by Steve Flink
One of the harshest realities tennis players face is this: many of them lose more matches than they win. It is a tough and demanding profession, an arena reserved only for the resilient, a land of unpredictability. To fully understand that point, consider Rainer Schuettler, a 36-year-old German who recently announced his retirement after 17 years on the ATP World Tour. Schuettler is in many ways an excellent example of a pro that worked hard at his game, gave it his all, had his share of successes, and dealt admirably with his failures.
Look at the record. He reached a career high of No. 5 in the world back in April of 2004, captured four career titles, and made it to 12 finals. He was the runner-up to Andre Agassi at the 2003 Australian Open, a semifinalist at Wimbledon in 2008, an Olympic silver medalist in 2004 at Athens alongside Nicolas Kiefer, and a member of the German Davis Cup team from 1999 to 2009. Schuettler was ATP Player Council President in 2003-2004. He was a professional through and through, yet he finished his career with a match record of 327 wins against 337 losses. That is more of a comment on the depth of the men’s game than it is on Schuettler’s less than .500 record.
The week before last, I caught up with Schuettler and had an enjoyable 31 minute interview with the German. I wondered how satisfied he is with a career that many players would envy. He replied, “I think I had a successful career. Like in life, you have some better years and some that are not so good, but I was lucky to have a long career and to have parents and a sister who were always supporting me. My career could have been better and it could have been worse, but in the end I am really happy with what happened.”
Does Schuettler have a sense of what separated him from other players? Was it hard work, strategic acumen, or something else? “You cannot point to one thing,” he responds. “To be successful you have to have the package of talent, good discipline, a strong work ethic, and good strategy on the court. But one thing is very important: I hated to lose, so I was always working harder when I was losing, which made a difference.”
What enabled Schuettler to play for so long at a high level of the sport during a period when the game has become increasingly taxing physically? He says unhesitatingly, “First, I started late. I graduated school and did not start to play professional tennis until I was 19. Before, when I was 16, I didn’t really play so much and I didn’t want to be a professional at that age. Slowly it happened for me. Because I started late, my body was in good shape. Later on, I was travelling for seven or eight years on the tour with a physiotherapist so I really had a good team around me who prevented me from getting injured.”
Responding to that answer, I wondered how Schuettler felt about today’s juniors. Are too many of them working too hard in their teens and then finding themselves exhausted in their mid-twenties? Schuettler says, “It depends. For my career it was good to start late because I was going to school and also playing soccer along with tennis. Tommy Haas, for example, was now able to make a great comeback this year in my opinion because he was gone from the tour for two, three or four years with injuries. Now he has the energy. For me at the end, I was getting tired of tennis because I was playing so much. Every career is different for each individual.”
Clearly, another German named Boris Becker emerged at a very early age to succeed mightily on the biggest stage in tennis, becoming the youngest ever men’s singles champion at Wimbledon when he was 17 in 1985. How much of an influence did Becker have on Schuettler? Says Schuettler, “When Boris won for the first time at Wimbledon, tennis was so big in Germany. Nearly every junior was playing either soccer or tennis. So Boris had a big influence in Germany and also Steffi Graf and Michael Stich. Later there was a tennis boom in Germany. Everybody who played tennis at that time benefitted from them and we were lucky in Germany to have these players to inspire us. A lot of young players were able to go to clubs, get support, and then be able to turn professional.”
The conversation shifted to Schuettler’s career exploits. Did he really believe when he walked on court to take on Agassi in the 2003 Australian Open final that he could win? Schuettler says, “I just remember winning the first two rounds in that tournament and thinking, ‘Wow, I am playing good. Let’s see how far I can go.’ I just kept winning. I was feeling good. Against Agassi, I was playing so well in the rounds before we played that I thought I could have a chance to at least make it close, but he proved me wrong and beat me in three easy sets. On that day I was a little bit sad that it wasn’t closer, but when I woke up the next day I was really happy about my performance in Australia.”
In the semifinals of that event, Schuettler defeated Andy Roddick, who had come off a marathon five set triumph over Younes El Aynaoui in a quarterfinal that ended 21-19 in favor of the American in the final set. But Schuettler enjoyed playing Roddick and had a 3-1 career edge over his renowned rival. Did Schuettler particularly like that matchup? “Yes,” he says. “Andy didn’t like to play me at all. My strength was my return and playing aggressive from the baseline. One of his big weapons was his serve. At the end of his career he was playing a little differently than he did when we played in Australia. He was more focused on his serve earlier in his career. More recently he improved his whole game. But I liked playing him. I played aggressive and returned well and he didn’t like it at all. Over the years we practiced a lot together. We both were hard workers and we had many good practices which I really enjoyed because we always had high intensity. He had a good sense of humor. Roddick is a nice guy.”
In any event, Schuettler’s unexpected run to the semifinals of the 2003 Australian Open was remarkable, but his surge into the penultimate round at Wimbledon in 2008 was even more surprising. But Schuettler knew he could play top level tennis on the grass. “Grass suits me, “he explains, “because of the low bounce. I am not so tall. A lot of the taller players have more difficulties getting down for the low balls but for me it was always easy and I could use my return on the grass to help me. I also used slice a lot on my serve which is very good for grass. In the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 2008, I played Arnaud Clement and it took us two days and more than five hours to finish the match. The funny thing is that now we are both retired from the ATP World Tour, but in early August this year we played in the finals of the Swiss Club matches and he beat me 7-6 in the third after three hours and 50 minutes. We laughed afterwards about always playing these long matches against each other.”
In the semifinals of the 2008 Wimbledon, Schuettler met Rafael Nadal and lost in straight sets to the Spaniard—only two days before Nadal toppled Federer in their epic championship match on the Centre Court. Was it fun to play Nadal in such an important setting? Schuettler laughs. “I don’t know if you can say it was fun because he killed me in the first set. Rafa was always the favorite and it is much better to have a good start against him so he is not running away from you so fast. I lost that first set in about twenty minutes but I was leading in the second set. I served for that set but he came back and won a close set and then he took the match in three sets.”
Above all else, Schuettler recollects that experience with Nadal for personal reasons. “After I won my quarterfinal with Clement,” he muses, “I invited my parents to come to Wimbledon to see my match with Nadal. My father said no and told me all of our neighbors were coming to his house to watch the match. He told me he could not come but I got my sister to convince him to change his mind. For me it was very special to have my parents and my sister there to watch the match live and a good way for me to say thank you to them for their support over my entire career. We spent two more days in London after I lost and had a great time. We still talk about it.”
Nadal, of course, was among many great players that Schuettler confronted on the court across his career. Who was the best he ever played, and why? “To pick one is really tough. Roger Federer, for example, has the most weapons and he can do everything with the ball. He can serve aces, play serve-and-volley and beat you from the baseline. He can play slice and he can move you around the court. Roger is a great player. Rafa is so tough to beat because he is so physically strong. You cannot beat him physically. Patrick Rafter was an unbelievable athlete the way he moved on the court and played serve-and-volley. Djokovic has no weaknesses now. He moves so well and he sees everything on a tennis court. He has a great team around him. Andy Murray is the same. Everybody is getting more professional so it is tough to pick one player. There are so many great athletes and great tennis players.”
Asked about Pete Sampras, Schuettler responds, “I played Pete twice. Once in Cincinnati [in 1999] I was leading in both sets with a break, but during the entire match I never had the feeling I can beat him. Even though I was a break up, he would come to the net, serve well and he would hit that forehand crosscourt that I would not even be close to reaching. He beat me [7-5, 7-6 (2)]. Pete was a great player, and so was Andre Agassi, who was my idol when I was growing up,. I liked to watch him and liked how he played, and also admired the person.”
How does Schuettler explain that he did, in fact, lose more matches than he won? How could a player of his considerable accomplishments have met that fate? He answers, “My father used to say, ‘Oh my God, now that you are over 30 your career will go downhill!’ That is a little bit how it is. At 32 I had a great year in 2008 but afterwards it is tough to compete with the young guys who are so fit. Tennis has changed so much and it is getting much more physical. It is much tougher than when I started. Also, I lost a lot of matches in 2006 and 2007 when I was not playing so good. I had mononucleosis and I didn’t know that I had it, so that took a bit out of me in those seasons. It took me a long time to recover. But I felt I did very well. I lost more matches than I won, but it doesn’t matter to me.”
Schuettler played his 664th and last ATP-level match in January (losing in the second round of qualifying at the Australian Open), and realized thereafter that a groin injury and other fitness issues would make it impossible for him to compete any longer at an acceptable level from his standpoint. But now he is moving on to other business ventures in the sport. Schuettler and Ion Tiriac have joined forces to work together on the reshaped event in Dusseldorf, which will become an ATP 250 tournament. Schuettler is excited about having the opportunity to learn from one of the sport’s most erudite big thinkers.
As Schuettler reflects, “I was already involved in the World Team Cup in Dusseldorf. In 2003 they named me as an ambassador for the tournament and they gave me a chance to work a little behind the scenes. I realized over the last two years that it is not easy for this event anymore. Ion Tiriac is a good friend of mine and I am now a partner with him. I am very happy about that. I am convinced I can learn a lot from him and am looking forward to working with him. Mr. Tiriac is a very charismatic and funny guy with a lot of stories to tell and so much knowledge about tennis.”
Schuettler has other avenues to pursue in his post-playing career, most prominently as part of the global professional tennis coaches association. He is also interested in managing players. No one can be certain precisely what is in store for Rainer Schuettler as he moves on. But this much is certain: he will bring a significant amount of talent, drive and creativity to whatever he does in the ever widening world of tennis.