Watching a pair of teenage German wunderkinds emphatically burst onto the scene in the mid-’80s, Michael Stich could not help but draw inspiration. Boris Becker and Steffi Graf were at the helm and this golden era of German tennis was just getting started.
Stich, too, was about to become swept up in it and with that came expectation. Only 11 months younger than Becker and as his nation’s former top junior it was unavoidable.
So the stage seemed fitting after Graf had won her third women’s final at Wimbledon in 1991 that Stich upstaged his more accomplished compatriot, Becker, a day later for what ended up his sole Grand Slam trophy. It completed a German sweep of the singles trophies that year – the last time it has happened to date.
While it stood as Stich’s most defining career moment, there was another “bucket list” item he ticked off two years later, which held a hugely sentimental piece of his heart. Victory in the ATP World Championships was his statement triumph on home soil, proof his Wimbledon breakthrough was no fluke, and against world No. 1 Pete Sampras in the final, no less.
“Coming back to Frankfurt was a big goal,” Stich told ATPTour.com. “I had my bucket list and winning the Masters was one of the biggest things you can achieve in the sport.
“There was a lot of pressure, it was my best year. I won five titles coming in, but I didn’t do well at the Grand Slams. So the year-end championships was my chance to shine.”
In 1992, it was Becker who shone to land the trophy in Frankfurt but as defending champion he had failed to qualify a year on. Stich, though, gave the home fans plenty of cause for excitement when he saw off Andrei Medvedev, Michael Chang and Jim Courier in the round-robin stage, before he eked out two tie-breaks against Goran Ivanisevic to reach the final against Sampras.
“I didn’t play my best tennis up to the final, but it seemed like I was mentally really focused as I knew what I wanted to achieve,” Stich said. “Playing Goran was always tough, as you never got a lot of chances, although I had a good record against him.
“Michael [Chang] was always a great competitor, Jim [Courier] was reading his book at the change of ends, so that was a strange atmosphere. Against Pete, the top guy, that was the showdown I was looking for and I played a really great match.”
The win elevated Stich to a career-best World No. 2 and he ended up the only player in the 1990s to win the ATP World Championships undefeated. His 7-6(3), 2-6, 7-6(7), 6-2 triumph over Sampras was his third from six showdowns between the pair, a head-to-head ledger which ultimately finished 5-4 in the German’s favour.
It was, however, the last time he would qualify for the event. Despite having reached the second of his three Grand Slam finals in New York only months before, Stich followed in Becker’s footsteps when as defending champion he failed to qualify for the subsequent ATP World Championships in 1994.
Six of Stich’s 18 tour-level titles, plus the Grand Slam Cup, came on home soil and at every German event at the time, on every surface. He clearly relished playing at home.
His debut appearance in the ATP World Championships, however, painted a vastly different picture. As the reigning Wimbledon champion, Stich experienced a baptism of fire playing at home on a big stage in 1991 as he failed to win a set against Sampras, his Wimbledon final victim Becker, or Andre Agassi.
“Obviously for me winning at Wimbledon and winning on all four surfaces, I was so looking forward to playing in this great arena in Frankfurt, but it turned out to be a disaster from my point of view,” Stich said. “It wasn’t a good first Masters that I played. It was an experience that made me understand how to play in my home country and react to the German fans. It was not a good experience sporting wise, but it developed my personality.”
There would be ample opportunity through the late 1980s and 1990s to compete on home soil. But it took those three convincing defeats in Frankfurt on debut to learn how to cope with such expectations of a tennis-mad nation as Germany, so used to a wealth of success.
“I learned to understand that everyone in Germany wanted me to do well, but when [I wasn’t] so emotionally involved and I didn’t play well, they were frustrated on my behalf as they wanted to me to do well,” Stich said. “Once I learned that… I really understood how the German crowd works and I used it to my advantage, but it took the 1991 year-end championships for me to realise.”
For 10 years Germany hosted the ATP World Championships – now the Nitto ATP Finals – as both Becker (twice) and Stich channelled this pressure at home into success in Frankfurt before the event moved to Hanover after six years. While competing in such heady days for German tennis, Stich admitted it was not always an easy relationship with such expectant fans.
“Boris and I had different kinds of fan bases, from different backgrounds,” Stich said of playing in Germany. “I think that I had great fans and I had a lot of appreciation within the fan base and media, but it’s always the same.
“If there is someone who was the first, who had great success before, like Steffi or Boris, or Michael Schumacher in Formula One, even with Sebastian Vettel as a four-time F1 champion, there is always Michael Schumacher. I won all the tournaments in Germany, I felt comfortable playing at home. Maybe I could have had more respect, but I was very lucky to play at that time and be a part of a great German tennis era.”
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