Could we have seen this in 1989?
Michael Chang’s improbable 1989 French Open title is one of the great underdog stories in the history of tennis. The 17-year-old Chang rallied from two sets down to beat the #1 seed, world #1, and three-time French Open champion Ivan Lendl. He followed that up with 4-set wins over Ronald Agenor and Andrei Chesnokov to reach the championship match. Chang rallied to win the final two sets and upset Stefan Edberg in 5. This win was Chang’s lone Grand Slam title despite him being a much better player when he finished as runner-up at Roland Garros in 1995 and at the US and Australian Opens in 1996. Chang’s 1989 triumph along with Andre Agassi’s semifinal run in 1988 ushered in an era of US excellence on the red clay of Paris. This included a 5-year span with at least 1 US male player reaching the championship match.*
What if Muster Doesn’t Get Hit by a Car in Miami?
There was a big story in the early stages of 1989 that did not involve Michael Chang, Andre Agassi, or Jim Courier. Thomas Muster fought Ivan Lendl gamely in a sweltering Australian Open semifinal clash. Muster’s serve was inferior to Lendl’s, but both men were fit and Muster’s play rose as the match progressed in the Australian heat. For his first major semifinal, Muster acquitted himself well.
Muster’s hardcourt form continued to be excellent as he reached the Miami championship round prior to having a car smash into him as a pedestrian. This led to knee surgery and missing the French Open. Muster’s lefty, heavy topspin forehand was making waves, and his competitive drive complemented by excellent fitness had Muster poised for the European clay season in 1989. His injury at a minimum changed the seedings at Roland Garros as Muster was ranked 8th in the world following Miami. Let’s look at some ways a healthy Muster may have changed clay court tennis in 1989 and beyond.
- Muster would have been seeded ahead of Michael Chang at Roland Garros 1989. This would have dropped Chang to the 16th seed. As the 15th seed, Chang faced Lendl in the 4th round. Perhaps, luck of the draw would have kept that round of 16 date with Lendl, but had Chang faced #2 seed Boris Becker in the round of 16, I doubt he would have survived. Becker beat Chang badly at the 1991 French Open.
- Muster may have been a nightmare match-up for Chang had they met in 1989. Muster beat Chang in four sets on red clay in a Davis Cup tie in 1990. This was after his knee was damaged by a car (although it was admittedly a match held in front of a partisan Austrian crowd). Also, Muster beat Chang in straight sets to win the 1995 Roland Garros title. By this time, Muster had adjusted to his knee injury and also taken a more forward approach with his court positioning. Still, in 1989, Chang would have been hard-pressed to outlast Muster. Chang won Roland Garros with great foot speed, solid ground strokes, and a lot of patience, but at 17, Chang’s game seemed to lack the necessary heft needed to claim a major title. (Granted Mats Wilander won the 1988 Roland Garros title without a lot of power, but Wilander had greater experience and variety in 1988 than Chang had in 1989.) Muster had a weapon in his lefty forehand that Chang lacked. Muster had heft. He was not as fast as Chang, but Muster would have matched Chang’s competitive drive and exceeded his durability in 1989.
- Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg would have benefited most from Muster playing in 1989. Muster struggled with attacking players, even on clay. Edberg came up one set short of the 1989 Roland Garros title. A slight difference may have led to him taking the title.
- Ivan Lendl would have been a mountain Muster would have had to climb in 1989. Lendl’s fitness, preparation, and strong serve would have all given him even or better ground with Muster. Clay, young legs, and Muster’s fire would have given him a fighting chance had he faced Lendl, but a potential Muster-Lendl clash would not have played out like the match to Chang in which Lendl fell.
- Muster struggled with Jim Courier at majors prior to their 1997 Australian Open clash. Jim Courier became a more patient and grinding player once Jose Higueras, Brad Stine, and Pat Etcheberry joined his team. The two shared a muscular style of play that combined speed, aerobic fitness, and strength even if Muster was much more agitated between points than Courier. Agassi would develop a more imposing form once he discovered Gil Water in 1990. Chang was a much more stout player at Roland Garros 1995. Still, Muster and Courier were probably the most physically imposing of that quartet in 1989. Perhaps, Muster ascending in 1989 would have pushed Courier to adopt tactical discipline and extreme fitness a bit before the 1990 off-season.
Conclusions: Counterfactuals are always messy. Muster being included in the 1989 French Open would have probably produced a pool of 5 favorites listed in alphabetical order: Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Ivan Lendl, and Thomas Muster. Agassi was a bit mentally suspect in 1989 so my guess is the champion would have come from the other four.
I do not think Michael Chang would have won the title with a healthy Muster in the draw. Chang’s title run rode the edge of a razor. Playing Agenor after his 5-set dual with Lendl was fortunate. A slightly different draw would perhaps have been the undoing of one of the more remarkable major title runs of the Open Tennis era.
A healthier Muster would have likely been in the mix from 1989 forward. He would not have precluded the US success seen over that five-year period, but he would have likely diluted it. After all, Muster beat Agassi at Roland Garros 1994 and Chang for the 1995 title. Muster also swept Agassi and Chang in Davis Cup play in 1990 less than 18-months after his knee was injured. Also, a healthier Muster may have had his game naturally evolve to be stronger on hard courts as well. Muster may have reached a hard court slam final given his quarterfinal finishes in New York and semifinal finishes (1989 and 1997) in Australia.
*Notable US Male Finishes at Roland Garros from 1988 to 1996
- 1988 Andre Agassi Semifinalist
- 1989 Michael Chang Champion
- 1990 Andre Agassi Runner-up, Michael Chang Quarterfinalist^
- 1991 Jim Courier Champion, Andre Agassi Runner-up^, Michael Chang Quarterfinalist
- 1992 Jim Courier Champion, Andre Agassi Semifinalist^, Pete Sampras Quarterfinalist^
- 1993 Jim Courier Runner-up, Pete Sampras Quarterfinalist
- 1994 Jim Courier Semifinalist, Pete Sampras Quarterfinalist^
- 1995 Michael Chang Runner-up, Andre Agassi Quarterfinalist
- 1996 Pete Sampras Semifinalist, Jim courier Quarterfinalist^
^Beaten by another US male player