Brightly-coloured outfits, a mop of curly hair, a smile wider than Brazil, an unmistakable way of moving around the court – in both sound and vision – matches full of drama, and to top it all off, a heart drawn in the clay. Has a champion ever been more closely associated with a tournament than Gustavo Kuerten with Roland-Garros, and the stadium where he won three times (in 1997, 2000 and 2001)? Take a trip down memory lane to the time when Paris belonged to the Brazilian.
On 25 May 2008, it was the Sunday start at Roland-Garros, and Paul-Henri Mathieu admitted that he was a fan of the player he had just knocked out. Out on Philippe-Chatrier, as Centre Court is known at the Porte d’Auteuil, the Frenchman had just sent a legendary champion into retirement. His three-set win over a Gustavo Kuerten, who was a shadow of his former self due to an agonising hip injury, brought an end to the crazy adventures of a samba-surfer-smiler who had come all the way from the island of Santa Catarina to capture the Coupe des Mousquetaires no fewer than three times – in 1997, 2000 and in 2001 – and with it, the hearts of the fans at Roland-Garros in general and the home supporters in particular.
The public at the French are notoriously tough. They are a different breed, not giving away their affection easily. They need proof that they will be loved back, perhaps to the exclusion of all others. But once they do open up, they give all that they have got. "The crowd were supporting him more than me," Mathieu recalls. "It’s rare for a French player not to have the crowd behind them here, but that was the case on that day. Everyone was cheering on Guga. And the strange part is, it just seemed right."
“The atmosphere that day was amazing. I felt like I was playing a final. Usually, centre court isn’t full for first-round matches. But everyone knew that Guga was saying his goodbyes that day so the stands were full. He’s an incredible player, a tennis legend. It’s not always easy to play that kind of match, where you’re the bad guy, putting an end to someone’s career. But that day, it was great. Guga hadn’t really played for the past two years. He wasn’t moving well behind the baseline. But he still had a good serve and flashes of brilliance. Because it was his last match, I made sure he had fun. That’s what he and the fans wanted.”
Between Kuerten and Roland-Garros, it was love at first sight, originally between a homesick teenager and a kindly set of tournament officials. "It was in 1993 and it was my first long tournament in Europe," says Kuerten, who had only his iconic coach Larri Passos for company at the time. "At Roland-Garros, I reached the quarter-finals of the juniors in my first year, and I spent the entire week bugging the people at Gate 13 to let me call home every night. It wasn’t usually allowed, but they made an exception for me… and by doing that, they really helped me. I was touched by how much understanding they had for my situation."
This gesture was not forgotten. The following year when he won the boys’ doubles with Ecuador’s Nicolas Lapentti, young Gustavo went to thank the employees again, and introduced them to his mother and elder brother Rafael who had made the trip to Paris to support the budding champion.
From Kuerten to the great “Guga”:
the makings of a champion
The love story between Kuerten and Roland-Garros burgeoned further on Friday 30 May 1997. It was the third round, and suddenly the stadium was buzzing with the rumour that on Court No.1, an upstart ranked No.66 in the world was getting the better of the "Musterminator", Austrian world No.5 Thomas Muster and winner of the French Open two years previously. Kuerten found himself a point away from a 3-0 deficit in the fifth set, but turned it around to the delight of the spectators to win 6-7, 6-1, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4
After the tournament staff, it was the turn of the fans to develop a soft spot for "Gu-ga! Gu-ga!" The youngster described himself as "pretty crazy out on court, gangly, I walk like a swan and I’m as skinny as a sparrow". He then added a zebra to the menagerie to describe his yellow and blue kit, topped off by long mane of hair. While it certainly helped him to stand out from the crowd at Roland-Garros, Kuerten had not specifically chosen this particular look. "It’s just that where I am in the rankings," he said, "I could wear clothes that other players under contract with brands didn’t want!"
Diadora's shining light at the time was Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the defending French Open champion. And after another upset by Kuerten in the fourth round where he ousted the recent Hamburg ATP Masters 1000 winner, Ukraine’s Andrei Medvedev 5-7, 6-1, 6-2, 1-6, 7-5, the stage was set for the two to meet in the quarter-finals. There was an obvious contrast between the calm Russian and the exuberant Brazilian, and not just in terms of apparel, as world No.3 Kafelnikov played like he looked – unflustered.
Like Muster however, he was beaten in a fifth set by his quirky-hitting opponent, whose guttural grunts when he hit the ball were so often precursors to a winner. In the stands, the match was far easier to call – almost every single fan had been won over to the Kuerten cause. "I couldn’t believe it – it was the first time, other than what I had experienced in Brazil, that people showed me so much affection. And they didn’t even know me!" he grinned.
What they did know was what they had just seen with their own eyes – the artist had just beaten the metronome, despite fearing that he would never be able to get his opponent out of his rhythm. "I thought I was going to lose that match. At the end of the third set, I’d given up hope. So I just relaxed and went for it. I wanted to enjoy the moment, drink in the last few minutes of what had been a wonderful adventure and take some nice memories away with me…" This change of mindset saw him rattle off eight games in a row, and 12 of the last 16, to win 6-2, 5-7, 2-6, 6-0, 6-4. It also gave the Brazilian an insight into his own raison d’être. Prior to that, he was always looking ahead to the next match in the belief that the fairy-tale would have to come to an end at some point. Whereas now: "As I went off court, I tried to see where Larri was. Once we saw each other, I could tell that he had realised it too – we both knew that Roland-Garros was ours. It was crazy, but we were so certain."
The lad from Florianopolis who was more a fixture on the Challenger circuit suddenly found himself writing one of the most incredible chapters in the annals of tennis. After three consecutive five-set wins, he cruised through his semi-final against a player who was even more of a surprise package than he was, qualifier Filip Dewulf. In the final, his lavish backhand and delicate all-round play meant that he was never in any danger up against another former French Open champion, 1993 and 1994 champion Sergi Bruguera of Spain, running out a comfortable 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 winner. "Of all the magic moments that I have experienced at Roland-Garros, taking the title in 1997 was the most amazing. Now I feel that if I played it all again a million times, I’d never once manage to win that crazy tournament again."
"Kuerten gave off a very laid-back vibe. He was a really cool guy who wasn't overwhelmed by the magnitude of the occasion. He managed to remain relaxed despite the mounting pressure on his shoulders day after day. He was born to be in the spotlight and on the podium. It's something that comes so wonderfully naturally to him, as can still be seen today when he presents the trophy at Roland-Garros. That sense of detachment allowed him to block out the tension in the latter stage of tournaments. When I compare how he and I handled these things, we were like chalk and cheese. He continued to impose his formidable rhythm and to play great tennis in the last few rounds, despite the high stakes. In fact, because he was loved by the crowd, he was able to channel the buzz to drive him on. Seeing him win it in 1997 was a surprise at the time, but what happened later put it into context: not many guys have won three Roland-Garros titles."
6/0 7/5 6/1
6/4 6/2 4/6 7/5
6/7 6/1 6/3 3/6 6/4
5/7 6/1 6/2 1/6 7/5
6/2 5/7 2/6 6/0 6/4
6/1 3/6 6/1 7/6
6/3 6/4 6/2
As crazy as it may have seemed, when you analyse the previous four French Open tournaments, Kuerten had actually ushered in a new era – his own. It would take him a while to confirm this status, but in hindsight, it becomes crystal clear. In 1998, he was still somewhat of a novice when it came to defending his crown, and he was caught out by another up-and-coming rookie who would go on to make a name for himself – Marat Safin. In 1999, he was the hot favourite for the French Open title after winning in Monte Carlo and Rome, only to put in a poor performance in his quarter-final tie against Andrei Medvedev.
In the meantime, he had become a national icon in Brazil. "In our country, there are three sporting idols: the soccer team, Ayrton Senna and Gustavo Kuerten", said footballer Leonardo, and Guga was struggling to carry the weight of expectation on his shoulders. "Suddenly, my results were having an impact on the lives of millions of people beyond just me,” Kuerten explained. "After my first Roland-Garros title, I saw that I had the power to move an entire nation, touch an entire people, bring happiness, make the day of millions of Brazilians better, bring them pleasure or pain according to my results. And for someone like me who likes to make the people around me happy, it took some time to block that out and get back to the relaxed way of playing just for myself."
This process was complete by 2000, which was the year Kuerten lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires for the second time. As was the case in 1997, he treated the Paris crowds to an emotionally-charged fortnight, full of suspense and thrilling comebacks, beginning with the quarter-final re-match with Kafelnikov. Guga found himself two sets to one and 4-2 down to the Russian, only to squeeze through 6-3, 3-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. The semi followed a similar pattern against a Roland-Garros debutant by the name of Juan Carlos Ferrero. The Spaniard also led two sets to one and was 3-1 up in the fourth, but could not bring it home. Kuerten was still alive, but by the skin of his teeth. The final was a relatively simple affair where he needed a mere four sets to see off Magnus Norman… mind you, it took him 11 match points, with almost three-quarters of an hour between the first that the Swede saved and the one that finally finished off the tie 6-2, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6!
“Kuerten was a formidable opponent because he could hit winners from well behind the baseline on both sides of the court. That made him a very good returner. And because he was so tall, he had a good serve, which people don’t talk enough about. All that meant that he was extremely difficult to beat on clay when he was feeling confident. Nevertheless, in the fourth set of our final, I started to think that I was going to win. I started to feel I was gaining the upper hand physically. He’d just played two tough five-setters. If I managed to push him to five too… Even today, I still have flashbacks of the end of that fourth set. And I think to myself, damn, I wish I could have replayed those games, done things differently. That’s what made the difference in the end: he had already won a Grand Slam. And he had that connection with the French crowd. He was flamboyant – a huge personality. People loved him and he adored it.”
The relief was palpable after what he described as "the toughest 40 minutes of my career, a roller-coaster going up and down. In a certain sense, it was the most important match of my life in terms of the impact that it had on my mindset. It was a lesson in how to go beyond yourself, the fatigue, the nerves, the frustration, the despair… that was all mixed with what I now know was a real sense of fear. And despite all that, I managed to go and win a second title. I knew that if I could do that, I could do anything. Including being No.1 in the world."
6/0 6/0 6/3
7/6 6/2 6/2
6/3 6/7 6/1 6/4
6/3 6/4 7/6
6/3 3/6 4/6 6/4 6/2
7/5 4/6 2/6 6/4 6/3
6/2 6/3 2/6 7/6
TThat particular ambition took him less than a year to fulfil. When he returned to Paris 12 months later, Kuerten had definitely moved up to the next level. At the end of 2000, he had won the ATP end-of-season Masters, beating those two giants of the previous decade Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. He arrived at Roland-Garros as No.1 in the world, and lived up to his billing, becoming the first person to top the ATP rankings and win in Paris since Jim Courier, nine years earlier.
And yet once again, it was anything but plain sailing, as he continued to live out the paradox of being the best player at the tournament, and yet being forced to dig deep time and again, only to emerge unscathed on each and every occasion. Indeed, of the nine five-set matches that he played at the Porte d’Auteuil, he won eight of them! In the Round of 16 in 2001, he found himself really off his game out on the windiest of Philippe-Chatrier courts – so much so that he had to stare down a match point against American qualifier Michael Russell. The rally on that point lasted 26 shots, with both players gripped by fear. Kuerten clipped the outside of the line with a wobbly forehand at one point and eventually stayed alive, to the delight of the crowd.
saved, match point
converted – the craziest match
in Guga’s crazy
While the Roland-Garros fans are known for their penchant for supporting David over Goliath, Guga went beyond such traditional values. And the Centre Court crowd went absolutely wild when, three sets later, the Brazilian finished it off with a smash to win 3-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-3, 6-1. Relieved and exhausted, he lay down of the court after declaring his eternal flame for Roland-Garros by tracing a heart on the clay.
"In terms of emotions, it’s the finest moment of my career. Nothing compares to that moment. It’s the match – the one that I would take with me if I could choose only one. My connection with the fans was so strong… This heart was my way of thanking them for their support and for the emotions that we were going through together at that moment. If I could have hugged each and every one of them, I would have. By rights, should have lost that match. But nothing much ever went to plan at Roland-Garros."
“‘Oh yeah, Russell, the match point, the heart Guga drew on the clay…’ People remember me as the man who almost beat Kuerten. That was the pinnacle of my career and it's a crazy memory for me too. When I walked out on court, I was just hoping not to lose 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. What ended up happening was a whole different story. Sure, if I'd have won that match point and beaten Kuerten, things would definitely have panned out differently. For starters, there'd be a different name on the Roland-Garros trophy that year and I'd have a Grand Slam quarter-final on my CV. But the same ifs and buts apply to all matches and indeed careers. I'm happy with what I achieved in mine. I've got my place in tennis history, however small. A few years back, I saw Guga again in Newport: I was playing in the tournament, while he was being inducted into the Hall of Fame, and he spoke about me in his induction speech. My name was mentioned at the Hall of Fame! So no, I don't have any regrets. None at all.”
One thing was certain: whenever Kuerten went beyond the quarters in Paris, he won the tournament. And whenever he went beyond the quarters, it was at the expense of his lucky charm Kafelnikov. Their 2001 tussle was Guga’s best performance against the Russian, winning in four sets and being described afterwards by his opponent as "a tennis Picasso. His game on clay is the most brilliant I have ever seen." Ferrero, swept aside in the semis 6-4, 6-4, 6-3, and Alex Corretja, who had break point in the final that could have spelled a two-set lead only to be steamrollered thereafter 6-7, 7-5, 6-2, 6-0, would doubtless agree. A mere week after the Russell match point, he won his third French Open, joining a select band of champions who had come within a hair’s breadth of being knocked out.
6/1 7/5 6/4
6/4 6/4 6/4
6/3 6/7 7/6 6/2
3/6 4/6 7/6 6/3 6/1
6/1 3/6 7/6 6/4
6/4 6/4 6/3
6/7 7/5 6/2 6/0
At the age of 26, Kuerten already had his best years behind him. The grunts that had made him famous were not to entertain fans and imitators, but were actually due to the serious hip injury that he had suffered. The Brazilian quietly slipped down the rankings, despite having two operations in quick succession in an attempt to halt the decline. In 2002, he found himself back on the Paris clay less than three months after being on the operating table, and somehow managed to win three rounds, including a five-setter against Italy’s Davide Sanguinetti where he did a lap of honour around Suzanne-Lenglen court after the match, high-fiving his supporters with a huge grin on his face. He was quite simply delighted to be there. "Everyone loves him," smiled Sanguinetti after the match, resigned to his fate. "He’s the king of Roland-Garros, simple as that!"
8 wins in 9 five-setters
6/7 6/1 6/3 3/6 6/4
5/7 6/1 6/2 1/6 7/5
6/2 5/7 2/6 6/0 6/4
6/3 3/6 4/6 6/4 6/2
7/5 4/6 2/6 6/4 6/3
3/6 4/6 7/6 6/3 6/1
6/7 6/2 4/6 6/4 6/3
7/5 7/6 1/6 3/6 7/5
3/6 7/3 3/6 6/1 6/4
Guga’s swan song came in 2004, when he put in a command performance in the third round against the world No.1 at the time... no less a player than Roger Federer. 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 was the final score, with Kuerten whispering to himself throughout the match to keep his focus against the giant that was on the other side of the net: "Look here, fellah. You may be the best player in the world, one of the greatest in history, but this – this is my home." This match would turn out to be the only defeat that the Swiss maestro would suffer in the first week of a Grand Slam for a whole decade (2003–2013).
Three years before his exhibition match-style farewell against Mathieu, Guga played his last French Open via direct acceptance in 2005. And though he went out in the first round against Spanish defensive specialist David Sanchez, there was an incredible atmosphere on the intimate setting of No.2 Court, where the crown cheered and even sang on their champion as darkness fell.
"What makes me most proud is that I helped to make tennis more popular and give it a human touch," Kuerten opined. "When I was young, my heroes seemed to belong to another world. Some of them seemed so arrogant and distant that you felt like they would land in a spaceship just to play a match, and then take off again at the end, back to the planet that they’d come from. There were a few – rare – exceptions, but it was as if when you became a hero, it made you inaccessible in some way. I was the opposite of this stereotype. People would come and talk to me. They loved this big kid who never stopped laughing and joking with them. They thought I was nice first and foremost rather than charismatic. I spoke in the same way to the officials, the journalists and to the popcorn vendors. It made tennis more jovial and down-to-earth. I became the champion who talked to anyone and everyone, and I hope that I still am."
“My loss to Guga at Roland-Garros was one that will stick in my memory. That match made me realise that Roland-Garros was going to be the most difficult tournament for me to win. Up until then, I thought I was good on clay, but after my surprise loss, I realised I wasn’t yet good enough. Kuerten’s thigh wasn’t the best and he was straight off a five-set match but I still lost in three sets. I was supposed to be the favourite but he didn't give me a chance. He served well, made all his shots, won rallies – gradually I lost my legs and my confidence. Another thing that struck me was how much the public supported him. I lost that battle too (smiles). But it was all very sportsmanlike. Just like Guga. In that sense, it was always a pleasure to play him.”
A fortnight after Kuerten’s opening-round defeat, Rafael Nadal won his first Roland-Garros. A new era was under way, but the Paris fans never forgot their idol. In 2007, 2011 and 2015, as soon as he appeared in the president’s stand or on the official podium, Guga got more applause than the two finalists. The years may have flown by, but Roland-Garros still belonged to him.
The first day that I spent at Roland-Garros had an enormous impact on my life. From that point onwards, I knew what to dream for." What is more, he knew how to make his dream come true. His first visit to Roland-Garros at the age of 15 gave Kuerten something to aim for, and also a path to follow. In 1993, after playing in the juniors, the young Brazilian got the chance to watch the men’s singles final between Sergi Bruguera and Jim Courier. Those five epic sets held him spellbound… and helped him to understand the direction that Passos was trying to steer him in via his coaching far better than a thousand motivational speeches ever could. "Courier was all about speed, while Bruguera had all the shots. How good would a player who could combine the two be?"
The idea was far from being a new one. Plenty of people had had this flash of inspiration before, but not been able to put it into practice. It represented a seemingly unattainable form of tennis utopia. And then the following year, Kuerten’s agent Jorge Salkeld handed him a racquet with new strings that had been designed by a Belgian manufacturer. "They were hard strings, a little like wire. They were tough to handle and it took three times longer to string a racquet, and you ended up cutting your fingers on it," he recalled. "It was worth the effort, though. The strings had some sort of rubber on them which added to the control and also increased the speed and the power of the shot, making it really explosive."
“He’s the best player I ever faced on clay. Kuerten was to clay like Sampras was to hard courts. At his peak, he may have been even better than Nadal. The heaviness of his strokes and his power on both wings were unrivalled. He could drop the hammer with both his forehand and his backhand regardless of his position on the court, even when you felt like you had him up against the wall. On his day, he could be unplayable! As well as highs, he also had his fair share of lows, but at Roland-Garros, things always went his way. When he was there, he could always turn the tide out of nowhere. He did that to me three times. As a result, when I thrashed him at the US Open in 2001, I was nervous right up to the last point: I knew all too well what he was capable of! Of our three meetings at Roland-Garros, I only have big regrets about the one in 2000, when I had the match on my racquet and I think it was my fault [that I lost it]. In 2001 and in the last two sets in 1997, on the other hand, he was simply too good and he dominated me.”
Kuerten needed little convincing to be a guinea pig, and he and Spain’s Albert Costa were the first of the top players to use Luxilon strings, winning four French Opens in six years between them (1997, 2000 and 2001 for Kuerten, 2002 for Costa). "It was a genuine revolution," says Jonas Bjorkman, who was the first big name to fall to Kuerten and his new strings, in the second round at Roland-Garros in 1997, a year before the Swede peaked at No.4 in the world. Synthetic strings let you combine speed and control, to take the ball early without taking risks, add power and spin… elements which were possible with traditional gut strings."
Soon, the whole circuit would be swearing by Luxilon (and the brands that followed)… and not just those who shone on clay. Andre Agassi was the first star to cross that particular Rubicon, and only the out-and-out attackers resisting as the stiffness of the strings did not help control volleys. Even they ended up coming round, however. "In the beginning, I played with 100% gut, strung at around 29 or 30 kilos," Bjorkman explains. "After that, I went 50-50 gut/synthetic, and by the end, by racquet was strung as low as 21. I still had the same power, but I had control as well! The compromise was that I had to adjust my game to the new way of playing. At the end of my career, I only did serve-and-volley about 50% of the time, even on grass."
And as far as clay was concerned, it meant that Kuerten and Passos had found the weapon the needed to make their dream a reality, marrying the aggressive power of Courier with the defensive topspin of Bruguera. Ironically, the latter was the losing finalist at Roland-Garros in 1997, falling to the man whose career he had inspired just a few years earlier.
Gustavo Kuerten described him as "the north on my compass", and if there is one man that is intimately linked with Guga’s career, it is Larri Passos. Here, we speak to the coach who was by the Brazilian’s side from the age of 13 until he hung up his racquet.
The first time I went there was in 1986. I remember crossing the Seine in a bus – that image is etched in my memory. I had tears in my eyes. I was a young tennis coach and my first dream was coming true. And I can still hear myself saying that it would be fabulous to meet a young player who had the same love as me for Paris and who would be capable of playing a leading role at Roland-Garros. And then along came Guga…
The first time I took Guga to Paris was in 1992, before he even played in the tournament. He was a 15-year-old kid, unranked, but I arranged for him to go into Roland-Garros, walk around and drink it all in. He too developed a passion for this city, its history, the stadium, the tournament. And to win a Grand Slam, simply playing well is not enough. You also have to love the place where you are playing, you need to cherish it. It’s not just the head, it’s the heart you have to listen to. This is what happened with Guga, and I am happy to have passed on this love for Paris, and for Roland-Garros.
I’m sure of it! If he hadn’t fallen in love with this tournament, he would never have won it. But for me, it was a sort of surprise that I still saw coming. He was on a good run and making progress. At the time though, it wasn’t clear for everyone to see, and there was less of a media presence back then… Just before the French, he lost in Estoril to Francisco Clavet, who was No.23 in the world, in a final-set tie-breaker. I said to him: "Something good is going to happen, so calm down! It’s just a matter of minor details." He was going crazy and wanted everything to happen faster, but in my head, I knew that he could tear it up – he just needed everything to click into place. And as luck would have it, it happened in the holy of holies as far as tennis is concerned!
In 1993, when he narrowly lost in the quarter-finals of the juniors’ tournament to Albert Costa, who was the player at the time on clay in the juniors. The year after, he won the doubles, and things were beginning to slot into place. At the time, Brazil was a country that simply didn’t exist on the tennis map, and yet here we were, holding our own against the best that Spain and Europe had to offer. That was no mean feat. We needed to believe in ourselves, and that’s why every year, we travelled to Europe to see how we compared with the best, and to make progress. I personally had been going to Roland-Garros for 11 years. I’d been able to observe, analyse and build up experience. I also worked out a sort of ideal profile for winning on clay: a player who is taller than average, more aggressive, who can take the ball higher and who is able to put topspin on it… Guga could do all of that. We had to work at it, obviously, because Guga loved attacking but hated to defend. So we worked on that. 1997 was a surprise for everyone, but he was playing very high-quality tennis at the time, and I knew that. When he won his quarter-final against Kafelnikov, I knew that he was going to win the tournament.
The match before, in the Round of 16 against Medvedev, was a tough one on the nerves. Four sets of a roller-coaster, and then the match was interrupted by night falling at 2-2 in the fifth. It was hard to deal with a break coming at that point, once we got back to our little hotel in the evening. The following day, I was so nervous in the box, I was shouting, cheering him on, and [Medvedev's coach] Bob Brett kept elbowing me to get me to pipe down [laughs]! It was surreal. At 4-4, he was down 0-40 again and staring defeat in the face, but he ended up winning it 7-5… After winning those three five-set matches in a row against Muster, Medvedev and Kafelnikov, I was convinced that Guga was going to win the tournament. After the match against the blondie [Kafelnikov], I said to Guga: "You can start thinking about building a house now, you're gonna win the tournament!"
The toughest part of playing Guga was finish him off, as the players below can attest to :
3rd round 1997
was a point away from a 3-0 lead,
in the 5th set
4th round 1997
led 2-1 with a break in the 5th set,
then was up 0-40 on Guga's serve at 4-4.
Led by two sets to one
and 4-2 in the fourth set
Led by two sets to one
and 3-1 in the fourth set
4th round 2001
Led by two sets to love and 5-3 in the third, held match point on serve
Second round 2002
Led by two sets to one and was 2-0 up in the fourth, with 0-40 on return
First round 2004
Served for the match at 5-4
in the fifth set
The main one is 2004. Guga had made such an effort to come back after his operation… After his victory against Federer, he played David Nalbandian in the quarter-finals. He had several chances to take it to a fifth set, one of which he lost on an easy service return. I never forgot that particular point. If he’d won it, he’d have won the fifth set, the match and the tournament, I’m convinced of that. Like in 1999, as well. He was playing so well that year, but when he got up on the morning of the quarter-finals, the weather was lousy, it was windy, Guga was in a bad mood and Medvedev made the most of it and got his revenge. Guga should have won the tournament there as well. In fact, he should have won Roland-Garros five times (laughs). But hey, I’m not going to complain, particularly since he could have lost some of those that he actually won. Three’s pretty good, isn’t it? (smiles)
Guga v Rafa on clay would have made for a fantastic match. Guga had the advantage of being able to vary his game, which even the best players at the moment other than Rafa struggle to do. To win at Roland-Garros, and particularly to win more than once, you need to have a plan B, a plan C, even a plan Z… Guga would have had plenty of strings to his bow to make Rafa struggle, that’s for sure.
I am still working at my academy in Camboriu, in the south of Brazil, where I trained Guga. I train young players aged 6 – 16 and I also work with underprivileged kids from the region. I have to delegate a lot of it though, since I now live for a good part of the year in Florida. My daughters are studying there, and they’re happy there as well. I also do occasional work as a consultant for federations, I commentate on certain women’s tournaments for Brazilian television and I work from time to time with some women’s players. Recently I spent a few weeks at Roland-Garros with French player Alizé Lim. It was great – I could feel the affection that people still have for me, and that really was lovely. The personnel at the stadium, the security guys, they all look at me with a smile like they remember it all…
Oh absolutely! I still get a shiver down my spine when I go through the gates. I’m touched deep down, and I honestly think that my history with Roland-Garros isn’t done yet. I can still do something there. Whenever I get inside the stadium, I’m like a man transformed. It’s an incredible feeling. When I coach there, I feel like I am one with the ball, and I can make it do whatever I want… to win a tournament like Roland-Garros, you need the head, the arms and the legs, that’s obvious. But what makes the real difference is the heart. The sacrifices you make to get there, and the dream deep-down that people have. Our dream was to win Roland-Garros! And we did it!
There is Guga the tennis star, Guga the crowd favourite at Roland-Garros… but in Brazil, what kind of image does he have now? From Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo, via Florianopolis, we scoured the country to find out.
Guga is happiness personified! He is always joyful and gives off lot of emotions, usually very positive ones. He comes across as sincere and authentic. He’s a true champion, and beyond that, for me he’s a good person first and foremost, and a better one than a lot of other Brazilian heroes." As is the case with Tomaz, a musician from Rio de Janeiro in his thirties, enthusiasm is the main reaction in Brazil when the triple French Open winner crops up in conversation.
Sao Paulo lawyer Isabela, 29, remembers the sudden interest that sprang up around the lanky young lad after he lifted his first Coupe des Mousquetaires in 1997. "In Brazil, we tend to put people up on a pedestal very quickly. Thiago Braz da Silva, for example, who won a gold medal in the pole vault at the 2016 Olympics… No-one had heard of him before, and now he’s a huge star. For Guga, things also happened very quickly after his first title at Roland-Garros. And if his popularity has never ceased to blossom ever since, it’s as much down to his personality as his results."
To begin with, Kuerten was famous primarily for his results… and for his unique style. "I remember very well the strange sounds he used to utter when playing, it still makes us laugh now. It became a bit of a caricature for people, but there was always affection behind it," says Flavio, a taxi driver from Rio de Janeiro. Then there was his charisma, his sensitive nature and his sincerity, which saw him chosen as Brazil’s sportsperson of the year three times (in 1997, 2000 and 2001) as well as being a huge star. "The first image that I see when I think of him, it’s the heart that he drew on the clay at Roland-Garros in 2001," adds Isabela, with emotion in her voice.
“That break point at 5-5 in the second set still haunts me, 15 years later. It was a really long rally and, at the end, my backhand landed just inside the tramlines. Guga broke me the next game and won the set. It knocked the stuffing out of me. Psychologically, I froze. The final started really well but suddenly the guy who always beat me was back, the best clay player on earth. The last two sets were a nightmare. We talked about the match afterwards – about the windy conditions. He told me he didn’t think he could have come back if he’d been two sets down. I don’t know if that should make me feel any better. Maybe that backhand, two centimetres out, was the turning point of the match. Guga was used to winning that kind of final. I wasn’t a huge champion, and winning Roland-Garros once would have been a dream come true. I think that difference was clear in our reactions during the final.”
Everyone loves Guga here, primarily because he’s a nice guy," she continues. During the Olympics, he was commentating for Brazilian television and he often got very emotional. He even cried several times when he was working on live events. Some people then made memes of it on social networks, comparing him to a cute little Labrador!" The in-joke even went as far as Kuerten being given a Labrador puppy called Medalha (medal) in reference to his summer job.
The 2016 Rio Olympics, where he was chosen to carry the Olympic flame by hand into the Maracanã stadium, was a chance for younger Brazilians to discover Kuerten, 15 years after his last victory at Roland-Garros. "I’d obviously already seen photos of him on a court, but I wasn’t even born at the time of his first victory, and the images from back then don’t automatically come to mind," explains Marie-Isabelle, an 18-year-old student from Rio de Janeiro. "When someone mentions Guga, I obviously think of a tennis player, but I primarily picture him today, with his smile and his warm voice when he commentates."
A catalyst for tennis
becoming more accessible
The work he has carried out as part of his foundation, the Instituto Guga Kuerten which helps underprivileged children and adults, also plays a significant role in his popularity. "I come from the region around Florianopolis, and while he is already a real hero for all Brazilians, I think it applies even more down there," says Laura (a 26-year-old lawyer). Everyone admires him and the social projects he works on for underprivileged children. I’ve never heard anyone in Brazil say that they don’t like Gustavo Kuerten."
Since his retirement, Brazil has been waiting for someone to take over the mantle at the very top of the sport, but thanks to the former world No.1, tennis is far more visible and popular in a country where football is still by far and away the leading sport. "I don’t know whether tennis developed significantly thanks to Guga, but I am sure that it became more accessible," Laura continues. “We used to see tennis as a rich person’s sport, and things have changed somewhat thanks to him."
Tomaz agrees, and adds: "The image of tennis has changed thanks to him. That doesn’t mean that poor kids have been able to start to play tennis because it’s still an expensive sport and there aren’t many courts available outside those at the clubs, but what is certain is that there are far more tennis fans than before. And even if, as is the case with me, we are not particularly interested in tennis, we know what Roland-Garros represents. We know that a Brazilian can succeed at the highest echelons of tennis because Guga proved it.”