South American Renaissance
Gustavo Kuerten was not expected to win the 1997 French Open, but he went through accomplished champions and clay court powers in the process. Kuerten beat fifth seeded and 1995 French Open champion Thomas Muster in the round of 32. He beat Andrei Medvedev in the round of 16. He beat defending champion and third seed Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the quarterfinal round. These three impressive victories were all five set matches. Kuerten proved his mettle in that three match stretch. Kuerten then defeated two-time French Open champion Sergi Bruguera in three routine sets to win his first major title.
Guga won with big shotmaking skills that were still raw and a positive fighting spirit that was only extinguished by injuries later in his career. I recall watching Guga in 1997 and liking him but wondering how a player as thin as a rail was hitting such well placed big serves and big ground strokes to beat Muster, Bruguera and Kafelnikov who had been the top players at Roland Garros.
Marcelo Rios of Chile was the 7th seed at the 1997 French Open. In early 1998, Rios went on a tear and briefly claimed the #1 ranking. While Guillermo Vilas launched South American tennis and Andres Gomez among others kept it progressing, Guga and Rios led the first wave of large-scale South American prominence in 1997 and 1998. That along with Guga’s infectious smile seemed to be his biggest legacy.
1999: He’s Elite
While Guga did not get back into the Grand Slam winner’s circle in 1999, he demonstrated a lot of skill and talent in reaching the quarterfinal round at the 1999 editions of the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open events. Guga entered the 1999 French Open looking like a more powerful and steady player. His shotmaking skills and fighting spirit were still present, but he added a more substantial game to the frame of what brought him his first slam title. Guga won the Rome Masters Series event by defeating Patrick Rafter in the final and entered the French Open as a favorite along with defending champion Carlos Moya. Guga would have to wait, but his talent was obvious to everyone in 1999.
2000 and 2001: Guga Rules
Juan Carlos Ferrero was on the rise. Alex Corretja was hungry to win a Grand Slam title. Magnus Norman had been the breakout player of 1999 and reached a Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open in 2000. None of these players prevented Guga from winning back-to-back French Open titles and setting himself up as one of the greatest clay court players of the Open Era.
Guga needed five sets to defeat Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the quarterfinal round and Juan Carlos Ferrero in the semifinal round. Magnus Norman beat Guga in Rome in 2000 and set up an interesting French Open final. With Guga coming off of two five set matches and a loss to Norman in a Masters Series final, it would not have been surprising if he had lost, but like 1997 Guga won the title despite a number of long matches en route to the final.
In 2001, Guga defeated Kafelnikov in the quarterfinal round and Juan Carlos Ferrero in the semifinal round once again, but only dropped one set during the two matches. Guga did survive a five set scare from Michael Russell in the round of 16. After the match, he drew a heart in the red clay for the French fans. Guga entered the 2001 final as the betting and fan favorite. He posted a four set win over the gritty Alex Corretja to cement his status as an elite player.
Kafelnikov as a Good Luck Charm?
Gustavo Kuerten defeated Yevgeny Kafelnikov in the quarterfinal round of all three of his French Open triumphs. Kafelnikov described Kuerten as being the Pablo Picasso of tennis. Kuerten to me as a joy to watch because he played exceptionally hard, had powerful sweeping groundstrokes and an ability to hit winners from unexpected positions, and because he engaged the crowd with a friendly demeanor. His injuries in late 2001 robbed tennis of a great champion, but he did rule the French Open for a period of time. His genius is not forgotten, but it is missed. One of my greatest memories was watching from the front rows in Indianapolis in 2001 as Guga battled Goran Ivanisevic and Patrick Rafter. He was amazing to watch in practice as well as during his matches. His Brazilian fans were giddy with excitement. It was an electric day. Sadly, he retired from the match versus Rafter and his career was never quite the same after these injuries.
I miss watching this guy play