Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Golden oldies

Sometimes athletes just won't lie down, especially if you pay them enough to risk embarrassing themselves in public.

In Italy at the weekend, the fate-temptingly named Domingo Hospital, 52, led a field of creaking old golfers home in the Sicilian Seniors Open, which sounds like a day out for retired Mafia dons.

It was his first success in years and a spectacle that did little for the aesthetics of the game, although it enhanced the Spaniard's finances by €37,000 (about £32,800). Hospital won in a play-off after labouring to a 74 on the last leg, perhaps literally.

When Greg Rusedski, 37, beat Pete Sampras, 39, in China at the weekend, for just the second time in careers of contrasting achievement, he was entitled to feel pleased that he not only had more hair than Pete, but a bigger serve. A win is a win – even if in an over-30s ATP Champions Tour event in Chengdu.

There are scores of such harmless distractions in sport. They leave no scars on the participants, and hardcore fans who can see past the receding hairlines and expanding waistlines of their heroes probably even get a nostalgic kick out of it. More fool them.

Other sports present different conundrums.

Roy Jones Jr, 41, several years ago the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world, is in town this week, calling out David Haye for a shot at his world heavyweight title. While he would bargain for a purse upward of £100,000 (or downward, for that matter), the consequences of such folly do not bear contemplating. After Haye gives him the brush-off, Jones will seek a payday with another washed-up pug, the 48-year-old Evander Holyfield, whose dreams of regaining the world title are also delusional and dangerous.

But there is one sporting comeback this week that is a bit different.

Maybe because he remains the only world No 1 never to win a match at Wimbledon (he went out in the first round in four attempts on the blessed grass), it is easy to forget what a terrific player Thomas Muster was on clay.

In the mid-90s, the Austrian left-hander was all but unbeatable on the red dirt of Europe. Only Bjorn Borg before him and Rafael Nadal since have been more dominant. Many good judges would put him alongside the Italian clay-courter of the late 50s and early 60s, Nicola Pietrangeli, who won the French title twice in four finals.

After breaking through at Roland Garros in 1995, it seemed certain Muster would rule Europe for as long as he stayed upright. That year he won on clay 40 times in a row, the best sequence since Borg's 46 between 1977 and 1979; Nadal later won 81 on the spin. For a couple of months in 1996, before Sampras began his irresistible rise, Muster was No1 in the world, the first Austrian to break into the top 10.

Muster's strengths were his fitness and passion. In one memorable Davis Cup marathon, he took more than five hours to see off the German Michael Stich. "Tennis is my life," he once said.

But Muster's career was almost over before it started. A couple of hours after beating Yannick Noah in the semi-final of a tournament in Key Biscayne, Miami, on April Fool's Day, 1989, Muster was unloading something from the boot of a parked car. An out-of-control driver rammed the car at the front, hospitalising Muster, a photographer and a tournament volunteer. The player's knees were wrecked.

Muster wouldn't quit, though. He had a special chair made to allow him to continue hitting practice, put his knees back into serviceable shape and, in 1990, was voted Comeback Player of the Year.

For five or six years Muster played the best tennis of his life, culminating in his one Grand Slam triumph and that No1 ranking. Then his reconstructed knees betrayed him. He traipsed from one defeat to the next and after going out in the first round at Roland Garros in 1999, he walked away from big-time tennis with more than US$12m and a mixture of good and bad memories.

That should have been the end of the Muster story. But the passion would not die. In Vienna later today, Muster, aged 43, launches his second comeback, when he plays a lucky loser Andreas Haider-Maurer, another Austrian.

He was to have played the No5 seed Ernests Gulbis: but, while he had little chance in that match he now could reach the second round and no doubt will have the crowd with him just one more time.

Courtesy: The Guardian

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