year now so it is going well but there are always times when I don't want to do it because I'm fed up with it, but most of time I enjoy doing it, but you know that is like with everything in life you are not going to enjoy every single day that you do it. You always have to lean back and try to look from the outside to see what you have achieved and see why you are doing it and if you still see if it is worth doing then you have got to keep doing it. You know HIV and AIDS throughout the world is a huge topic that does always get any recognition whatsoever and that drives me to help the kids to give them a better life and to bring a smile to their faces.That is what keeps me going."
In the summer of 1991 Michael Stich became the Wimbledon men's singles defeating in the final his countryman Becker in straight sets. Was it true belief that he knew he was going to win the title that year? In typical modesty of the man, Stich told me how it never happened. A moment of inspiration the media would call it but fortune was to shine on him deep into the final set against Alexander Volkov. Stich was 3-5 down and 15-30 when he tried to pass Volkov. Michael unfolds the story of his win.
"I was out of the tournament in the round of 16 at Wimbledon when I played Alexander Volkov from Russia I was down a break in the fifth set I was down a break point to go down a double break to go down 5-1, I think," Stich recalled. "And I gave up I played a second serve just like all or nothing . I hit a second serve ace to stay in the match I think he was serving at 5-3 at 30-15 I hit a forehand passing shot down the line it hit the top of the net and went over his head and landed on the line and after that I think he did not win a point. All of sudden I was in the quarterfinals playing Jim Courier and even then I did not think I was going to win Wimbledon. The moment I walked on court in the final I felt and I knew I was going to win that title."
That fourth round match finished 4–6, 6–3, 7–5, 1–6, 7–5 despite Volkov winning the same number of games as Stich overall in the match
Are there a lot of players who feel that way that they are going to win the title Michael or do players put this bravado on that they can win it?
"No I think you can the have feeling that when in 1993 I went to Queen's and won the title there and went to Wimbledon I felt I was going to win Wimbledon — definitely I played my best grass court tennis," Stich said. "I knew there was no one I could lose to. I went into the tournament like that and felt that's it I can go to the bookmaker and bet on myself. I lost to Boris Becker in the quarterfinals a close 5 sets I had many chances in the fifth set but I was disappointed but it is the only time in my career that I went to a Grand Slam that I really felt that this is it , I was going to win, and probably guys like Sampras and Federer that they have the feeling that they are going to win."
Eckhart Tolle, Author of A New Earth talks about detachment in his book, can you detach from your loses unlike John McEnroe, who still struggles to cope with defeat against Ivan Lendl in the 1984 final at Roland Garros — a loss McEnroe said he thinks about almost every day?
"I can, I always knew tennis was going to be a very short period of my life and the moment I started it I knew when I retired I knew it was a great time," Stich said. "I had a lot of opportunities, but now the real life is going to start and that is where you have to make a second living career, second whatever. You cannot rely on the fact you won Wimbledon. It is not going to satisfy you for the rest of your life. It does not satisfy me. It is basically lent at a time, you don't own anything. To have those opportunities that we as athletes traveling the world seeing different mentalities and peoples throughout the world, exploring ourselves is a gift. You should see it as a gift and should look back at it as a great time, and something that was given to you. I still regret that I did not win the French Open in 1996. I'll tell my wife every time I go to the French Open every year that I'm upset. I'm still upset but I can still smile about it. It is OK but because I know I didn't and I am not going to. So I can't change it and it does not hurt me or hinder me in my life to do anything else or not do . I am very happy what I have achieved in my career and my life right now."
Michael Stich was forced to to retire because of injury to his shoulder at the age of 28 after, his last professional match in the semifinals on the Centre Court of Wimbledon in 1996 playing Cedric Pioline. He won 18 titles in his career and reached a career-high rank of No. 2 in 1993.
Even though Stich had possibly the smoothest service action he explains why he decided to place his health above the pursuit of glory on the tennis court.
"Well you have to imagine you play 20 years of tennis hitting thousands of serves, no matter how smooth your action is you are using tendons, muscles and bones that are working all together," Stich said. "With me it was having the shoulder injury and also being fatigued with all that traveling around the world. I think one comes to the other and unless you are willing to be prepared to fight this again the more things are going to start to hurt.
"I had a foot injury to deal with that took nine months. I had a great comeback after that, but when the shoulder problem came up I was not ready to do it all again. Maybe I should have taken half a year or a year off just to re-group and comeback and give it a try again, but I was looking forward to the rest of my life as well. I was offered an operation but the specialist informed me that it was a 50% chance that it wound make it worse and I did not want to live the rest of my life not being able to grab a cup out of the drawer and have pain every single time, it's not worth it. I would be risking the quality for the rest of my life just by running after something that I might want to achieve and really not achieve it. I'm happy with my life. My last match was at Wimbledon in the semifinal where I lost to Cedric Pioline but I won against Tim Henman in the quarters, it could not have been better."
The World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) so-called "whereabouts" rules have been criticized by many professionals, including Rafael Nadal. The new WADA whereabouts rule will require a group of players to declare their location for an hour of every day, even when they are on holiday, so that the drugs testers can find them. Stich suggest the policy is restrictive.
"I think it is a very controversial discussion. I was tested when playing but you cannot expect any athlete to tell where he is going to be at every single day of his life," Stich said. "I think it is not worth it. The bad thing about this discussion and doping and drug testing is whenever some athlete does something special and does it well, people think he must be doped and we are not in the position fortunately anymore to really appreciate outstanding results, outstanding athletes. There is always a question 'Did he do anything whatever?' I think we have to be strict on the athlete who use those substances once in their career you are out, kick them out. When they are over 18 they can make their own decisions and if they are tested positively that's it, look for another job. Because it's not like 'I did not know or was not sure', grow up. You make decisions on your own and if you can prove you have a medical reason to use certain substances fair enough, but I think rules are not clear for athletes. We have it in horse back riding in Germany. Rules have to be clarified, but not every singles day....I'm going to be there, there, there,..........it's going too far."
Michael Stich and Younes El Aynaoui.
Stich played doubles with John McEnroe at Wimbledon in 1992. McEnroe, who was also born in Germany, staked a reputation as one of the greatest doubles players in history. So just who became the leader of this partnership that was to earn them the Wimbledon doubles title? That is a story in itself.
"I am quite confident in my ability, as a person I could stand up to Johnny Mac — we are good friends," Stich said. "I think that pairing was a pairing of equal partners and throughout the Championships we had matches where I played brilliantly and he did not play that well and the other way around. The final was a very tough final, we both helped each other through those difficult times. It was an equal partnership. He respected me as a player and a person which is important and did the same so that is why I think it worked."
Ask him if the pair's differences ever escalated into an argument and Stich offers an interesting answer — setting clear ground rules at the start of the partnership prevented a blow-up as the pair battled through the doubles draw.
"No, I think it is very important in a partnership that when you play doubles we cleared this," Stich said. "We had a situation when we played and I said 'Listen John it is not about you being right or wrong it is about respecting the other player and behaving that way. I don't have to agree with you and you don't have to agree with me, but we have to be partners as a team, we have to respect each other for how we do things and we should not argue whether this is right or wrong it does not make any difference. If you want to yell at someone then go ahead. I don't have to like it and I can tell you I don't have to like it and I will tell you I don't like.' I think it was good, I stood up for myself and I made it clear to him. That is how we played successfully together. We were not seeded at Wimbledon that year. He picked me because he thought he could win another Grand Slam title with me and it worked out."
The doubles final spilled over to the Monday and was played on the old number one court adjacent to the Centre Court.
The People's Monday crowd that came out for the conclusion of that match provided an unforgettable atmosphere culminating with an epic victory over Jim Grabb and Richey Reneberg.
"It was great we did not know what to expect nobody knew what to expect, even the Wimbledon club did not know what to expect," Stich said. "All of a sudden free entry, first come first served. The crowd was like 7,500. We played for about an hour of an hour and half. It was great being part of the history at Wimbledon”
I asked Michael: Pete Sampras, Stefan Edberg and yourself both started with double handed backhand. Their coaches changed them to a single backhand, why did you change?
"I was about 11 I would say. I did not want to play the double handed back hand because I had to run too much," Stich remembered. "I had too cover too much ground. I was watching most most players with the two handed back hand, Borg and Connors. My favorite was Jimmy Connors, that is why I think I started the double handed back hand but I realized it limited me, it did not give me the freedom to do things like other players. Watching John McEnroe hit a single handed back hand. I just tried it out. I enjoyed it, but I did not think about it as a kid at 11 years old about a choice dictated by your mind, you just make a choice because you feel it is the right thing to do. A single handed back handed is a difficult stroke and requires lots of practice."
Your record against Pete Sampras was an overall winning one, ( 5-4) what gave you have the edge against Sampras?
"I always enjoyed playing Pete Sampras because I had about the same game," Stich said. "I think I was better playing serve and volley than him, he was better on the baseline than I was, but Pete never enjoyed playing guys that played the same style of game he played. I was serving as good as he did when I was playing well. I could put pressure on him, I was able to return his serve and read it, so I always looked forward playing him and I know he always hated playing me, he never enjoyed that too much. That combination probably made it possible that I had a winning record against him."
The other record what was surprising was against Andre Agassi. Stich was winless in six meetings against Agassi. In theory, he had the game to defeat him, yet it never happened. Could it have been bad tactics or a mental block?
"That was a terrible record, I did not win," Stich said. "At some stage the mental part plays a role. My bad luck was I played him indoors on hard courts. I never played him on grass or clay. Probably two surfaces I could have beaten him on. Hard court was my least favorite surface. If it was not fast enough, it was tough to play serve and volley all the time because he was returning so well, for me to stay at the baseline was difficult as well. He was playing too fast and I was not moving well on the hard court to hurt him. I had a couple of close matches but at some stage you don't believe you can beat the guy. I don't know I think I lost nine times against him. You go on feeling that it is not going to happen."
Is it similar with Federer playing Nadal on clay?
"You have to mix it up against Nadal, serve and volley, play to his back hand," Stich said. "In my day, Thomas Muster was similar, extremely fit, hard hitting on clay, running everything down, not as talented as Nadal but he was tough. The only thing you can do is break their rhythm, don't give them the same ball twice. Sometimes it is better to finish the rally and hit a crazy shot and not give the other guy a rhythm and not give the opportunity to stay in the rally. not give him confidence. You don't want the guy to get into the point. I think Federer has the game but he never believes enough to really do this as I never believed myself against Agassi to follow that game plan all the way to the end. If you lose one and one or 7-6 7-6 it does not make any difference , you are still losing so you have to try and find a winning way."
Michael had finished — "braking" — as smoothly as he had started the interview, he had navigated a winning way with the crowd this week and life in general. I had observed and experienced many facets that could be 'marketed' but Stich being the man he is and the decorum he displayed all week there are more important things in life than a brand name. That drive was precise, positive and had perfect timing of the qualities Stich showed on the tennis court. It was fun.