I remember the weather in May 1997 being glorious in the UK, something I have always associated with the start of the French Open. I was 14-years-old and my parents still hadn’t buckled under the growing pressure I was applying to get Eurosport so I could watch Roland Garros live. I was restricted to BBC Radio 5 commentary for regular updates and when the BBC gave it some airtime on the weekends to watch on Grandstand.
The event had got off to an awful start for me personally with Tim Henman losing in the first round to Wildcard Olivier Delaitre. It had been a bad few months for the Brit after surgery on his elbow. Michael Chang was the second seed and had a decent chance though, so not all was lost, he eventually lost to the runner-up, Sergei Bruguera in the fourth round though. I needed to find a player to follow for the rest of the event. There was a new name that was flying about from the end of the first week and he was lighting up the stage. Everyone took notice.
A 20-year-old Gustavo Kuerten had come into Paris off the back of a Challenger win in Curitiba, he had chosen to play there to get some confidence back. In the final, he beat Razvan Sabau of Romania in three sets. I barely knew anything about him, I certainly hadn’t seen much of him in ‘Ace’ Tennis magazine. The Brazilian had beaten Slava Dosedel and Jonas Bjorkman without much attention (he had lost to Dosedel in Monte Carlo a few weeks previous and now routed him in straights in Paris) in the early rounds.
It was when he played Thomas Muster in the third round that things really took off and ‘Guga Mania’ begun. Muster was known as ‘The Ironman’, he was also the 1995 Champion. Even though this was an age before I knew about betting he would have been one of the favourites going into RG. Winning this in five sets was that start of something very special and a roller-coaster journey ensued. Also that Diadora outfit that pretty much became instantaneously iconic. It is hard to believe but times were different then and you couldn’t just go out and buy online you can today. I can honestly say in the UK I never saw it to buy and I never saw a fellow junior wear it when I played LTA tournaments. This certainly wasn’t because nobody wanted to, it just wasn’t readily available back then. If anyone knows where I can get one from, even to this day please do tell.
Kuerten was great to watch, big serve, big forehand, ripped through his backhand and had greats hands. The backhand really was a joy though, it was a shot I just loved watching. I could sense from the TV and other media reports that this was a player that not only I had warmed to in such a short space of time. The fans were also absolutely loving him courtside too. His personality was as colourful and bright as his kit, there was a real charisma. It was whirl-wind stuff that gathered even more momentum after defeating Andrei Medvedev, another top clay-court player who had recently won in Hamburg. It was another five-set win.
You knew anything was possible after he had beaten the defending Champion and tournament favourite Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the Quarters. How many sets? Yes, you have guessed it, another five-set marathon. It was almost like the icing on the cake. The matches were going the distance and he was winning. It was game on now and winning this was more than a possibility. He was now in the last four and faced Belgian qualifier Filip Dewulf who had beaten Alex Corretja and Magnus Norman. You just kind of fancied him to get through this though and he did in four.
The confidence was clear for all to see but what a performance it was in the final against the two-time Champion Sergei Bruguera. Guga swung loosely and freely from the hips and put in an unbelievably mature display for a 20-year-old in such a big Final. It was a complete performance in front of the watching world, that had all the hallmarks of a big-game player. It was a joy to watch as he hit winner after winner. He destroyed Bruguera, totally blitzed him. The Spaniard was outplayed and outhit 6/3 6/4 6/2.
That made it three former champions on his way to the title. From 66 to 15 in the rankings. It was some effort. It was a love affair that obviously continued with Roland Garros and the tennis world over the years. What an introduction it was. Great memories of a legend.
Andy Del Potro