Berlin: Others are more spectacular, some are more glamorous and several are probably more gifted but few tennis players are as steady as Rainer Schuettler.
The German did not play tennis until he was 10, made only sporadic appearances on the ATP circuit until he was 22 and had won just two minor tournaments when this year’s season started. The 27-year-old Schuettler never stopped improving but he did it at his own pace and it was not until he reached the Australian Open final in January that the tennis world began to take notice.
Consistent performances followed until this month, when back-to-back victories in Tokyo and Lyon sent him straight into next month’s Masters Cup for the top eight players.
“I’ve improved my ranking every year since I’ve been on the tour,” the modest German said after winning a ticket to the season-ender in Houston.
“The top 20 was my goal when the season started and after Australia it was the top 10. Now it’s the top five and then it might be the top three, but one step at a time.”
Making it frequently past the first few rounds but rarely to the finals and hardly ever winning a tournament had been Schuettler’s recipe for slowly move up the rankings until his breakthrough in Melbourne gave him new confidence and made him realise that he could challenge the very best.
Before that he had won only two ATP titles, in Doha in 1999 and two years later in Shanghai. He has four now, which is still not many but even the top names know that he has to be treated seriously.
“An extremely solid, typically German guy,” as his coach Dirk Hordorff once described him, Schuettler was few people’s tip when German tennis was desperately seeking a successor to Boris Becker and Michael Stich.
Tommy Haas and Nicolas Kiefer were the players generally mentioned but while both struggled to live up to expectations, the workaholic Schuettler kept sweating it out and working his way up. With Haas sidelined by a shoulder injury and an erratic Kiefer rarely surviving early rounds, Schuettler was the man who restored the pride of the tennis-mad nation.
His surprise run to the Melbourne final brought a ray of hope to frustrated German fans and won him praise from Becker and Stich alike.
“He is probably the most fit player on the circuit and certainly the most professional,” said Becker.
All-round ability, devastating returns and impeccable fitness are the keys to Schuettler’s achievements but Stich pointed out that his attitude was also just right.
Schuettler, who comes from a small town in central Germany, started out playing soccer and did not seriously consider becoming a professional tennis player until he was a teenager. He had never touched a racket when, aged nine, he sat in front of his television to watch Becker win the first of his three Wimbledon titles in 1985.
While Becker and Steffi Graf still get considerable attention from German celebrity magazines years after the end of their playing careers, Schuettler makes headlines only for his tennis achievements and he likes it that way.
“I just do my own thing,” said the German, who has been surrounded by the same friends for years and does his best to avoid the limelight.