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MICHAEL STICH: ABUNDANT GRATITUDE

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Michael Stich is very fortunate to be in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. That isn’t a subtle or implied criticism of Germany’s second-best male tennis player from the 1990s. Stich is aware of his place in the sport’s landscape. He elaborated on his feelings just before being inducted into the Hall on Saturday afternoon in Newport, Rhode Island. Saqib Ali of Tennis With An Accent was there to gather Stich’s reactions.

“When you feel the tradition and history of this place and our game,” Stich told Saqib, “you realize you’re part of something very special with a lot of the greats of our sport who have achieved much more than I did. You have certain moments which pop up straightaway when you enter here.”

Stich, remembered for winning Wimbledon in 1991 (the main reason he made the Hall of Fame), knows he stands on the shoulders of players who won more majors and left a deeper imprint on tennis, but his interview with Saqib unearthed several accomplishments younger fans might not be aware of.

Stich looked up to a lot of players from the late 1970s and early 1980s. He specifically named John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, and Vitas Gerulaitis. The mention of McEnroe was more than a random reference, because in relationship to his career, “winning Wimbledon doubles with John was icing on the cake,” according to Stich. That victory happened in 1992, when Stich and McEnroe defeated Jim Grabb and Richey Reneberg in the men’s doubles final on a rare People’s Monday. A match suspended on the final Sunday was completed in front of a roaring, younger crowd which always defines nontraditional days of play at the All England Club. (Recall the “People’s Monday” men’s final between Goran Ivanisevic and Patrick Rafter in 2001.) Stich and McEnroe won their final, 19-17 in the fifth set.

One year before winning Wimbledon doubles, Stich won his only Wimbledon (and major) singles crown in 1991. Here’s what he had to say about that experience:

“I always was a player who thought that if you go to a tournament, you want to win. I played well that year, so I was one of the contenders.”

Stich noted that he was fortunate to beat Alexander Volkov in the round of 16 before taking care of Jim Courier, Stefan Edberg, and Boris Becker in the final three rounds.

“I always had the belief going into the tournament that I can win — that is what you need.”

Jim Courier was mentioned above. He presented Stich with his Hall of Fame jacket in the induction ceremony on Saturday. Stich’s admiration for Courier was evident in this extended set of reflections:

“I think Jim was the first player in our generation who played a completely different style — I played a very classical, fluid style; he played the very American, modern style of tennis — those opposites were attracting crowds, with a baseliner against a serve and volleyer. I always liked him very much because he was someone who looked beyond the tennis world — you could relate to and talk to him, not only about tennis. That’s why I respect him and appreciate that he was here (to present him with the Hall of Fame jacket at the ceremony).”

If doubles gave Stich one unexpected gift at Wimbledon in 1992, alongside McEnroe, it gave Stich a second gift that same year at the Olympics. Stich and Boris Becker — on opposite sides of the net in their 1991 Wimbledon singles final — were both knocked out of the 1992 Olympic singles tournament relatively early, enabling them to pursue doubles without significant complications. Stich and Becker took Olympic gold in Barcelona, defeating Wayne Ferreira and Piet Norval of South Africa in the gold medal match.

“We did it as professionals and we had one goal, to win a medal,” Stich said, specifying that gold wasn’t as clear a priority as simply getting to the medal podium. Relating to Becker, he said, “We appreciate the fact after our careers that we did this together and achieved this together. It makes it very special.”  

The athlete’s dream is to be able to close a career the right way. Bathed in nostalgia but also playing well, Stich came very close to reaching another Wimbledon singles final in 1997, but in a tense and emotional semifinal, Cedric Pioline turned him away in five sets in gathering darkness.

Stich remembers the match and the context in which it unfolded:

“I planned to finish at the end of the year,” he said, “but when I played that semifinal at Wimbledon it had a lot of comparisons to 1991: rain, the Middle Sunday was played, a lot of things that happened. When I lost that match and it was on Centre Court I said to myself, ‘It’s not going to get better than this.’ Semifinals at Wimbledon, losing in a good match. My whole career happened in that match — good and bad, everything was involved. That’s a good finish. You don’t have to start losing against guys you don’t want to lose against.”

Stich’s conversation with Saqib elicited this larger common thread: So much of what Michael Stich achieved in tennis wasn’t expected — not in the sense that Stich didn’t have the talent or capacity to achieve richly, but in the sense that few people in the present moment expected he would win big championships at the times they occurred. His 1991 Wimbledon title, the two signature doubles championships in 1992, the run to the semis of Wimbledon in 1997 — all were marvelous demonstrations of skills which carried Stich to other major finals (1996 French Open, 1994 U.S. Open). The fact that Stich reached those finals and forged those glowing moments is not surprising at all. That Stich made those runs when he made them? That is what caught a lot of tennis observers off guard.

Winning gold WITH Boris Becker, not against him? Winning Wimbledon doubles with John McEnroe, just before Johnny Mac retired? No one saw that one coming.

Stich spoke to Saqib in a tone of voice which belonged to a kid who had been allowed inside a candy store… forever. That is the kind of gratitude which properly belongs to a new member of an immortal fraternity at the Tennis Hall of Fame.

Michael Stich is fortunate to be where he is… and he knows it. We should all have the self-awareness to appreciate blessings when they arrive, in tennis or any other field of endeavor.

Image – Tennis with an Accent

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