May 22nd, 1995: The Day Thomas Muster Conquered Rome
- 22 May 2020
What happened on that day and why does it resonate today?
On this day, the 22nd of May 1995, Thomas Muster, ranked no.10, defeated Sergi Bruguera, world no.7, in the final of the Italian Open. This final, which was unusually held on Monday due to rain delays, featured the two most feared clay court players at the time, the Spaniard being double defending champion at Roland-Garros, while the Austrian was on a winning streak that would take him all the way to the French Open crown.
Thomas Muster was born in 1967. Left-handed, he developed a typical clay court game, with a lot of spin on both sides and fantastic fitness. His tactics relied on long, brutal rallies from the baseline, which earned him the nickname “Musterminator.” He won his first ATP title in 1986 in Hilversum on red dirt, defeating Jakob Hlasek in the final (6-1 6-3 6-3). Although all his titles were claimed on clay until 1990, Muster experienced his Grand Slam breakthrough on hard court at the 1989 Australian Open, where he reached the semi-final (lost to Ivan Lendl, 6-2 6-4 5-7 7-5).
That year, just after he beat Yannick Noah in the Miami semi-final, the Austrian was hit by a car and suffered serious knee damage. After surgery, he left an indelible image for tennis historians to savor when he was filmed hitting forehands while sitting on a bench with his leg wrapped in a cast. It became the very image of resilience. Muster’s unquenchable desire to regain his form served him well and he was back on the tour in 1990.
Despite his first hard-court title on hard court in Adelaïde, he soon realized that playing on clay was much better for his knee and he specialized even more, claiming 21 more titles on his favorite surface over the rest of his career. Amongst these titles, the most important were the Italian Open in 1990, and the Monte-Carlo Open in 1992 and 1995. On top of that, he reached the semi-final in Roland-Garros in 1990, losing to future champion Andres Gomez.
Sergi Bruguera, born in 1971, made himself known to the general public at the French Open in 1990, when he defeated world no.1 Stefan Edberg in the first round (6-4 6-2 6-1). A true clay court specialist, he had claimed fourteen titles throughout his career, only one of these on hard court, in Bordeaux, in 1993. He was the double defending champion at Roland-Garros, which he won in 1993 and 1994 (defeating Jim Courier, then Alberto Berasategui), and he had also triumphed twice in Monte-Carlo in 1991 and 1993.
Bruguera relied mostly on heavy topspin off both wings, with western grips and a very consistent backhand which he almost never missed. His game was so defensive and suited for clay that he had skipped the grass season three times in six years of time. He was definitely one of the top clay-court specialists in the world at the time.
The Italian Open had been held in Rome at the massive sporting complex known as the Foro Italico, which was originally designed to support an Italian bid to host the 1940 Olympics. One of the Masters 1000 events, it is still one of the most prestigious clay-court tournaments in the world. Almost all of the best players in history have set foot on the courts of the famous Stadio del Tennis di Roma venue.
Muster had lifted the trophy in Rome in 1990, beating Andrei Chesnokov in the final (6-1 6-3 6-1), while Bruguera’s best performance at the Foro Italico was a semi-final loss to Alberto Mancini (6-3 6-1) in 1991.
The 1995 Italian Open final was a meeting between the two most iconic clay court players of the time. Bruguera was two-time Roland-Garros champion, while Muster was riding a 27-match winning streak on red dirt. The southpaw had claimed four titles already, in Mexico, Estoril, Monte-Carlo and Barcelona. The two players had reputations for playing a patient and defensive brand of tennis, and the crowd as well as the journalists expected a physical baseline encounter.
They were not disappointed. From the very start, Muster and Bruguera engaged in long, grinding rallies. Both players were playing with a great deal of margin, trying to push their opponent back behind the baseline to create angles for short cross-court shots. With both the Austrian and the Spaniard standing far behind their baseline, drophots were used with regularity. In the first set, Bruguera prevailed 6-3. The second set went into a tie-break which could have given him a two-set lead. Unfortunately for him, Muster claimed it and evened the score at one set all.
Thomas was “Musterminator” again.
Playing deeper than his opponent, he was now brutally dictating points, slowly chiseling away at the Spaniard, whose level dropped in the next sets. Bruguera resolved himself to be more aggressive, in order to reduce Muster’s physical hold, but the Austrian responded with precise passing shots. Eventually, the exhausted Spaniard could not contain his opponent anymore, and Muster secured the victory 3-6 7-6 6-2 6-3. He had now won 28 consecutive matches on clay court and was going to arrive undefeated on his favorite surface at Roland-Garros.
What happened next
The two players would be very close to facing each other three weeks later in the Roland-Garros final but Bruguera would fall in the semi-final against 1989 champion Michael Chang (6-4 7-6 7-6). Muster arrived in Paris as the main favorite for the title, and he didn’t disappoint. He would brush aside the pressure and go on to win his first and only Grand Slam tournament, defeating Michael Chang in the final (7-5 6-2 6-4).
Muster would end 1995 at no. 3 in the world, claiming a total of twelve titles, including one in Essen where he managed to defeat Pete Sampras on indoor carpet. On the 12th of February 1996, Muster would surpass Andre Agassi and climb to world no.1, a spot he would only hold for six weeks in total.
1996 proved to be another banner year for Muster. He would go on a second incredible winning streak, defending five titles in Mexico, Estoril, Monte-Carlo, Barcelona and Rome, before he was shockingly defeated by Michael Stich in the fourth round of Roland-Garros (4-6 6-4 6-1 7-6). After a last important tournament claimed in March 1997 in Miami, where he beat Bruguera in the final (7-6 6-3 6-1), and a last quarter final at the French Open in 1998 (lost to Felix Mantilla, 6-4 6-2 4-6 6-3), Thomas Muster would slowly decline and retire in 1999.
Bruguera would never win a tournament again. After a severe ankle injury ruined his 1996 season, he would return as a dangerous player in 1997, reaching a third final in Roland-Garros, this time to be edged by Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten in straight sets (6-3 6-4 6-2). His 1998 season would be catastrophic, and he would struggle with injuries until he eventually retired at the end of 2001.
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