It was in 2003 when Cupid aimed. For the target, Austrian table tennis legend Werner Schlager, befittingly so in Paris, the “City of Love”. On one of the rare occasions to come and watch him compete, his then-girlfriend Bettina Mueller showed up and the rest, as they say, was history.
In one of the finest moments of his distinguished career, Schlager smashed his way to a historic win, where he took down Korea Republic’s Joo Se-Hyuk to win the World Championship Singles Finals in the French capital.
“Bettina was there and that does not happen very often. I was in love because I met her just a few months before the World Championship. Of course, I have the skills and prepared myself well, but I was very motivated to play well for her. It was very romantic,” said Schlager, as he rewound his memory to that significant day.
“From the mental standpoint, it was important not to think too much and I think her presence in Paris really helped. I was not afraid of anyone. I was fearless when I looked at the draw and who I was up against,” recalled the 48-year-old.
As a result of Cupid’s presence, fear was struck into his rivals’ hearts. Schlager’s legacy in the history books was also confirmed as he became the first Austrian since Richard Bergmann in 1937 to win the World Championship singles title. He was voted Austrian Sportsman of the Year that year and even had a postage stamp, the first Austrian stamp dedicated to a living person.
“That was my biggest achievement. I always look back with very fond memories because it was my biggest victory,” said Schlager.
Schlager’s rise to the pinnacle of the sport can be traced back to his humble beginning when he started playing table tennis when he was six years old, learning from his father, Rudolph Schlager and brother, Harald Schlager who were also top Austrian players.
As he rose up the world order, he developed his unique skills in service and receive, which ultimately led him to more breakthroughs and success. This included reaching the quarter-finals in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and winning the 1996 Australia Open; 2002 Brazil, 2002 Korea Open and 2004 Croatian Open.
Schaleger’s last competitive table tennis match came at the 2016 World Championships in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where he could not take his country beyond the Round of 16. He decided to call time on his professional career soon after.
Today, Schlager and Mueller are proud parents to two children, Nick Neo and Nea Nika who were born in 2009 and 2012 respectively. The COVID-19 pandemic might have curtailed his traveling commitments to his sponsors abroad, yet he still spends his time coaching and grooming the younger generation of athletes online today.
“I still enjoy table tennis even though I don’t play it professionally now. I have a virtual platform to provide coaching lessons to the younger players now and I’m happy doing that nowadays,” said Schlager.
Away from the online space, Schlager also published a book in 2011 to provide his insights into how to become a world-class table tennis player. Titled,’ Table Tennis: Tips from a World Champion’, the paperback aptly sums up who the real Werner Schlager truly is.