A topical blog as the Winner of this week’s Rio Open will be crowned Champion on the ‘Quadra Guga Kuerten’, the Stadium named after the three times champion of Roland Garros. This is a champion who will be remembered in my eyes as someone we all took to our hearts, a bit of kindred spirit you could say. By the way, I love how in the picture here you have Borg and Nastase looking on in the background
Gustavo Kuerten burst onto the scene in 1997 in spectacular fashion. I didn’t really know much about him prior to the French that year and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who that would have been applicable to. Kuerten had won a challenger event in his lead up event to the French back home in Curitiba, but there was nothing to suggest this would be his year and he was still only 20. The World number 66 then made his way past the first two rounds beating Czech’s Slava Dosedel and Sweden’s Jonas Bjorkman setting up a clash with the 1995 champion Thomas Muster. Victory in 5 sets here catapulted the Brazilian into the limelight. It wasn’t difficult, to be honest, the guy looked like he was cut from a slightly different cloth. We all loved him. The morning newspapers had a picture of this geezer with a yellow and blue Diadora top, blue shorts, yellow socks and blue creps. He could well have been dressed for Davis Cup. He looked on point, I didn’t know anyone as a junior player that didn’t want that kit! I just couldn’t find it back then. Times have changed now, it would be a piece of piss to get hold of in 2017! It wouldn’t have been complete without the bandana as well, would it though? A Boss look. His long flowing locks and his skinny little pins made him stand out. He was likeable, often seen smiling, flamboyant with an extrovert style of play. There was also that unmistakable grunt, I tried perfecting that for years practising at home, I never had the balls to try it on court. The French crowd loved him and so did the tennis nation. He backed this up with victories against Andrei Medvedev and the 1996 champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov both again in 5 sets. He didn’t do things the easy way necessarily which made him more endearing. A 4 set victory over qualifier Filip Dewulf in the semi-finals meant a meeting with the 93 and 94 champion Sergi Bruguera. He was superb in the final, blitzing forehand winners, ripping backhand winners and finishing points off at the net. He combined the three by serving well and keeping Bruguera off balance, pulling him all over the gaff, not a bad way to play in your first ever main tour final! Not a bad tournament to win in your first main tour final either!
He failed to live up to expectations initially after this, but I think it was probably hugely unfair to expect such consistent levels from him straight away. The transition to grass and the US Hardcourts was new to him and he had risen to a household name overnight back home in Brazil. Justin Gimeltob beat him in the first round down at SW19 and Jonas Bjorkman gained revenge for the loss at the French with victory at Flushing Meadows in the last 32. A young Marat Safin beat him at Roland Garros the following year in the second round in the defence of his title. 1999 was the year he started to regain that form with Master Series titles on the clay in Monte Carlo and Rome. Sadly Andrei Medvedev beat him in the last 8 at the French. Guga was open to trying his hand on other surfaces as well, this certainly wasn’t the case back then with all players. Some preferred to stick to what they knew and pick up their points largely on that surface. Rios, for example, might have tried his hand on hard at times but the grass was a flat bollox to that, the grass is for cows attitude. Thanks to this though I got to watch him at Wimbledon that year as he beat David Prinosil and Nenad Zimonjić, in front of what I can only describe as a partisan crowd cheering him to straight sets victories. It was great to see him rip that backhand crosscourt live and hear that unmissable grunt like I said you can’t forget that grunt. I loved the fact the Brazilians came to Wimbledon and were standing on bins or fences to get a view, cheering, chanting and banging objects to create a special atmosphere for Kuerten. Like a football match. He made the Quarter’s that year before getting beat by Andre Agassi. A Quarter-Final appearance at the US Open showed he was adapting to other surfaces, Cedric Pioline beating him here. It was around this time that Larri Passos also became synonymous with Guga for me. I just remember him courtside complete with his tash and baseball cap every match.
2000 was his year as he won his second French Open title, defeating Magnus Norman in 4 sets in the final after beating Kafelnikov and Juan Carlos Ferrero in final sets in the previous two rounds. Winning Hamburg in the lead-up and getting to the finals in Rome and Miami, the latter impressively on the hard courts, boded well for the remainder of the year. A hard court title followed in Indianapolis but defeat in the first round of Flushing Meadows to Wayne Arthurs would have been a disappointment. Despite this, he had the chance to finish the year as world number one with a win at the End Of Year Master Cup in Lisbon. He knew going into the semi-final with Sampras that he was two wins away from the top spot. He edged past Pete in 3 and then walloped Agassi in straight sets in the final. It was a testament to just how far he had come, he was comfortable to back up his big serve and ground strokes with sound volleying on the faster surfaces now as well as on the clay. He finished the year top of the pile ahead of Marat Safin.
2001 was proof his previous season’s success was not a fluke. Once again he was dominant on the clay with 5 more titles including a third French Open, defeating Àlex Corretja in four sets. He saved a match point against Michael Russell in the last 16 and famously drew a heart in the clay with his racket and knelt in the middle, before blowing kisses to his adoring army of fans on the Phillipe Chatrier. He did the same after beating Corretja deciding just to lie down in the middle of it this time. It once again showed the genuine and sincere side to this much-loved champion, you know the smile was genuine. A Master Series title in Cincinnati with a win over Patrick Rafter in the final added to his growing CV as he headed to New York (he missed Wimbledon by the way) as the top seed. He lost comfortably to Kafelnikov in the Quarter-Finals but finished year end number 2 behind Lleyton Hewitt.
In truth it went downhill here for Kuerten, there were glimpses of his former self. Beating Federer at Roland Garros in 2004 and winning several titles on hard and clay after this, but injuries put pay to him ever reaching those heavy heights again. A hip injury being the biggest problem but I’m sure there were other little niggles as well. He also tragically lost his younger brother, who had cerebral palsy in 2007 after losing his father when he was just 8 years old. He made attempts at a comeback over the 4-year spell from 2004 but to no avail. He played his last match on the Chatrier against Pau-Henri Mathieu in 2008 complete with the Diadora top and shorts reminiscent of 1997.
Those last few years will not be how I will remember him, though. The backhand and forehand on song, the funky hair do’s, colourful dress sense and big smile will be how I will remember him. He set up his own institute for disabled children/adults in 2000. He is a very popular figure back home in Brazil and has pipped even footballers to the countries top awards in the past, that is no mean feat. Three French Open’s will each have their special memories for both him and his fans. A proper nice geezer (with Larri Passos as his coach with cap and tash).
Andy Del Potro