My earliest impressions of Gustavo Kuerten were mixed. I saw him play Jim Courier in the first round of the 1997 Davis Cup and could not believe Courier was struggling to post a 4 set win over such a frail looking opponent. My first impression of Guga was that he was too skinny to hit the ball as hard as he was during that match. I thought a strong breeze might knock him over. I next watched him beat Thomas Muster in the 3rd round of the French Open in 97. His positive attitude was pretty contagious. His quarterfinal win over defending champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov was impressive, but I was not thrilled at the prospect of Sergi Bruguera winning a 3rd French Open title. After Bruguera beat Patrick Rafter in a fun semifinal, I figured the former champion was going to have an easy time with such a neophyte in the final. Kuerten’s 4 set win over Felip Dewulf did not paint the Brazilian as a true contender for the title. To my shock, Kuerten served impeccably and beat Bruguera in 3 sets with imaginative shot-making. He would eventually go on to win a total of 3 French Open titles and have a relationship with the French fans that few players have enjoyed.
A Lock for the Hall of Fame
Guga winning 3 slams, finishing 2000 at #1, and winning the Masters Cup by beating Sampras and Agassi on consecutive days to lock up #1 for 2000 more or less make him a lock to enter the International Tennis Hall of Fame next year. Even with Rafa’s domination on clay since 2005, Guga is among the 5 best clay court players in the Open Era. He also is at worst the second most successful tennis champion from South America.
Guga may be the one player I enjoyed watching as much as I have enjoyed watching Roger Federer. He exuded a lot of positive energy on court (even if he had an ugly incident in 1998). He looked like he loved being out there and fighting prior to hip problems derailing his career. At the 1997 Canadian Open, Kuerten was runner-up, but after watching him lose the final, I concluded that he was one of the 5 most talented players on tour based on his shot making skills. His loopy swings took some time to adjust to faster courts, but big hard court and indoor court wins would come in 2000 and 2001. Guga was this extremely tall and skinny guy who glided across the court. His exceptional one handed backhand, his shot making and his serve all seemed to be extensions of his personality.
His personality was evident in his play. His 5 set win at the 2001 French Open over Michael Russell cemented his popularity in Paris. His love of surfing seemed quite natural for the laid back Guga. His relationship with his now deceased younger brother was touching. It was easy to like Guga. His face painted fans were always entertaining as well. It is too bad that hip issues pushed him out of the top of tennis at a time when he seemed to be adapting his game to all surfaces.
Guga’s 2000 title in Indianapolis helped erase some of the clay court specialist stigma he faced. Winning the season ending title indoors in 2000 obliterated that stigma. Still, Guga’s title at Cincinnati in 2001 featuring demolitions of the 2001 Wimbledon finalists Goran Ivanisevic and Patrick Rafter placed him firmly in command of tennis for one brief week.
In Cincinnati, Guga finished the 3rd set of his rain-delayed semifinal match on the same day as his final triumph over Rafter. The rain that slowed play in Cincinnati was present in Indianapolis the next week. Guga faced the task of playing a semifinal and final on the same day for the second time in 8 days. This time however, Kuerten had to play two full matches on the same day to take the title. Guga won in 3 tough sets over a revenge-minded Goran Ivanisevic. His prize was facing Patrick Rafter a few hours later.
Early in the first set, Guga retired from the match and sat in his chair with a towel covering his head for at least 10 minutes. I know because I was there. The atmosphere was electric with Brazilian, Croatian and Australian fans on the grounds of the now defunct Indianapolis Tennis Center. Guga exuded confidence in his practice session prior to his semifinal that was never to be seen again. His fans painted anyone’s face with Brazilian war paint that agreed to it (including mine). Playing two matches in one day was likely not the best way for the world #1 to pursue a US Open trophy, but he felt Indianapolis had validated him one year prior and he gave great effort.
In New York, Guga was seeded #1 and reached the quarterfinal before meekly bowing out to Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Guga had needed 4 sets to get out of the 1st round. He dug deep to defeat Max Mirnyi in the 3rd round 6-7, 5-7, 7-6, 7-6, 6-2. The confidence he exuded in Indianapolis prior to that final Sunday was not to be seen again. Hip injuries eventually robbed Guga of a lot of his spring loaded firepower and ease of movement around the court. He did win the Brazil Open in 2002, and reached the French Open quarterfinal in 2004. Still, I am both lucky and sad that I saw Guga at his peak in August 2001 before health issues cut his time as a top tier player short. Tennis has a lot of great champions and ambassadors right now. Still, Guga was a once in a generation personality for the sport.