The world's most diffident tennis player rakes a hand through his thin crown of blond hair and revels in having ascended to the summit of his sport. "Making Number 1 was great," Thomas Muster says, with a withering stare, of the lofty—if, in his case, controversial—ranking that he first attained in February and then briefly regained in March. "But what am I supposed to do? Jump out the window of the 50th floor of a building? Hang myself? Listen, 10 years from now no one is going to raise a flag for me."
In the seven years since his remarkable recovery from an apparently career-ending knee injury, Muster, a broody Austrian, has emerged as the game's Hamlet, or perhaps its Nixon. "It wasn't a smooth transition to Number 1 for Muster," says Jim Courier, who held the top spot for all but 12 weeks in 1992. "It's more like he became Number 1 with an asterisk."
Muster's Roger Maris-like status derives from the fact that of the 12 tournaments he won last year, 11, including the French Open, were on clay—the surface most suitable for his gimpy knee and never-say-die baseline game. Both the American he displaced at the top on Feb. 12 (Andre Agassi), and the American who displaced him on Feb. 19 and whom he displaced for five weeks beginning on March 11 (Pete Sampras) have suggested Muster was undeserving of No. 1 because he skipped Wimbledon and excels only on dirt. "I don't see him as Number 1 in the world on anything but clay," says Sampras, "and I think people know that."
What they may not know is that it was an indoor victory, on a carpet in Essen, Germany, last October that provided the crucial ranking points Muster would need to vault over Agassi and Sampras. At Essen, Muster beat Sampras in the semifinals. Since then, the three have swapped the top spot. Muster has won the four most recent clay court tournaments, including last week's Monte Carlo Open, to run his string of championships on dirt to seven in a row, but Sampras has held on to No. 1 by a handful of computer ranking points. "Some people make me feel I have to excuse myself for being Number 1," Muster said recently, his pale blue eyes darting above a sweatshirt that reads ACTIVE ATTITUDE. "They talk like I got the points in a supermarket. What do they expect me to do, write the computer a letter of apology?"
If the rankings came down to a survival of the fittest, the indefatigable Muster would be the uncontested No. 1. "He doesn't have the natural ability of Pete or Andre," says veteran South African pro Gary Muller, "but they don't have his tenacity and pure fight." Such testimonials aside, Muster has few boosters. No Viennese choirboy, he mocks opponents, spits in their direction and smashes returns into their chests that easily could be tapped away. "Such a hit intimidates the opponent," he once said. "It shows him my strength and that I do not have the slightest consideration for him."
Which is why many pros regard Muster as a real turnip. "He'd do anything to win, including taking you out," says South Africa's Wayne Ferreira. "If Muster isn't the most hated player on the tour, he's a close second."
"Muster is arrogant, unapproachable and standoffish," says Muller. "There's no reason to dislike him, but there's absolutely no reason to like him."
"Muster has no respect for limited players, which is odd since he's limited himself," says Stephen Noteboom of Holland, a doubles specialist whose lack of a ranking in singles puts him in that category, too.
Muster greets these digs with an insouciant shrug. "I'm not Mr. Nice Guy," he says, grinning like an altar boy who's been cherrying his lips with Communion wine. "I'm a tough cookie."
It takes a lot to get Muster to climb out of his punk armor. "I don't admire any other player," he says, "but I have a lot of respect for a few." Muster chips in an appreciative comment about Sampras ("He doesn't think of winning tournaments, he thinks of winning Slams to be the best player ever") but is backhanded in his remarks about Agassi ("He's not the player Pete is, but he's better to advertise with") and Boris Becker ("At his age, motivating himself to play must take a lot of effort"). By the way, Becker, like Muster, is 28.