This article was translated by Moondancer in VamosBrigade.
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GrandChelem - 07/12/07
Thomas Muster : « Yes, I’m afraid for Nadal
Ah, Austria, Vienna at the turn of the century, Freud, 5 lessons in psychoanalysis, Musil, The Man without Qualities, Schnitzler, Traumnovelle and…what’s next? Nothing. Nothing more than a bunch of skiers hop-hop-hop and a tennis player rhaaa-hurkkk-grrrrrr: Thomas Muster. The sort of player you wouldn’t want to meet on a clay court. Badly tempered, badly shaven with the air of a lumberjack who is about to cut a tree in half with one hand, his left one and if this isn’t just the topic we used to start our look back on the year 2008 with the former Roland Garros winner.
GrandChelem : Thomas, you were a lefty during your career. What’s the advantage of being left-handed in tennis?
Muster: First of all, I’m still left-handed these days (laughs). Basically, I think that the advantage is to serve from the left at important points to open up the court. In my time, not everybody had an excellent backhand so that was an advantage. But nowadays, there are no weak backhands. Everybody is good on both sides. According to me, being left-handed no longer is a huge advantage any more.
GrandChelem: But do you say the same thing when looking at the problem Federer has with his backhand when responding to the top spin forehands of Nadal?
Muster: (hesitating): But you could also say that Nadal has the same problem with his backhand when responding to Federer’s crossed forehand. In theory, on that level, you have to have a game that’s solid enough to cover up your weaknesses. Me, I loved turning around my backhand to play my forehand and to cover up my weakness. But it’s true that Nadal, just like Marcelo Rios, has the ability to find very good angles with his forehand and he uses that during the entire exchange and he has the ability to return Federer’s backhand from an extreme angle. And in this case, it’s indeed a real advantage. If Federer’s backhand is a weakness – and it’s something that can be discussed – it’s up to him to compensate for it with his legwork.
GrandChelem: Is there something esthetic about the left-handed forehand? Rios, Nadal and you have a very particular way to construct your forehand?
Muster: Yes, but you’re mentioning players for whom the forehand is the favorite weapon.
GrandChelem: So, I’m exaggerating?
Muster: Yes, a bit (laughs). Look at Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, they have a forehand that’s a bit old school. You could even say that they had a better backhand than a forehand. And on the other hand, I could also mention enough right-handers who have a superb forehand.
GrandChelem: Let’s close the left-handed theme. What was for you the most important moment of the 2007 season.
Muster: Once again, we’ve seen Nadal dominating the clay court season and we’ve seen players putting on the pressure on the world numbers one and two.
Muster: Djokovic. We’ve also seen Nadal come close in Wimbledon. We’ve seen a solid Federer but less dominant than in the previous year but still coming out as the winner in the end. So very close to being beaten by Nadal in Wimbledon, facing 7 break points against Djokovic in the US Open. He wins but the gap is closing.
GrandChelem : Where is that coming from according to you ?
Muster: I don’t know. There are new guys coming. I think that they know better how to play against Federer. Other than that, I can’t really say. I have huge respect for him. He’s a great champion who’s won so many grand slams. I’ve only won one. We’re all looking for his weak side but there’s not much to say. What a player! You have to understand that every year, this guy works to continue to perform at a high level and to win all the records. The expectations are colossal. And we’re not getting any younger, you know. We are 25 years old and then 26 and then 27. Each year, you have to question yourself. You have to find a new motivation. You have to travel. You have to play matches. You have to love playing tennis, but every day, you have to be on top, to be on top, to be on top and again and again. And then, one day, a guy comes along who beats you and then others figure that it’s possible. It gets tougher with each year.
GrandChelem : So, looking at his weak points, if you would be Federer’s coach, what part of his game would you work on ?
(with a smile-less Terminator expression) There’s always something you can improve. He knows that he needs to improve because you fall back if you don’t.
GrandChelem: Yes, but exactly how do you do this when you’re on top?
Muster: Ah but it’s then when it gets hard! You have to keep working at it, you have to keep on motivating yourself if you want to keep everybody at distance. The problem is that you need to do this and at the same time, you have to travel, do interviews and those sort of demands are exhausting. And if you don’t do it, you will get beaten. If I were his coach, I would make sure that he keeps his motivation and his pleasure to play tennis.
GrandChelem: Suppose you were the coach of his opponent. What would be your tactical advice?
Muster: Oh, that depends on the player.
GrandChelem: Well, suppose you had to play against Federer, what would you do?
Muster: Listen, I would play him on several levels. First of all, when you watch the players against him, most have the tendency to overplay, to want to do too much and at one point, they explode. Against Federer, you need to be fast, very coherent in your intentions and keep holding on. You don’t have to play Federer, you have to play tennis. They say: “Oh, I’m going to play against the best tennis player of the world. He’s nearly unbeatable” and so, a lot of players walk on court convinced that they can not win. They get broken once and it’s game over. They surrender the match.
GrandChelem: Did it ever happen to you that you told yourself whilst looking in the eyes of your opponent: “this guy right there is afraid to play against Thomas Muster”?
Muster: Yes, that has happened. On clay, guys who said “if I concede one break and it’s a 5 set match, I’m not going to come back.” So, they started to take too many risks and they made the match easy for me. Instead of playing at 100%, they wanted to play at 120% and on the other side, I only had to play at….50% (laughs)
GrandChelem: Are you surprised by Nadal’s result in Wimbledon?
GrandChelem: How can you explain such a result from somebody who is supposed to be a ‘clay court player’?
Muster: No, but that’s got to stop, that. He’s not a clay court player. This guy has reached the Wimbledon final twice…
GrandChelem: But the court has changed.
Muster: But everything has changed in Wimbledon! The court, the balls. Of course Nadal has won Roland Garros three times, but after two finals in Wimbledon, you can not say that he’s a clay court player. He’s an all-surface player. People are not going to call Federer a hardcourt specialist under the pretext that he hasn’t won Roland Garros. If I would tell that, Federer would respond: “But what’s Thomas Muster talking about.” (laughs)
GrandChelem: Are we witnessing an important time in tennis at this moment?
Muster: Tennis has always known highs and lows. Each generation has the impression of reinventing tennis and the previous generation says that the limit has been reached. I always have the impression of hearing that. Once they’ve made it, they say that this is a powerful tennis era and tennis has reached its limit.
GrandChelem: Does that annoy you?
Muster: No, but tennis evolves on all levels. You can not compare Niki Lauda with…
Muster: Yes, and Gerhard Berger with Hamilton. Technically, talking about the material used, the professional approach, everything changes.
GrandChelem: And these changes are good? Do they make the game more exciting?
Muster: If you understand the game, yes. Of course, the serves are stronger, the shots hurt more, it’s a different game but it’s not a bad game. In the time of the wooden racquets, it was a matter of “right, left, right, left” but that was because you were forced to play like that with a wooden racquet. You did not have enough power to speed up your game.
GrandChelem: Do you still play with wooden racquets?
Muster: yes, it happens
Muster: Not for a long time but if I hit the ball like I do now, I risk breaking the racquet (laughs). Ah yes! Because you’re used to playing with something that’s so light and so flexible, when you go back to something like that, you have the impression of playing with a baseball bat. When I consider that we played with that, I think that these guys didn’t use a grip but they just had their hand directly on the wood.
GrandChelem: Yes, Lew Hoad would use a knife to adjust his grip to be able to hold his racquet better.
Muster: Yes, incredible. When you see that, it looks like a long time ago but it’s only one life time away.
GrandChelem : Who do you like from the current players.
Muster: I like Nadal a lot. I like Nadal. Because when I arrived on tour, being a lefty, I had a bit of an idol in the person of Guillermo Vilas. Then there was Henri who arrived and I admired his game.
GrandChelem: Who, Henri Leconte?
Muster: Yes, Henri, he was much older than me. I played Henri for the first time in Kitsbühel when I was 17 and I really loved that guy. And today, when I look at Nadal’s game, I really like him because I pretty much know everything he’s going to do, I can feel it, I can feel what his next move is going to be, I can practically read his thoughts.
GrandChelem : You’ve met him, did you talk to him ?
Muster: Yes, a bit. When he won his first Roland Garros, I trained a bit with him. He’s a great player and a very friendly boy, but physically, he’s going to pay a high price if he’s going to continue fighting the way he does.
GrandChelem: Do you fear for his future on tour?
Muster: (abrupt) Yes. Yes, because he’s very heavy, very physical and the sort of game he plays is very energetic. Look at what happened to Chang, to Courier, to Kuerten. All these players have lasted 3, 4, 5 years because their game style demanded a lot from their body. When you look at Federer, it’s ace, winning serve, ace and he clearly doesn’t run as much as the others. Goran Ivanisevic, that’s the same thing. We will see how much time Nadal is going to last. Besides, it’s a good general tennis question: how long does a career last?
GrandChelem: Is it possible to do all that while staying human - without help - if you know what I mean?
Muster: I don’t know. I don’t feel like going into this.
GrandChelem: But how long can a career last?
Muster: It’s good question. How much time will pass until somebody else comes along who is more fresh, not necessarily stronger but more fresh, who is able to beat you? Because in 2, 3 years, he could have an injury or a new player can arrive, I don’t know, an 18-year old South-American who is fresh and who beats him. I’m not thinking of somebody who is stronger than Nadal but somebody who is fresher.
GrandChelem: To conclude, we have this image of you whilst shaking the hands of everybody after your final. Were you the happiest man on the planet?
Muster: That was an extraordinary day for me. When I came to play Roland Garror for the first time, I never figured that I would win it one day. In my head, it was impossible. But when you do manage to make that dream come true, the dream of a lifetime and you do it at the age of 28 after waiting so many years, there’s a huge amount of pressure that falls away. It’s like Goran winning Wimbledon. He was so eagerly waiting for that moment. It’s an incredible experience to win a grand slam. If you win ten or one, I don’t think that it changes anything: it’s always the first one you remember.
GrandChelem: Is there some sort of euphoria when you arrive in the dressing rooms? You’re supposed to cry out in pure joy, no?
Muster: No. Not me.
No, of course I had an adrenaline rush but in a very calm way. I wasn’t going wild, running around in the dressing room while drinking champagne, no.
GrandChelem: But for your parents?
Muster: Of course, it’s very moving but it takes such an amount of energy that everybody is just numb. I took a small glass of champagne but I was so tired that I went to bed.
(start of crazy laughter)
The next day, on the other hand, was a more enjoyable day. You think back on your final.
GrandChelem: But you didn’t stay in Paris?
Muster: No, no, we returned to Austria where there was a small reception among friends and that’s all. One glass of champagne and I went to bed at 10 p.m.
(Middle part of crazy laughter)
And that was the end of it…
(peak moment in the crazy laughter and Muster looks more and more like a jolly Terminator)
Ah yes, I went fishing the next morning
GrandChelem: (End of crazy laughter) Like Mecir.
Muster: Yes, yes, I went fishing (smiles). I went fishing at 6 a.m. We brought back the fish and at noon, we fed the 20 people we had invited to have a party with the fish we had caught that morning. (smiles). Anyway, I had warned all the journalists of the Austrian press in advance at the end of my match: “Take your pictures, ask your questions because I don’t want any of you to call me for a week.” That’s what they did and it was perfect.