Tales in Tennis – Second Set

Thomas Muster
King of Clay – Thomas Muster


According to my good friend Josef, expert on all things Austrian, recently retired and keen tennis player in the days when the machinations of life favoured the simple and less cluttered, der Höhepunkt (zenith) of Austrian tennis was some time around the middle 1990s. This coincided with the rise of Thomas Muster (the fabulously entitled “King of Clay”) who in 1989 became the first Austrian to achieve a top-ten ranking.

Muster was a contender throughout his career but in 1995 he won twelve tournaments with eleven of these on clay. Indeed, a quick look a the sporting records tells us that between February and June 1995, Muster won 40 consecutive matches on the surface, which gave him the longest winning streak on clay since Björn Borg won 46 matches between 1977–79. This culminated later that year in Paris when he was crowned champion at the French Open becoming the first and only Austrian until now to win a Grand Slam.

In 1996 he continued his formidability with a win record of 111-5 which, at the time, meant the best two year clay record since the start of the Open era. His prowess on the red sand (Sandplatz is the German word for clay court) meant that in February 1996 he became the world number one for a whole week, although he regained top spot later in the spring for another five. Given that so few people are ever number one in any sporting discipline, this could only mean one thing for Muster; yes, he finally realised his boyhood dream and became Austrian Sportsman of the Year (the equivalent of the famous BBC Sport’s Personality of the Year but with less panache and production values).

Prior to Muster, tennis in Austria (again I defer to Josef) was broadly popular but interestingly it was still seen as an elite-ish sport with a price to match. Similar to how golf is perceived today although this, like a bad foursome with sky-high handicaps holding up play, is changing slowly. But whenever a nation, especially a small one, is enthroned with a sporting great, interest in that particular sport explodes (look at cycling in the UK in the last decade as an example). And so when Muster was king, tennis in Austria boomed and courts were much in demand.

Yet since the late nineties, wider interest in tennis has declined. There are several social-cultural reasons why this might be so: changes in demographics; more frenetic lifestyles; interference from Russia. Of course, without a true champion, with no one to inspire the next generation to put down their tablets (the electronic ones, not the pills) and pick up a racket, interest will inevitably wane and wither. Not to mention competition from other sports which have become more accessible, affordable and essential for social-media boasting.

Golf is often seen as the main villain for this amongst tennis players in Austria, although this will only account for the reduced numbers of adults playing and not necessarily the kids. That said, like in every other technical sport, if the parents are not “participating” then it would be unusual for their children to suddenly do so (this is why I don’t ride a horse, can play hockey, but not ice-hockey and have never had the chance to sword fight dressed in a padded suit and beekeeper’s mask).

However, in the last year or so, interest in tennis has been piqued again with the rise of Dominic Thiem, although to have an impact like Muster, it will require a substantial winning streak or, better, victory in London, Paris, New York or Melbourne. But equally we need facilities and access to them – especially for the yoof. And so with the light fading, we appear destined for an unplanned third set. This will appear after my return to the city as I will be escaping for a bit, in search of peace, fresh air and tetchy alpine livestock.

In this third installment, we will take a closer look at two places to play tennis in Vienna, one more low-key and with a clientele to match (I include myself in this), the other top-notch, often populated by pushy “tennis parents” (I don’t include myself in this) during the frequent junior tournaments. Fortunately, both possess superbly apportioned courts and crucially a bar. But just before we call “time” a final word on an irrepressible teenager who, in the view of one of his closet friends, would never let any injustice pass (without comment).

In that second season as members of the tennis club in Britain (see Tales in Tennis – First Set), my younger brother broke his leg whilst riding a motorbike on a piece of waste ground. By the time it happened, the tennis year had begun and we had already been playing for a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, my mother hadn’t paid our “subs”.

To avoid any absence of clarity, let me just say that in those days money wasn’t exactly falling from the magic-money-tree (my mother invented this term) so when I was collared by the club treasurer, a delightful lady, forbidding and snippy, I told her that my mother would be along soon and would pay (a lie, of course, but evidence of my future potential as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company).

Fiercely protective of my mother, in spite of her tendency to render our lives more ball-busting than a dysfunctional mafia family, I took the chance to remind my interrogator that, in any case, it would only be one membership fee because my brother was about to spend the season scratching his leg with a knitting needle and hobbling about on crutches. Sorry, not possible, no exceptions, I was told, your mother still has to pay. But my brother wouldn’t play tennis again that year, I explained.

Looking back, what was about to unfold was one of those classic cases where I was about to use the part of the brain that Nobel winning psychologist Daniel Khanenman in his global bestseller, “Thinking, Fast And Slow”, would later identify as the part that induces poor decision making (often under pressure).

Maybe it was the hormones. Maybe it was the tight 1980s shorts. Maybe it was insecurity borne from the fact my mother still cut my hair (fear not, she was trained by Vidal Sassoon in London) but “thinking slow” I was not. And so I persevered suggesting that they simply invited another kid off the “famous” waiting list, we could pay the first month, and they could get the difference of the full fee off the newbie. That could work, couldn’t it? The reply: an unbending – no.

And so, with my teenage neurons working overtime, and with the words “code violation” about to enter my vocabulary, I lost my cool. And it was like John McEnroe had set up his commentary box in my head as I fired off a flurry of invective culminating in telling the treasurer (and the club) that they were just a bunch of middle-class fucking Tories! (I blame my recently converted communist mother for this.) And with that, I turned round, shaking slightly, but with my head held high, and walked off the grass courts, never to return. And it is why, with one ineludible exception, and in homage to Groucho Marx, I have never joined any club, sporting or otherwise, since.

I shall return once the hype of Wimbledon has passed and, I hope, with new balls.

Part 3 …

© 2017 RJ Barratt