The Final Kuerten
Roland Garros 2008
by James Buddell|
He is known universally as 'Guga' and beloved by fans worldwide as much for his frizzy hair, infectious smile and engaging personality as for his three French Open titles. Fittingly, the first South American man to ever rank year-end No. 1 will bid farewell to the sport at Roland Garros.
The abiding memory is of a stick-thin figure bedecked top-to-toe in yellow and blue, who unleashed explosive ground strokes and a monotonous groan to wear down the best clay-court players the professional circuit had to offer.
Buoyed by a title-winning run at the Curitiba Challenger in his native Brazil, Kuerten arrived at Roland Garros in May 1997 – the third Grand Slam of his career – with just eight career clay court ATP-level wins to his name. Expectations were light. After all, he’d watched more matches as a fan on his television at home in Florianopolis, Santa Caterina, a Brazilian beach resort, than he had played on the ATP circuit.
The gangly 20-year-old began his second Roland Garros appearance in obscurity, ranked No. 66 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings, but dispatched 1995 winner Thomas Muster and defending champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov on the way to the first ATP-level final of his career.
By then the tennis world had fallen in love with the richly gifted player, a colorful and exciting personality. But in the final, red-dirt warrior Sergi Bruguera was favored to add to his 1993 and 1994 triumphs. Kuerten just smiled, his casual demeanor belied his intensity, and during the title match he showed no sign of nerves in ruthlessly dealing with his Spanish opponent in a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 triumph over one hour and 50 minutes. It was the 52nd ATP match of his career.
While the Brazilian fans broke into the samba as they celebrated their first Grand Slam triumph since Maria Bueno’s victories more than 40 years ago, the gifted newcomer calmly explained, "I played like I do in practice and I really enjoyed it."
Nobody would ever again discount Kuerten. Each time the frizzy-haired Brazilian returned to Paris he resumed his love affair with Stade Roland Garros and recalled the fortnight he produced a rich variety of audacious winners to become the lowest-ranked Grand Slam champion since Mark Edmondson (212) at the 1976 Australian Open.
"I remember playing and losing to him in 1997 and people came up to me afterwards saying how could I lose to the guy," former clay king Thomas Muster tells DEUCE. "That year he won the first of his three French titles and that speaks volumes of the caliber of the player.
"He had a big serve, great forehand, good backhand down the line and was able to cover the court because of good footwork. He really had a good all-round game, which was boosted by a large amount of confidence built up over the years. He was a tremendously fit guy, a great player and always had an ability to win the big points."
Under the guidance of long-time coach Larri Passos, Kuerten regained his crown as the unrivalled master of European clay-courts with victory over Swede Magnus Norman in the 2000 Roland Garros final, when his demoralizing power and divine touch helped him secure his second title on his 11th match point.
Twelve months later he drew a heart on the clay of Philippe Chatrier Court when he became only the fourth player since the Second World War to win the most mentally demanding of all the Grand Slams more than twice.
Spaniard Alex Corretja, whom Kuerten beat that day, tells DEUCE: "It was a very difficult day, as it was windy. My plan was to target Guga's forehand and play deep," recalled the former World No. 2. "I was particularly wary of not hitting three or four crosscourt strokes to the same side, as he had a knack of ripping winners down the line. After he won the second set for one set apiece, all my energy went out of me.
"We both had a single-handed backhand and although I had two wins over him in 1998, his serve and ground strokes always had more bite than mine. He was also taller than me so his reach during long rallies was greater.
"Throughout his career, Kuerten was supportive and easy-going. Certainly no one knew him before his 1997 triumph, but immediately afterwards the feeling in the locker room was that you no longer had to be ranked the Top 10 to win a Grand Slam. His win gave players a tremendous amount of inspiration in future years."
Again, as in 1997 and 2000, he dedicated each of his triumphs to his father, Aldo, who died while umpiring a junior match when Kuerten was eight years old in 1985. In November 2007 his achievements would once again be tempered by the loss of his greatest supporter: his brother Guilherme, who suffered from cerebral palsy.
"I always thought that the bigger the challenge, the more you learn," Kuerten said at ATP Masters Series Monte-Carlo last month. "I was able to overcome every challenge that I faced in tennis. I had to learn over the years to deal with [my injury] and also to appreciate it more and the things that happen to me.
"I think life is always a lesson. You're always learning something new. For me I think I really learnt a lot over the last few years and I am also very grateful that I could maintain myself in the kind of condition that I could play some tournaments, maintain my happiness – although never the way I would have liked – and try to remain positive."
Of course Guga, as he is universally known, will forever be associated with his Roland Garros successes but another defining moment came in November 2000 on a fast indoor court at the Tennis Masters Cup in Lisbon, Portugal.
After almost pulling out of the circuit finale because of severe thigh spasms and back pain, he went on to beat Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Pete Sampras, and Andre Agassi in succession to win the elite eight-player championships and become the first South American to finish the season ranked No. 1 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings.
Kuerten spent a total of 43 weeks at the summit of the ATP circuit and captured five ATP Masters Series shields (1999, 2001-Monte-Carlo; 1999-Rome; 2000-Hamburg; 2001-Cincinnati) before his peak performance days were curtailed when a right hip injury first required surgery in February 2002.
In 2000 he launched the Guga Kuerten Institute that helps the handicapped and provides support for projects that promote the integral development of children and adolescents through sporting activities. The Institute has assisted more than 25,000 people in Santa Catarina and has raised more than $2 million. For more information, click here.
Today Kuerten is revered by a sports mad nation in the same light as the late Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna and legendary soccer player Pele.
"Guga is a very popular sports personality in Brazil and his victories at Roland Garros, with all the media available now, have made him into a real idol," Brazil's first tennis idol Bueno, the three-time Wimbledon champion, told DEUCE.
His countrymen and women empathize with the boy who came from a simple family and overcame numerous obstacles with just the same attitude as he had when he was a wide-eyed child dreaming of success in sport and life.
"He has plenty of other interests outside tennis, including his clothing line, coaching institutions and, of course, his love of surfing," added Bueno. "The people of Brazil will, of course, miss him on the tennis courts but for sure will continue to keep him in their hearts."
ATP STARS PAY TRIBUTE TO GUGA
ROGER FEDERER: "I'm a big fan of Guga; he's one of the great characters who you don't want to see retire, like Pat Rafter. It has been sad to see him struggling with injuries, but we enjoyed some great matches and I'm sure our paths will cross again in the future."
RAFAEL NADAL: "He will always be remembered as an amazing tennis player, No. 1 in the world and the winner of three Roland Garros titles. It was a pleasure to watch him on television when I was growing up, to eventually practise with him and be in the same locker room."
NOVAK DJOKOVIC: "He's always smiling, always positive and is a fantastic guy. He's left the best possible impression on me. The two times I practised [with him] I have always done well at tournaments. I guess he’s my lucky charm. It was always a pleasure to watch him on clay and everyone will miss him."
IVAN LJUBICIC: "The locker room always buzzes when he is around. His love for the sport is unique."
DAVID NALBANDIAN: "He is such a great player and person too. So it will be sad when he does play his final match. He was one of the best on clay."
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