Riding the Tennis Roller Coaster

If there's no business like show business, international tennis must be the runner-up for the honor.

When Gilles Muller, a lanky 21-year-old native of Luxembourg, arrived at the U.S. National Tennis Center here last week, almost nobody recognized him.

Yet less than 48 hours earlier, he had become an instant celebrity on the international tennis circuit.

In a night match 235 miles away in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago, Muller, ranked 124th in the world, defeated Andre Agassi, ranked 6th and one of the sport's all-time top competitors, 6-4, 7-5. The next day, Muller, a string bean at 6 feet 5 inches and 183 pounds, lost in the finals of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic to Australia's Lleyton Hewitt, 6-3, 6-4. Despite losing, Muller collected a check for $40,000, his biggest payday in four years on the pro tour.

"Today, I guess I'm back to zero," he said as he entered the U.S. National Tennis Center on the edge of New York City. Perhaps not even zero.

Beat Agassi But Lost in Qualifiers

Muller, who calls his hometown of Schifflange, Luxembourg, "not a city but a village," had to wait all day to find out whether he would be ranked high enough to enter directly into the U.S. Open.

As luck would have it, he was still too low in the rankings, so he was forced to compete in a qualifying tournament.

That's where he received the cruelest blow of all. He lost, to another qualifier, Thailand's Danai Udomchoke, ranked 234th in the world. It was a fierce struggle: Muller took the first set, 6-1, and was two points away from winning the match but couldn't pull it off.

When it was over, Udomchoke had prevailed, 1-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2, and Muller's dream of a U.S. Open breakthrough was gone — even before the tournament started.

Because of his anonymity — it was 72 hours, after all, since his victory over Agassi — only a few people noticed.

Back in the Shadows — But Hopeful

Yet this is not likely to be the last the tennis world sees of Gilles Muller. The proof: This young man from Schifflange won the 2001 U.S. Open junior title at Flushing Meadows and finished as the No. 1 male junior tennis player in the world. Since then, he has earned $166,000 in prize money, collecting paydays in small tournaments around the world. Earlier this year, he won singles titles in Naples, Italy and Cordoba, Spain; he won the Andorra Championships doubles title with Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan.

But until his stunning upset of Agassi, Muller seemed destined to be just another face in the crowd of nearly a thousand professional tennis players who make their living circling the globe.

Today, ranked 114th in the world, Muller finds himself cast back into the shadows. But most likely, he'll be back. And that, as they say, is show business — or at least professional tennis' reverse twist on it.