Frozen In Time: Thomas Muster Disabled By Drunk Driver
Right on the cusp of greatness, the day before his first major final, Austrian player Thomas Muster is injured by a drunk driver.
At 21 years old, Thomas Muster was in the prime of his career, the most promising and exciting player of his generation. Imagine what a blow it was then, both to him and to the sport as a whole, when a drunk driver smashed into the player, crushing the ligaments in his left knee, just hours before he was due to contest the final of a major tournament in Florida, in April 1989.
Muster had just beaten Yannick Noah in a stunning five-set semi-final to book his place against World No.1 Ivan Lendl in the final of the Lipton International. On the way back to his hotel, hungry after such exertion, he had stopped his car to buy some food. Just as he was fetching his wallet from the boot, a huge Limousine smashed into the front of his car, the impact knocking him clean off his feet and sending him six feet through the air. He was lucky not to get crushed under the rear wheels of his car, like his tennis bag and its contents.
“I felt a massive bump on my head,” Muster later wrote in his biography. “Someone must have punched me hard. What a noise.”
It was then that Muster realised a car had crashed into the front end of his car. “The driver’s name was Norman Sobie, a Cuban exile with no driver’s licence, slightly drunk, penniless, living on the breadline.”
At first Muster didn’t realise how badly damaged his ligaments were. “I was dazed and shocked,” he remembered. “The pain in my thighs was intense because he had caught me with the bumper. My left knee was swollen, my tracksuit bottoms torn. I was bleeding heavily. I brushed the dirt from my tracksuit and said to [my coach] Ronnie: ‘Don’t worry. I’ll be back on Sunday to play Lendl in the final. With a bandage, if necessary.”
It turned out Muster needed a lot more than a bandage. The injury put him out of action for the next six months, and an operation was needed to repair the torn ligaments.
But what was even more astounding was the rigorous rehabilitation that the Austrian player subjected himself to. The minute he was out of hospital, his left leg bound up in plaster, he started constructing himself a special wooden bench. For the next few months he would spend hours on court, sat astride this bench, hitting thousands of tennis balls. He was determined not to allow his tennis to deteriorate.
Nor was he bitter about what had happened. “I am not angry,” he said of the accident. “This is a poor guy who did this. They took away his licence two times before. Things like this can happen in seconds. Of course I’ve been thinking about my career, but I have confidence in the doctors. I am still strong and young, and there is a good chance to come back.”
His optimism paid off. Just 22 weeks after the accident this gritty player was back in action, reaching the quarter-finals of his first tournament back. Six years later he had fought his way to the top of the world rankings, one of the most physically committed players the sport of tennis had ever seen. It was as if those 22 weeks as a disabled player eventually made him even stronger.