NEW YORK -- In the cozy, sunken court that is the Grandstand, Dirk Dier looked across the net at second-ranked and third-seeded Thomas Muster and cringed.
"He's a bull," said Dier, No. 171 in the world ranking. "A tough guy. And when you play against him, you have to try to believe you can win and you have to go to the net and not let him rally so long."
Yesterday, Dier was like a babe in a lion's den, and Muster showed no mercy in defeating him, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.
Muster is the most insulted man at the U.S. Open.
A year ago, he was challenging for No. 1 in the world, but no one gave him any credit, because the ranking was achieved by playing primarily on clay courts -- where he was a superb 65-2. It is the surface he prefers since coming back from a 1989 accident in which he was struck by a drunken driver in Miami. His rebuilt left knee cannot take the long-term pounding of the hard-court season.
Last February, Muster finally became the 13th player in the ATP Tour's history to claim the No. 1 ranking and all he got for the effort was more insults.
Now he is here at the Open, ranked No. 2, thanks to another fine clay season (41-3) and a respectable mark (15-10) on other surfaces. He is 11-7 on outdoor hard courts following yesterday's match. But the United States Tennis Association dropped him to the third seed, because it doesn't respect his hard-court play.
Yesterday, of course, none of that mattered to a boisterous contingent of Austrians who designed their entire vacations around coming to New York just to see Muster play in the Open.
"We are here only for Thomas Muster," said Susanne Ernst of Burgenland, Austria. "You know Thomas hurt his knees seven years ago and had to start his career over from the ground -- and he made No. 1. It shows he can play and we admire that very much."
Fred Hasslwanter and five of his friends carried an Austrian flag complete with a greeting from their hometown, Fieberbrunn.
Every time Muster won a game, they all chanted his name.
Muster, who said later he is aware and appreciative of the support, performed in a fashion that was both mesmerizing and intimidating.
As he ripped away from the baseline, his feet danced a merry dance until he reached liftoff, throwing every ounce of himself into the ferocious swing that sent the ball rocketing into the other court.
He has a rock hard body, whichformer player and tennis analyst Tony Trabert says is the fittest on the men's tour. He also has a left arm that seems to be made of steel. He wallops the ball on both serves and ground strokes, as if every shot is going to be his last.
"He wants only to rip the cover off the ball and bury you," said Dier. "I played him once on clay and he served hard, but nothing like this. He was unbelievable.
"It's not right what they say about him here. He's one of the top players in the world and he's earned his ranking. It doesn't matter which court he plays. Clay may be his best surface, but on every surface, he is tough to play."
There are some who would say Muster's intensity is not quite human. Dier did not disagree.
"He's a tough guy, an animal," said Dier, 24. "I think people should remember that."
Clay court specialist Sergi Bruguera, who is trying to get his own game back together after missing nearly 12 months with a foot injury, is Muster's next opponent and needs no reminding.
"He's in the best shape of anyone out there," said Bruguera, who upset Michael Stich yesterday, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. "It will be hard match against Thomas."
Everything involving Muster, it seems, is difficult. His critics say his run here at the Open will come to a crushing halt when he meets stronger, more consistent players who can come to the net for winning volleys or flatten out the ball enough to take Muster out of his comfort zone.
But when he is asked what he worries about seeing from future opponents, he only gets testy.
"Nothing," he said. "As long as they don't undress in front of me. . . . You all think too much, asking me all these questions. If I have to think to do this, I don't play. I sit down and think about it, it will be over."
And as Muster, no doubt, will tell you, he isn't finished on this hard court yet.
Pub Date: 8/30/96