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Guga’s French Connection: when passion trumped bravado at Roland Garros

Hardik Vyas
Modified 05 Apr 2013, 18:02 IST
PARIS - MAY 25:  Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil smiles at the fans after his career ending defeat during Men

Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil smiles at the fans after his career ending defeat during Men’s Singles first round match against Paul-Henri Mathieu of France on day one of the French Open at Roland Garros on May 25, 2008 in Paris, France. (Getty Images)

In the midst of the deafening Brazilian drumbeats, a spectacle where the crowd erupted with a familiar name on their lips for the most part of a fortnight, it was hard to believe that it wasn’t a celebration but an artist at work on a dusty afternoon at Roland Garros.

It was just one of those eventful days in 2001 when thousands of onlookers struggled to believe the fact that their adopted son in the name of Gustavo Kuerten –  or ‘Guga’ as they affectionately call him – was about to be dispatched back to his hometown in Brazil by American Michael Russell, in only the fourth round of the competition. The festive euphoria suddenly dampened, and it was increasingly evident on the faces of the passionate fans around the court, as all of them were hoping for anything but the inevitable.

But of all people, the least amount of anxiety was on that one charming face, reflecting none of the feeling echoing in the silence of the crowd. Kuerten, in his trademark style, dug in deep and drove Russell on a submissive run of 26 ground-strokes to which he would eventually succumb to with sheer helplessness. The roars were back and so was the smile on the Brazilian’s face, as he sketched a memorable comeback win that he capped off by tracing a giant heart on the clay. For Gustavo, unlike anyone else, competitive tennis was just an outcome of passion towards the game and never the other way around.

Kuerten and moments like these with his French zealots could fill a collage of emotions in front of your eyes even before you realized it. If there was ever a portrait that could immortalize the beauty of the spellbinding camaraderie between the fans and the on-court entertainers of the extravagant French Open history, Guga and his legion of passionate folks would exemplify its every element with grace and subtlety.

This file picture taken on June 3, 2001 shows Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten drawing a heart on the court at the end of his fourth round match against US Michael Russell at the French Tennis Open in Roland Garros, Paris. Kuerten will play his last competition in 2008 at his home away from home, Roland Garros. Three-time French Open winner, "Guga" won the hearts of Paris public for good in 2001 for a spontaneous gesture at the end of an extraordinary fourth round tie against American Michael Russell when he sunk to his knees and traced a huge heart with his racket on the red clay to dedicate his win to the fans in the stands. AFP PHOTO/FILES/JACQUES DEMARTHON TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY ALLAN KELLY (Photo credit should read JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images)

This file picture taken on June 3, 2001 shows Gustavo Kuerten drawing a heart on the court at the end of his fourth round match against Michael Russell at the French Open. The Brazilian dedicated his win to the fans in the stands. (Getty Images)

“It reminds you of the Brazilian soccer players. They take so much joy, and not just in the winning part of it, but the way it’s done: the flair, passion and creativity.”

- John McEnroe, on Gustavo Kuerten.

It’s rather complicated to figure, yet there would be something strikingly seductive that forged this relationship. Kuerten was probably right when he said, ‘It was love at first sight’ and it’s not that hard to believe the fact that such an endearing character would garner such an incomparable following. Kuerten, to be fair, in his first appearance at Roland Garros, typified an underdog. Being a Brazilian, Guga was always interpreted as a part of a minority; yet his tennis skill-set, conjured with a typical splash of South American aesthetics did appeal the French who had seen nothing like it. They had seen the likes of  Bjorn Bjorg, Jim Courier, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Sergi Bruguera hustling and dictating play off the baseline. But not since Guillermo Vilas had a player emphasized on elegance and improvisation by picking points off the net; Kuerten brought adventurous streak from South America.

Kuerten perhaps, didn’t really realize the magnanimity of the event in his first few appearances on the sacred clay of Paris – and you couldn’t blame him for that considering his tender age. However in 1997, ranked No.66 in the world, Guga stepped out with only one aim in his mind: to better his personal Grand Slam record of two wins. No one gave him a shot to go all the way; even his coach thought it wasn’t actually possible. Yet, the fact that the French connection gradually builds on you, helped the Brazilian, and in no time we saw that transforming into some staggering on-court results.

He went on to beat Thomas Muster, Andrei Medvedev, Kafelnikov and Filip Dewulf, before his date with destiny on a Sunday against the talismanic Bruguera. And before we could react on his accomplishments on his road to the finals, he cruised past Bruguera to become a headliner; an underdog story that everyone wishes for. It may have been a case of ‘right place at the right time’, or maybe with a little bit of luck, he actually did have what it takes to clinch a clay Major at the age of 21. But he made sure that it wasn’t a one-off wonder with 2 more titles to his name by 2001. However, nagging injuries would cut short his career that could have spanned for at least a couple more years.


With a resounding win at the Tour Finals in 2000, where he beat Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi – back-to-back on indoors, pundits around the world were made to change their opinion on Gustavo; and that he had the game to better his record on grass and hard courts. His game had the right amount of stroke-making genius to go with his defensive merits, and had it not been the unfortunate recurrence of injuries that faltered his progress in regular intervals, Guga could have made a mark on all the surfaces. He tried his best to make several well-prepared comebacks to the game; yet, persisting injuries meant we saw Guga chasing the horizon earlier than any other top pros of his generation.

Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil celebrates after winning his third successive French Open at Roland Garros, in Paris, France.   Mandatory Credit: Clive Brunskill /Allsport

Gustavo Kuerten of Brazil celebrates after winning his third successive French Open at Roland Garros, in Paris, France. (Getty Images)

In France, it’s said that a part of an athlete dies on his retirement. He certainly would have felt so in 2008, when he kissed the clay court goodbye forever. For once, a romantic script at Paris did have an anti-climactic ending. The carnivals at Court Philippe Chartrier have lost its soul forever and no doubt they have a new Mallorcan hero to cheer about; it still feels like an unfair consolation gift that the French will have to deal with forever.

“It was the end of a part of my life and I knew I wouldn’t experience this kind of thing again. But I didn’t really have a choice. My injury (hip) kept me from playing. That’s just the way it is. It was time to find other goals and do something else.”

- Gustavo Kuerten, on his last game at Roland Garros.

Even in 2013, ahead of all the French Open hysteria, if you ask any Guga fan, you’ll get only one response: you may have had more dominating champions on the clay haven of France, yet none more captivating than Gustavo Kuerten.

Published 05 Apr 2013, 12:43 IST
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