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A SWISS, AN AUSTRIAN, AND THE MID-LIFE COMEBACK



In a matter of weeks, all things going to plan, Roger Federer, a former world number 1, now into his forties, and 24 years after he turned pro, will make a comeback to professional tennis.


Since the 2019 Tour Finals, he has only played 18 matches, and zero matches in over 12 months. To put that into context, he played 18 matches in six weeks throughout the French/Wimbledon period in that year.

How he performs this time around is anyone’s guess. How he performs is also irrelevant. Federer has nothing to prove to anyone. Nothing to prove to the sport of tennis. But evidently, he has something to prove to himself.


The competitive instinct in some people just never quite disappears. It’s fair to say it’s uncommon for a ’40 something’ year old, ex-number 1 to find the motivation to make a return.


Yet there is a precedent.


The greatest Austrian player of all time, Thomas Muster is no stranger to comebacks. His initial comeback took place in the prime of his career after a severe car accident, but enough has been written about that over the years. I’m more fascinated in his second, and most unexpected comeback.


In 2010, at the ripe old age of 42, Muster announced he was returning to professional tennis, 11 years after playing his final match at Roland Garros. To say the tennis world was surprised, would be an understatement.


Let’s backtrack a little. For those who may not have an idea of what Muster achieved in his career, here are a few stats to remind you just how good he was.


- First and only Austrian to reach number 1 in the world

- French Open winner

- 8 Masters titles

- 26 ATP 250 titles (a record)

- 35 match winning streak in 1995 (3rd best streak of all time)

- 40 match winning streak on clay in 1995 (4th best)

- 3rd most clay court titles of all time (40)


While not in Federer’s league, he achieved a great deal, and more than enough to earn his retirement. Yet Muster has always been a fighter. He’s the epitome of the ‘clay court grinder’ cliché. He could out-grunt any male or female on tour.


Pete Sampras once said, ‘You just have to listen to him out there…he sounds like a bulldog who’s chewing on your leg, and will not stop chewing no matter what.’


I have a vivid memory of watching Muster grind out (there really is no other way to describe it) a five setter on Rod Laver Arena against South African, Christo Van Rensburg, in what can only be described as oppressive conditions. Court temperature would’ve been well over 50C, and this match has stuck with me for decades. The grunting, the fighting, the spirit. It was with this visual image in mind, that my own personal interest in the Thomas Muster comeback peaked.


And so it came to pass, that at 42 years old, the former world number 1 received a wildcard into his first tournament in over a decade. While not quite the splendour of Paris, the northern-central German city of Braunschweig, was to be the location of his comeback match. The Braunschweig Challenger tournament is one of the finest on the tour, and never struggles to pull a crowd. But when Thomas Muster is on the entry list, you can be assured of a whole new level of interest.


I was fortunate enough to be attending this tournament, and even luckier to have access inside the locker room. The atmosphere around the grounds was one of genuine excitement. After all, how often does a bona fide champion of the sport, enter a Challenger tournament?


The atmosphere around the locker room was slightly different. There was very much an air of curiosity, but it was tempered with a slight sense of dread. Several players felt very anxious about drawing him first up, just in case they found themselves the first victim of a 42-year-old, who only recently admitted to giving up smoking and drinking.


That honour belonged to the 165th-ranked Irish player, Conor Niland. Having asked Conor recently about how it felt to draw Muster in his comeback match, he openly admitted:


“It was a bit awkward…. A great experience to play a former Grand Slam champ on clay. I didn’t know what to expect! Definitely a little nervous…”


He needn’t have been. A 6-1 6-2 scoreline ensued, yet no one who attended the match walked away disappointed.


Back at the hotel that night, I spotted Muster at the bar, and couldn’t resist having a chat with him. He was there on his own, and no one was around. A far cry from his heyday I’m certain. I remember asking him why.


Why the comeback? Why now? For him, it was all about testing himself competitively again. He honestly didn’t seem concerned about how many wins or losses would come, he just needed to test himself against the new generation.


Muster played two more Challenger tournaments without winning a set, yet was by no means embarrassing himself. In his fourth tournament, he was able to win a set off the 333rd ranked player, and on his fifth attempt, Thomas Muster was back on the ATP singles ranking table, defeating teenager, and world number 570 Borut Puc. Not an enormous win in the scheme of his career, yet no doubt a satisfying achievement.


Following this breakthrough was his first ATP250 event. Given an obvious wildcard into the Vienna tournament, Muster took on countryman, and future doubles partner, Andre Haider-Maurer. While eventually outclassed, he did force a tie-break in the second set, leaving many to think that maybe a few more wins might be around the corner.


The following year, Muster played 17 tournaments, yet managed only a solitary win, finally wrapping up his mid-life return to the tour with two tournaments in Austria, where he coincidentally took on young Austrian up and comer Dominic Thiem, who he would eventually end up coaching some years later.


While only just breaking in to the top 1000, and with a record of 2-24, Muster was quick to say:


”I don’t regret anything. My comeback was not about winning or losing, it was about the feeling of being able to compete at top level again.”


This completely matched up with what he told me after his very first match in Braunschweig, and it’s no doubt an emotion many professional sportspeople have to grapple with in retirement.


So what does one forty-something year old’s comeback have to do with another? In the case of Muster and Federer, probably not a lot. Federer and Muster are completely different players, and with very different preparations. It will be fascinating to see if Federer is more forthcoming in admitting that winning and losing is still important to him.


But if there is one thing we can take away, it is that we shouldn’t expect too much from Roger when he returns. Competing against players half his age is not going to be easy. One point Muster’s comeback did bring into sharp focus, is that champions don’t go on forever. We have no idea how many more matches Federer is going to play. If you get the chance to watch him over the coming months, enjoy the spectacle, and soak in the experience.


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