Michael Stich Found Success In Tennis By Improvising And Because He Loved The Game, Too

International Blog – Michael Dickens


Michael Dickens

When Michael Stich entered the esteemed International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, on Saturday, he showed a mature ambition in delivering his induction speech without notes that was both elegant and powerful – and improvisational, too – just as he conducted himself throughout much of his career. Best of all, it came straight from the heart.

“The real reason I played tennis was because I loved the game,” said Stich, 49, who was presented his Hall of Fame jacket by Class of 2005 Hall of Fame member Jim Courier, a contemporary of his and a former World No. 1, whom Stich enjoyed a 7-5 career head-to-head win-loss record against. “It was not because I wanted to be professional, because I didn’t know what it meant to be professional. Some players at Wimbledon play tennis, (but) how do they get there, what do they do when they get there, how do they book a hotel, get into the tournament, all that stuff? I had no clue.”

Stich was inducted into the Class of 2018 with Helena Sukova, 53, of the Czech Republic, who won 14 Grand Slam doubles titles, played in four major singles finals and was a member of four champion Fed Cup teams.

Today, Stich shows just a touch of gray around his temples, yet remains a charmingly handsome fellow with a radiant smile that exudes both warmth and friendliness. It showed throughout his induction speech. He was introduced by his longtime coach Mark Lewis.

Lewis, who guided Stich for six years, said, “I thought Michael could win every match he played, but I guess there was the odd occasion when he knew I was a little worried that he may lose to a lesser-ranked player. I don’t know how he knew, but he did. When he detected that in me, he’d say something like, ‘Don’t worry, coach, it’s not that complicated. Just a big kick serve to the backhand, easy volley, game over.’ That’s just what he would do, and he’d win.”

Stich’s crowning achievement as a professional came when he won the 1991 Wimbledon championship, the most important title in tennis, which was just the second title of his career. En route to winning Wimbledon, he beat No. 1 seed Stefan Edberg and second-seeded Boris Becker, who had won five of the last six Wimbledon crowns between them. Arguably, Stich broke at least one heart after lifting the champion’s trophy on Centre Court.

At the Wimbledon Champion’s Ball, it’s customary for the men’s and women’s singles champions to share a dance together. That meant Stich would be expected to share the spotlight on the dance floor with 1991 women’s singles champion Steffi Graf, a fellow German. “I should have, but I didn’t because I couldn’t (dance),” he said.

Born on October 18, 1968, Stich grew up in the Hamburg suburb of Elmshorn. Although he took up tennis at the young age of six, throughout much of Stich’s childhood, tennis was not his No. 1 love – football was. He played tennis for fun, although not always at a high level or with polite manners. Stich would recall many years later, “I behaved really bad, and so everybody said, ‘Okay, that guy’s never going to win anything.’

“At 15 and 16, I wasn’t ready to turn professional and go all around the world and do tennis as a job.”

Then, a year after Becker won his first Wimbledon championship at age 17 in 1985, Stich gave up football for good, focused on tennis and became Germany’s best junior player. He turned professional in 1988.

“I hated losing more than anything else,” Stich recalled during his induction ceremony. “If you want to be a better player, you learn to improve.” And, maybe, improvise, too. 

“It’s about the quality of time spent on court. I made the best out of my time. That made me understand that I had to put in the time to become a tennis professional and what it meant to be a professional,” said Stich.

After Stich won Wimbledon in 1991 for his only Grand Slam singles title, defeating Edberg in the semifinals and German teammate Becker in the championship match, Germany’s Davis Cup captain Nikki Pilic labeled Stich an intelligent player. He said, “He has great talent, good hands, good eyes, great touch. Though he is big, he is not slow.”

At 6-feet-4, the versatile Stich developed his skills into becoming an all-court player whose forehand and backhand shots were not only compact but equally smooth and efficient. He competed in an exceptional era of men’s professional tennis and faced the likes of Pete Sampras, Goran Ivanisevic, Tim Henman, and Andre Agassi, in addition to Courier, Edberg and Becker during his 10-year career. He was equally at home on hard courts, grass and clay, compiling 385 match wins and six consecutive seasons ranked in the ATP Top 20.

“If you don’t remember how beautiful Michael’s game was,” Courier told Tennis Channel, “it was spectacular and maddeningly effortless. He had one of the most beautiful service motions you’ll ever see. We ascended at the same time, so I have a special bond because we played some of our earliest matches deep in the majors. I lost to him the year he won Wimbledon in the quarterfinals. He’s an immense talent. We had some great battles in Davis Cup and so many special times together.”

Besides winning Wimbledon, Stich reached the finals of the 1994 U.S. Open before losing to Agassi and he was a finalist at Roland Garros in 1996, losing to Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

“Stich might have been overshadowed, but he was never overwhelmed or overrun on a tennis court,” wrote Peter Bodo of ESPN.com, in praise of Stich. “He played the game on his terms, a good lesson for (Alexander) Zverev and those rising stars still looking for a breakthrough.”

In 1993, Stich beat Sampras in the finals of the ATP World Tour Championships in Frankfurt.

Also, it should be remembered, Stich was a remarkably solid team player. He paired with John McEnroe to win the 1992 Wimbledon men’s doubles title and less than a month later, teamed with Becker to win an Olympic gold medal in Barcelona on clay. The next year on clay in Düsseldorf, Stich contributed all three of Germany’s points in the Davis Cup finals against Australia, including the clinching rubber.

In 1993, Stich attained a career-high ranking of No. 2. By the time he retired in 1997 at age 28, plagued by a shoulder injury, he reached 31 ATP World Tour singles finals and won 18 titles.

“I’m honored to be inducted,” said Stich. “It comes with a responsibility as well. You are not just inducted; you also are expected to give something back to tennis.

“That is the great thing about our sport, about tennis, that it’s not all about winning or losing. It’s about the people that make all that possible, the people that are behind the scenes, people that are on the court that make you feel secure and at home. This is over generations.”

Today, Stich is giving back to the sport he loves as the tournament director of the ATP World Tour 500 series event in Hamburg, Germany, a position he’s held since 2009. Hamburg is the city where Stich began his tennis journey.

In 1994, Stich created the Michael Stich Foundation, which is focused on charity programs that are aimed at HIV and AIDS awareness, as well as children in need. It is through Stich’s remarkable efforts that over 50,000 children have been reached in more than 110 schools, which has earned him the Federal Cross of Merit.

Near the conclusion of his remarks, Stich spoke about what becoming a Wimbledon champion meant to him. “I always wanted to win my matches, but Wimbledon made me understand that on Centre Court, 100 years before I went there, everyone had the same understanding that you had to accept the fact that you might lose – and it’s a very important lesson you are taught because it happens more often than you want it to happen. That really influenced my career from then on, and I always tried to be respectful to everyone around me. I tried to treat everyone the same with as much respect as possible. 

“I was not always the best guy on the tennis court or the best behaved. I could argue very much with the chair umpire and not be happy at all with his decisions, but I was always someone who walked up to him after the match and said, ‘I’m sorry.’ Sometimes, I was out of line, but it has to happen. It has to happen because sometimes you’re going to show emotions. 

“I think that’s what made our generation so special as well – and the ones before it – was that we were able to show emotions and show frustrations and show happiness. These are the kinds of things that are missing today, where you feel the players have so much to give and they’re such great athletes and champions. But, I want to see them be angry. I want to see them be happy. I want to be emotionally involved with all of these players.”