Austria isn’t, strictly speaking, a big country in tennis. In the shadow of Germany and the Czechoslovakian and Yugoslavian giants, this land of skiing has nevertheless a real tradition, sometimes fragile, in tennis. Let’s look back on a centenarian family tree which leads us to the young Dominic Thiem, the latest to enter the Top 10.
Arthur Zborzil – Fritz-Felix Pipes, the pioneers
Winners of the silver medal, in the doubles, at the 1912 Olympic games. It doesn’t seem to be much, but by defeating the French Albert Canet and Edouard Meny de Marangue on the epic score of 7/5 2/6 3/6 10/8 10/8, Arthur Zborzil (who was also a quarter-finalist in the singles) and Fritz-Felix Pipes have had the most shining result in Austrian tennis until Thomas Muster’s advent. No less.
A quartet for the fourth rounds
From the end of the 1920’s until the start of the second world war, a group of Austrian players distinguished themselves in international competitions : Franz-Wilhelm Matejka (three fourth rounds at Roland-Garros), Herman von Artens (three fourth rounds at Roland-Garros, one in Wimbledon), Adam Baworowski (three fourth rounds at Roland-Garros, among which one where he led by two sets to none against Bernard Destremau) et Georg von Metaxa (finalist in Wimbledon, in the doubles, in 1938) enabled Austria to settle on the tennis map. No big titles, but a true density, which will disappear until the golden age of the 90’s.
Hans Redl, from Stalingrad to Wimbledon
Hans Redl or the man behind the reintegration in the international community, after Austria was banished consecutively to the second world war. Armless since the battle of Stalingrad, where he lost his left arm, he took part in ten consecutive Wimbledon tournaments between 1947 and 1956. He notably reached the fourth round in his first year, and the quarter-finals in the doubles in 1953, with his fellow countryman Fred Huber. Redl paved the way for Ladislav Legenstein, who qualified for the fourth round of Roland-Garros in 1953, but mostly won the prestigious Canadian Rogers Cup in 1960. Austrian tennis’s recovery.
Hans Kary and Peter Feigl, entering the modern era
The names are starting to ring a bell for the average tennis aficionados. Hans Kary won a few prestigious matches against Jan Kodes (who won three Grand Slams in the 70’s), Tom Okker (finalist at the US Open), Brian Gottfriend (finalist at Roland-Garros), and even against a very young Ivan Lendl. With Peter Feigl, who’s two years younger than him, they even took part in the first 100% Austrian final in the history of the ATP, in Lagos, in 1979. Feigl won, after being the first Austrian to win an ATP tournament a year before, in Cleveland. Feigl reached the quarter finals of the 1978 Australian Open, defeating the veteran Ken Rosewall 10-8 in the fifth set, before losing at the doors of the semis, in five sets again, against an aging champion, Arthur Ashe.
Thomas Muster, the best
A distinctive face, a scream, a lumberjack’s tennis, a nickname, « Musterminator », and mainly 44 ATP titles, among which Roland-Garros 1995, his masterpiece, and the only Grand Slam title won in the singles by an Austrian. Other great moments of his career include : 12 tournaments won during the season 1995, 3 titles in Monte-Carlo and the same number in Rome, 40 consecutive matches won on Clay, and 40 titles on his 44 won on clay ! You don’t mess with the clay legend. As Muster is also the only world number 1 (during 6 weeks in 1996) to never have won a single match at Wimbledon during his career.
Horst Skoff, in Muster’s shadow
A mini-Muster, one year younger than Thomas, but most of all, his best enemy, the man he loved to hate and against who he surpassed himself, winning 5 of their 11 confrontations. If they played together during the BNP Paribas Davis Cup (Skoff, until 2015, held the record for the longest match played since the introduction of the tie-break, 6h05 during his win over Mats Wilander in 1989), they didn’t speak to each other. And it was best for everyone : Skoff, in the eyes of Muster ? A « stupid idiot ». Muster in the eyes of Skoff ? « A country bumpkin », « a redneck ». Good atmosphere. If he managed to win 4 ATP titles and reached the 18th spot at the ATP rank, it’s more for his scandals that he remained in the history books, as he even managed to anger Stefan Edberg. However, Muster payed him a big hommage when he passed, from a heart attack, at the age of 39, in 2008 : « His stubbornness when it came to defy me was a source of motivation for me. » It was probably even truer for Skoff.
Gilbert Schaller, the clay executioner
Like Muster and Skoff, Gilbert Schaller is mainly a clay player. Winner, in 1995 in Casablanca, of his only ATP title, quarter-finalist in Monte-Carlo (1995) and Hamburg (1996), he was an impressive executioner of Top 10 players on clay : Sergi Brugera was defeated by him at home, in Barcelona, Michael Stich in Monte-Carlo, Evgueni Kafelnikov and Boris Becker in Hamburg, « Kafel » again in Estoril, Goran Ivanisevic in the BNP Paribas Davis Cup, and of course, his most famous victim, Pete Sampras in the first round of Roland-Garros in 1995, in five sets. Not bad for someone whose best ranking was world number 17, and who, paradoxically, never went past the second round in Paris.
Stefan Koubek, the tradition of character…for better or for worse
Gunter Bresnik, the man who prides himself in having trained 27 Top 100 players, is rarely far away when an Austrian is shining at the top-level : between Skoff a few years ago, and Thiem today, Becker, Leconte or Gulbis’ ex coach has worked with Stefan Koubek for a long time. If he was a fairly talented player, who’s won three titles on the circuit, and was briefly ranked amongst the Top 20, his strong personality (3 disqualifications during his career) was only matched by his strange clothing taste. He is known for being one of the players who brought tank tops to tennis - in yellow, or even orange. Highly inconsistent, we’ll remember his best result in a Grand Slam tournament, a quarter final at the Australian Open in 2002, was reached after losing 0/6 1/6 1/4 and 15-40 in the first round against Cyril Saulnier !
Jürgen Melzer, delicacy and flexibility
A touch of elegance in a world of brutes. Jürgen Melzer, was a left arm with a soft touch, a lot of delicacy in a country in which the tennis tradition is mainly written with work, sweat, screams and mainly no tears, which are generally forbidden. Winner of Wimbledon Junior in 1999, he has won three Grand Slam tournaments in the professional world : Wimbledon doubles in 2010, US Open doubles in 2011 and Wimbledon’s mixed doubles in 2011. He also reached the semi-finals at Roland-Garros in 2010, after having defeated Novak Djokovic in five sets in the the quarter-final. Melzer has defeated all the huge players of his time : Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka, Marat Safin, without forgetting, earlier in his career, Andre Agassi. Only Andy Murray managed to escape his tally. To this day, he remains the only player to have been included - simultaneously - in the Top 10 in the singles and in the doubles (8th in the singles, 6th in the doubles).