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Daily Telegraph London

Stich settles for second billing
By Sue Mott (Filed: 07/12/2002)


Really, what kind of German tennis player is this? No scandals about sex in a linen cupboard, no hint of romance with Andre Agassi, not even a stab at the old staple, tax evasion. Michael Stich - won Wimbledon 1991, if you remember rightly - never did tread the traditional primrose path to celebrity as did his compatriots, Boris Becker and Steffi Graf.

This much you can tell, even from the banner hanging in the foyer of the Royal Albert Hall. "JEREMY BATES," it trumpets in golden lettering. "HENRI LECONTE/MIKAEL PERNFORS/JOHN McENROE."

And, in conspicuously smaller lettering, the final announcement: "Michael Stich." Poor man. To be a Wimbledon champion, three times Grand Slam finalist, Olympic gold medallist, Davis Cup winner and yet adjudged to be worth less embroidery than Jeremy Bates (who once won the Wimbledon mixed doubles with Jo Durie) is outrageous.

But it is, to some extent, his own fault. In 1992 he found himself engulfed in prurient interest thanks to his SW19 victory the year before. "They wanted to know with whom I was going out, where I went, where I took holidays, what was the name of my dog, how was my bird's health - things that I didn't believe were important to anyone."

Hang on, though. "Did you have a bird?" I asked pruriently, imagining all manner of parrot stories that might fascinatingly emerge. "No," he said. So you begin to see what he means.

Anyway, in the face of this glare, he took evasive action. "I acted at being boring so I wouldn't be very interesting to people."

It may have worked rather better than expected. At the 1991 ATP World Championships in Frankfurt a German crowd of 8,500 watched his match against Boris Becker and, as he correctly deduced, 8,500 were cheering for Boris. It was painful. He was honest enough to say so. "I think it is very, very unfair," he said in the post-match press conference. "It is not a good feeling."

So Stich became synonymous with grievance and the bulky, boisterous shadow cast by a certain strawberry blond. Even now, the antipathy remains. Put it this way, if Becker had been sentenced to jail for his notorious case of tax evasion earlier this year, Stich might have been inclined to send a 'good luck' card to his cellmate.

" 'Hate' is too strong a word. We disliked each other. We were rivals. We always wanted to beat each other. We got caught up in this media war. We weren't old enough to handle it. We went along with it. But we are very different people." He emphasised this most carefully.

Of course, the limelight seduced and embraced the romping Boris like a siren. "Exactly," Stich said. "That's a big difference."

But they are both bright men, with a mutual background and, surely, mutual respect? Stich greeted this comment with volume-speaking silence. It cannot have been easy, to cram his own ego and a condor's wingspan under the pedestal belonging to Boris.

It was, and is, unfortunate because our small-print German visitor has always been insightful and intelligent, preferring to absorb the cultures of the countries he visited on tour rather than repel them with the neon charge of his own personality.

Now, at 34, playing his first senior event in London at the Honda Challenge despite the serious shoulder injury that led to his retirement in 1997, he is dryly funny, opinionated and apparently fearless.

"Is this the players' lounge!" asked a familiarly querulous voice midway through the conversation. The German looked up and smiled. John McEnroe was standing there, clutching a plate of pasta. Uh-oh. I prepared myself for volcanic eviction. "You can sit here, John," Stich said, "as long as you don't interrupt." Mr McEnroe settled himself without a murmur and, indeed, did not interrupt.

This was handy. Because Stich, despite the good mood engendered in his soul from beating Leconte in a third-set tie-break, is adamant and informative on the ills of tennis. For one thing, he does not much rate the new kids on the block.

"Those guys don't play tennis any more. They work it. They're great athletes, very fit, very strong. But they all play the same kind of style - beating each other up from the baseline, serving big, grinding things down. Not improvising, not being imaginative, not coming into the net. It's not that interesting.

"Wimbledon this year was a disaster for tennis. If you look at the quarter-finalists, they were a disaster for the tournament."

Obviously he did not mean Tim Henman, without whom no Wimbledon quarter-final would be complete, but in terms of the Who-he? brigade like Schalken, Malisse, Nalbandian, Lapentti, he has a point. Sa, as in Andre Sa of Brazil, didn't even bother to finish his own name off.

"It's not enough just to stay at the baseline and hit the ball over the net. You need improvisation, adaption. These things are lacking from tennis right now."

He admits that all generations of tennis player turn into Victor Meldrew in the end. "John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors, probably said the same about us when we came along. But at least we had different style of play. If you look at myself, Mats Wilander, Leconte. There was a great variety of play. Nowadays everybody plays the same."

He does not think much of the women's game either. "I think women's tennis is really boring. It's always the same. The Williams sisters are so athletic and hit the ball as hard as they can. Tell me, which other girls can live with them. Lindsay Davenport is so often injured, Monica Seles is not at her peak. Anna Kournikova, she's not a tennis player but at least she draws attention, which is overall important. But it's still very one-sided."

For Stich a solution to the dull uniformity of the men's game would be a revitalised Davis Cup, which ought to be marketed on a global basis as the World Cup of tennis. However, his brief dice with this formerly great event, as captain of the German national team was an unmitigated horror.

He does not prevaricate in his condemnation of the rapacious selfishness of the current crop of German star players.

"They don't want to play Davis Cup. They think it's too much time to be wasted. Too much effort to be put in.

They don't get paid for it. So they don't want to do it. And yes, they had to play the first round in Croatia immediately after the Australian Open. But if you win, you achieve an awful lot."

They did not win, however. Germany lost 4-1 to Croatia. Stich's tenure as captain lasted nine months. "It started off with a conversation about how much money the players would take to show up. Then there was a big dispute in the press between our best player, Tommy Haas, and the German Federation.

Then Tommy gave me his word he would play Davis Cup two weeks before the event. A week beforehand, he called me and said he didn't want to play after all."

Ahem. Could it be - and one hesitates to mention this to a member of the high-earning glamour troupe that disports itself round the globe in the name of white shorts - could it be that tennis players are just a little bit, um, spoiled?

"Well," he said. "As an individual sportsman you have to be a little self-centred and egotistical. But I do think that this generation - not all of them, but some of them - are spoiled. Maybe John thought that about me."

He glanced across at the spaghetti-spooning McEnroe. There was no response. He had been told not to interrupt. He was not interrupting.

"I do think that some of the guys are playing tennis for economic reasons," Stich continued. "Not for the love of the game. I think money is the wrong reason to play the game."

Mind you, it helps. "I'd like to go to the shops here in London, but it's so expensive." This is not what you want to hear as a British citizen on the brink of Christmas shopping from a man who earned $12 million in tennis prize money. "I tell you what," he said, warming to the theme, "I asked my hotel for a pitcher of apple juice and they charged me £20. I gave it back. I am not paying 65 German marks for a pitcher of apple juice!"

He really is not very good at the fame thing at all. Presumably, Becker would bath in apple juice at £20 a pitcher and think nothing of it. Stich was the reluctant hero. He wanted to study medicine originally, but when he became German junior champion he was persuaded to try his luck as a professional.

He soared from 600 in the world to 120 in six months, a fitting reward for a powerful grasscourt game and a lively mind. He won Wimbledon at his third attempt.

"It was out of the blue. I had reached the semi-finals of the French Open that year. But still no one had heard of me in England. I was 130-1 to win the title. So I think somebody must have made money on me."

He beat, of all antagonists, Becker in the final, a straight-sets demolition 6-4, 7-6, 6-4 that finished with the two players embracing one another on the Centre Court. They would never be that intimate again.

Stich tried hard not to change as a consequence of the victory. "I like to think I stayed completely normal but you cannot." He moved to Austria to escape the German media intrusion.

He may not have helped his case by marrying a German actress. The tabloids used to write that Jessica Stich would goad her husband to play well by writing messages of love on the dressing-room mirror in lipstick. "She never did," said Stich in amused resignation.

He and his wife have now separated, but live in amicable collusion for the sake of their three-year-old adopted daughter from India. "We get along because we want to give a child the chance to have a better life than she would have had otherwise."

Clearly, he has lived a life that admitted more experiences than mere forehands. He has worked closely with an Aids charity and is now in business in Hamburg, co-owning a clinic for the treatment of chronic back injuries.

His own state is not entirely healthy. The right shoulder injury that ended his career is by no means completely cured. Should he even be playing, albeit at this Sanatogen level? "Well, I do," he said shortly. "So that is not a valid question."

There was a story afloat earlier this year that following his resignation as German Davis Cup captain he would like to take on the British albatross.

Rubbish. "I said I would if they asked me. But I laughed. I said it as a joke. I wouldn't be interested in working in England. You have good coaches over here. The trouble is your juniors. They're too happy, too soon."

And, anyway, our apple juice is extortionate.
 

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oh german tennis association have constantly some rows and thommy haas has always complained about it but also went too far on few occasions.
Stich may not had been in the same league as Boris but i do remember some nude photos of him establishing him as a really really big boy
 
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