It turned out Leitgeb knew about as much about tennis as Muster knew about figure skating. Eschewing technique, Leitgeb stressed training; the marathon conditioning drills he designed for Muster lasted up to eight hours. "Thomas is very laid-back and lazy," Leitgeb says without a hint of irony. "The difficulty is convincing him to work. Once you do, he'll give 105 percent."
Leitgeb's psychologist father was enlisted to hone Muster's concentration. "I took many tests to make me mentally tough," Muster says. "They later helped me conquer injuries." Leitgeb was the mind behind Muster's us-against-them ethos. "In Austria, nobody wants you to make it," he says. "So Thomas and I became outlaws against Austria and the rest of the world."
Muster has built his game on ruthless efficiency and powerhouse ground strokes. But his psychological strength is what makes him a winner. His discipline is unyielding, his will unflagging, his confidence almost pulverizing. "The guy's so sure of himself, he could win on any surface," says Goran Ivanisevic, the world's No. 6 player. "Not just clay, but carpet, outdoors, indoors. He could win on water."
Despite Ivanisevic's contention, Muster seems allergic to grass. He has played Wimbledon four times and never reached the second round, although earlier this year he led Austria to a first-round Davis Cup win over South Africa on grass in Johannesburg.
On clay, Muster's persistence from the backcourt can rattle even the canniest veteran. In his 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 rout of Michael Chang in the 1995 French Open final, he broke Chang's seemingly unbreakable will with a succession of stunning saves and relentlessly accurate returns. "Most guys you can see getting tired," says Ivanisevic. "But with Thomas, you never know. Four hours into a match he'll still be bouncing on his feet, bouncing on his feet. That kills you a little bit."
Muster's career nearly ended on the night of March 31, 1989. Muster was 21 years old and had just cracked the Top 10. He had reached the semis of that year's Australian Open, and in the preceding year he had been in six finals and had won four of them. On the night in question, Muster came from two sets down to beat Yannick Noah and reach the finals of the Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne. To celebrate, he had his courtesy car stop at a restaurant in Miami for a midnight snack. Leitgeb was with him. As Muster gathered gear from the trunk, the car was struck head-on by a car being driven by a drunk driver. As the courtesy car hurled backward, its rear bumper struck Muster and severed the medial collateral and anterior cruciate ligaments in his left knee. When Leitgeb asked if Muster was all right, he replied, in a fit of youthful disbelief: "Just tell the trainer to strap it up and I'll play the final on one leg." Then Muster tried to walk. "I was shocked," he says. "My leg was dead weight."
A Miami physician advised against immediate surgery, so Leitgeb and Muster flew to Vienna to find a specialist. "I wanted an Austrian surgeon, so there'd be more pressure to do the job right," Leitgeb says. "I'd been told Thomas might not walk, much less play again."
The Battle of Wounded Knee was longer and more hard fought than any of Muster's matches. His leg was in a cast for two months. "There was only one way for Thomas to avoid depression," Leitgeb says. "That was to pretend he was actually in training." Several times a day orderlies would take off his removable cast and flex Muster's stiff knee by pushing down on it. "The pain was excruciating," Muster says. "I can remember nothing worse." Between knee bends came electrotherapy, weightlifting, crutch races. Four weeks after surgery, Muster was swatting balls again from a swivel bench that he and Leitgeb designed, allowing him to sit at midcourt in his cast. "Thomas loved that machine," says Leitgeb. "He was hitting hard from the very first ball."
When the cast came off for good, Muster hopped on a bicycle. Leitgeb rode alongside, with his hand on Muster's stiff, sore left knee, helping Muster push down on the pedal. "Thomas fell off the bike many times, screaming," Leitgeb says. "It was just terrible." If Muster said he wanted to quit, Leitgeb snapped, "Quitting is not an option."
Nor was hiding out. A month after the operation, Muster hobbled to the Italian Open on crutches and told the crowd, "I want to come back next year without a cast and win this tournament." A year later he returned to Rome as a player and left as a champion.