Muster, Cuba and the Old Davis Cup

At first we thought it was a watch. You know how if you move your wrist a bit to align with the sun you can make the reflection off your watch shine onto someone’s face? That’s what we figured a guy in the stands was doing to Thomas Muster. Maybe that was it, or maybe it was a mirror, as Muster claimed. Or both.

It was Davis Cup, Brazil vs. Austria, Sept. 21, 1996, at the Hotel Transamerica in Sao Paulo. Turned out to be one of the craziest weekends in Davis Cup history. Just this morning, I was getting nostalgic about a couple of my own Davis Cup spectator experiences. Was watching Marin Cilic close out the last final of its kind. Or at least that’s what people are calling it. I wouldn’t be surprised if tennis ends up going back to a slimmed-down version of this traditional format in five or 10 years. The new plan seems to have trouble written all over it.

At the time of that 1996 tie, my wife and I were living in Sao Paulo, and she was about 35 weeks pregnant with our first child. Just don’t go into early labor before the reverse singles, I thought. The tie was played on outdoor hard courts. Brazil normally would choose clay against any difficult opponent. But Muster, then No. 3 in the world, was a monster on the dirt and forced the Brazilians to leave their comfort zone for a faster surface. Ironically, one of them, Gustavo Kuerten, won the first of his three French Opens less than nine months later. And unfortunately, he never got to play Muster in singles that Davis Cup weekend. (By the way, the Davis Cup website says the tie was played indoors. That’s incorrect. In fact, Muster’s complaint was about sunlight being reflected into his eyes.)

Muster crushed Fernando Meligeni in the first rubber to give Austria the lead. In the second match, Kuerten was on the precipice against Markus Hipfl, down two sets to love before winning the next two sets in tiebreaks and the fifth 6-1. He brought the crowd along for the ride, waving his arms in a circular motion after what seemed like every point he won. That set up the Saturday doubles. Muster and doubles exclusivist Udo Plamberger against Kuerten and Jaime Oncins. (Oncins is something of a legend in our household. Once when watching him on TV my wife noticed that he was wearing his shirt buttoned up unusually high on his neck. Maybe it was cold out, or he was covering up a rash. Who knows? My wife called him “el mejor de la clase” in Spanish, literally meaning best in the class, but she meant it facetiously, like goody two shoes. Now, more than 20 years later, whenever we see someone unnecessarily wearing a shirt buttoned to the top, we chuckle and say “Jaime Oncins.”)

The doubles went into a fifth set. Muster had been complaining for a while about crowd distractions, but it built to a boil early in the final set. He told the chair umpire that someone was shining a light in his eyes. We were seated on the opposite end from where Muster said the light was coming. I recall thinking that something was going on, but I couldn’t be sure how frequent it was. Muster ended up walking off the court 2-0 down in the fifth, forfeiting the doubles match. He said he had received shouted death threats. The Austrians apparently wanted to play Sunday, but without spectators. That request was denied, so Austria refused to play and Brazil was declared the winner. Austria later appealed unsuccessfully. Within days of the tie I wrote a letter to Brian Tobin, then president of the ITF, describing what I did and didn’t see, only because I figured I was one of very few impartial observers among those present. In sum, my impression was that someone probably was messing with Muster’s ability to see, but I wasn’t close enough to hear any death threats. Doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I remember being pleasantly surprised when Tobin wrote back thanking me for my letter.

My other favorite Davis Cup experience was in 1994, when I was living in Argentina but on a weekend visit to Montevideo to watch an Uruguay-Cuba tie. Especially back then, Cuba didn’t let many of its citizens travel the world freely. So a Cuba away tie could be a lonely experience for its players. During the tie at the Carrasco Lawn Tennis Club, the Uruguayan fans were predictably loud. The Cubans had about a dozen supporters, whom I presume were mainly from the Cuban Embassy in Montevideo. They made an impressive amount of noise for a group so small. One of them, a middle-aged woman, continually shrieked the names of the Cuban players. PEEEEEE-NOOOOOOO for Juan-Antonio Pino-Perez. And TAB-AAAAA-RESSS for Mario Tabares.

The Cubans were way outmatched, winning only one set in the five rubbers. If anyone ever questions my dedication as a tennis fan, I point out that I paid to attend two dead rubbers of a Cuba-Uruguay tie. Back then the Uruguayans were very solid. Diego Perez and Marcelo Filippini were both top 30 players during their careers. Perez by then was past his prime, but Filippini made the French Open quarters five years later.

In an “only in Miami” story, I ended up meeting Tabares — albeit briefly — years later at the Key Biscayne/Miami Masters. He had gotten out of Cuba and was teaching tennis in Miami. A friend of mine who hit with him occasionally introduced us. Tabares was still playing well. Was ITF world men’s singles champion in the 40-and-over division in 2010.

The new Davis Cup format may not totally end the kind of fun fan experiences I had, but it sure looks like they will be less frequent. The main reason for changing Davis Cup was to get marquee players to participate more often. Now several of the top men say they won’t participate. So that’s not promising. And it’s fair to question whether all the money ($3 billion) the organizers used to persuade the national tennis federations to approve the change will materialize. Mark me down as very skeptical. At least I have some nice memories.

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