Gustavo Kuerten... Remembering 1997 Roland Garros
Twenty years ago, a relatively unknown Brazilian captured the imagination by wrestling away the Roland Garros trophy from the world’s finest dirt-ballers.
The abiding memory is of a stick-thin figure bedecked top-to-toe in yellow and blue, who unleashed explosive groundstrokes and a monotonous groan, which echoed around Stade Roland Garros, to wear down the best clay-court players the professional circuit had to offer. With each win as Gustavo Kuerten walked off court, came an infectious smile in acknowledgement of his growing legion of followers, to whom he became universally known as ‘Guga’.
“To win Roland Garros was unbelievable,” Kuerten told ATPWorldTour.com, on the 20th anniversary of his win. “It’s become more absurd as the years have passed. Now I know how hard it is to win a Grand Slam, but back then I kept questioning, ‘What is this?’ and ‘How did I win?’ It was simple and fun. In hitting new angles, I became a new player. I saw a new universe as a tennis player. In 1997, it was simple, ‘Oh, let’s win this’. It was only in 2000, with my second triumph, that I began to understand what had happened.
“Life was a new match, one that I couldn’t imagine. Now, 20 years on, it makes me curious about how Mats Wilander [17 at 1982 Roland Garros], Boris Becker [17 at 1985 Wimbledon], Michael Chang [17 at 1989 Roland Garros] and Rafael Nadal [who had recently turned 19 at 2005 Roland Garros] all felt in winning their first major titles at a young age.”
Kuerten had first visited Paris in 1992 with Larri Passos, his only coach throughout his professional career that ended at Roland Garros in 2008. In finding that tickets had sold out, the carefree spirit entered the grounds at night to hide inside the Court Suzanne Lenglen stadium, only to appear when the first spectators were looking for their seats. Yet by May 1997, he was assured of his place in the third Grand Slam championship of his career as one of only five Latinos – No. 10 Marcelo Rios, No. 53 Marcelo Filippini, No. 64 Hernan Gumy and No. 88 Fernando Meligeni – in the Top 100 of the Emirates ATP Rankings.
For the 20 year old had watched more matches as a fan on his television in Florianopolis, Santa Caterina, an island in southern Brazil, than he had played on the ATP World Tour circuit (45). But a win on Brazilian soil at an ATP Challenger Tour stop in Curitiba boosted his confidence and the five matches had not only helped to improve his consistency, but given World No. 66 Kuerten the conviction that he could produce his best performances. “The spirit was there. I knew if I kept pushing myself something very special would happen,” said Kuerten, who remembers a helicopter flew over the court at the start of the second set, creating a dust storm, during his three-set victory over No. 158-ranked Razvan Sabau in the Curitiba final of May 1997.
Lifting a trophy had effected a positive mental change in his on-court demeanour. “Guga initially had two difficulties,” Passos told ATPWorldTour.com. “His handling of the ball and the way that he defended. He had more issues moving to the right side, his forehand, but in Curibita, and subsequently at Roland Garros, we prepared tactics so that he could play with his backhand, which would become one of the best and deadly shots in the world. When he controlled the game with his backhand, he unsettled his opponents. While he liked to attack, he also had to learn how to defend.”
With renewed drive, strength and energy, Kuerten arrived in Paris with a small suitcase. Expectations were light, despite his recent success. “I came here to win one match,” smiled Kuerten, 20 years on. “I was not trying to win it, but I was trying to improve. As the tournament progressed, I needed to go away from the fantasy of potentially winning, so Larri was always very precise over how he planned my time. I just needed to feel the clay and I got better.”
Sticking with tradition, Kuerten and Passos stayed at the $70 per night, two star Mont Blanc Hotel, near the Porte de Versailles, a 20-minute bus ride to the courts. It was a 15-square metre enterprise, with two rooms and a corridor down the middle that allowed guests to pack their suitcases. Passos had stayed at the hotel since 1990, but it importantly ensured that Kuerten was far from the spotlight.
“I first stayed there as a junior in 1992,” said Kuerten, who won the 1994 Roland Garros junior doubles title with another future Top 10 player Nicolas Lapentti of Ecuador. “We knew everyone from the cleaners to the owners. It was very simple.” Each night, the pair ate pasta at Victoria's Trattoria and by day Passos, per superstition, would wear his favourite shirt to watch his charge progress through the draw. “As I began to win matches the press had a tough time finding the hotel,” said Kuerten. Passos adds, “By irony of fate, our hotel room in 1997 was No. 1.”
Kuerten’s run to the trophy, and his subsequent ascent to No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings four years later in December 2000, was a product of hours on the practice courts. The Brazilian always played with his heart, and he endeared himself to the tennis world by virtue of his personality and the fact that he didn’t hide his emotions.
“At the beginning, it was difficult to believe that he would be such a great tennis player,” admitted Passos, who first started working with a 13-year-old Guga in 1990. “But he was always a boy who loved to train. I had to change his two-handed backhand to a single-hander, then we began to work on the technique and the shape of his game.
“Guga loved what he did and, in addition to all of his technical qualities, he achieved what he did throughout his career as a result of the love he had to play. We worked with a lot of harmony, focus and lived for every moment. We used to have fun, play and laugh a lot. Sometimes we had more fun than we trained, but being on the court was always a very special time.”
At 1997 Roland Garros, Kuerten experienced “two separate weeks”: the realisation that he was performing better than he expected and then the switch in mentality that came as a result of beating Thomas Muster, the fifth-seeded Austrian ironman and 1995 champion, 6-7(3), 6-1, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 in the third round.
“I’d hit 10 drop shots against Muster, who yelled out in German, ‘What the hell is this? I’m playing my best tennis and this kid is killing me. Who is he? A genius?’ The crowd got involved and Muster was an amazing battler to the end. Then, struggling at 0-3 in the fifth set, at the change of ends, I said, ‘Get me out of here, he’s going to eat me!’ I was close to giving up, but my brother Rafael, sitting in the stands, told me, ‘You’ve come this far, get up and keep fighting.’
“After the Muster win, I had a full press conference in the big room. Before that I’d only spoken to two or three people.” Kuerten’s subsequent two-day victory over Andrei Medvedev, that transported him “to another universe” heralded a quarter-final against Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the third seed and defending champion. The match was broadcast live in Brazil, and saw the arrival of his long-time PR manager, Diana Gabanyi, who would answer “99 per cent of the telephone calls” to the Mont Blanc Hotel – now, 20 years on, a tourist hotspot for Kuerten’s compatriots.
“I thought Kafelnikov was impossible,” said Kuerten. “Even if he didn’t play his best, I couldn’t win.” But he did, 6-2, 5-7, 5-7, 6-0, 6-4, and then the player dubbed by L’Equipe, the French sports newspaper, ‘The Clay Surfer’, felt that he had a real chance. “The intensity of the spotlight changed when I beat Kafelnikov, the favourite to retain his title. It was two separate tournaments from then on. I had great conviction. I knew the trophy was mine.”
By then the tennis world had fallen in love with the frizzy-haired and richly gifted player, a colourful and exciting personality, who sang in the locker room, played the guitar and listened to reggae in his free time. “After beating Kafelnikov in the quarter-finals, we both knew that the title could not escape us by the way he felt the ball,” admitted Passos. “Our conviction was so great that we called Guga’s house and asked the family to build a large gate outside the entrance of his house, because they had to be prepared for the harassment of fans in Brazil."
Having beaten qualifier Filip Dewulf in the semi-finals, “the only match I was the favourite”, red-dirt warrior Sergi Bruguera – who is now Richard Gasquet’s coach – was favoured to add to his 1993 and 1994 triumphs. “Before he went out onto the court,” remembers Passos, “I said to him, ‘Guga you worked hard and did everything right, now go enjoy dessert.’”
Kuerten just smiled, thinking about the path he’d taken. His casual demeanour belied his intensity, and during the title match he showed no sign of nerves in ruthlessly dealing with his Spanish opponent in a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 triumph over one hour and 50 minutes. It was the 52nd tour-level match of Kuerten’s career, his “best match of the fortnight” and ensured he had become the lowest-ranked Grand Slam champion since Mark Edmondson (No. 212) at the 1976 Australian Open.
While the Brazilian fans broke into the samba as they celebrated their first Grand Slam triumph since Maria Bueno’s victories more than 40 years previous, the gifted newcomer received the trophy from his idol Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas. "I played like I did in practice and I really enjoyed it,” said Kuerten, 20 years on. “In beating Bruguera, I thought to myself, ‘This is my trophy and I deserve it.’ Permitting myself to dream about raising the trophy was crucial for us."
Passos had promised Kuerten’s father Aldo, who had passed away as the result of a heart attack whilst umpiring a match in Curibita when Guga was eight in 1985, that he would one day develop his son’s tennis skills. It had been Passos’ job to take a rough diamond and to polish it, to nurture Guga’s dreams and, ultimately, set new goals that would drive and inspire him for the rest of his career. “When the final was over, we met in the locker room,” recalls Passos. “We went up to the rest rooms. We prayed, we thanked God, and dedicated the title to his father. “We looked at each other and I said to him, ‘Let's continue being the same! Let's not change!’ We then hugged and wept a lot.
“I always say that Guga has a larger heart than his body, and it was with this great heart that Guga won Roland Garros in 1997.”
When one of the ATP World Tour’s most popular champions pops up at tournaments around the world today, as Kuerten will when he presents the trophy to the 2017 Roland Garros champion on Sunday, it is easy to cast your mind back back to the halcyon days of 20 years ago when he received the first of his three Roland Garros trophies (also 2000 and 2001). Simply, because Guga hasn’t changed. He continues to dedicate his life to his family, that was once more affected by tragedy in November 2007 by the loss of his greatest supporter, his brother Guilherme, who suffered from cerebral palsy.
“Tennis helped me value my family, the pieces that they put together for the great moments,” says Kuerten, from his home on the magical island of Florianopolis, in southern Brazil. “It was a huge work effort. I could maintain my values and the way I approach life, because of them. It’s difficult to maintain the same life with money and fame, but life has always been more important to me than tennis or any Grand Slams I have won. Tennis ends and you need to return to normal.”
Today, 20 years on from beating Bruguera to complete an almost spiritual journey to the clay-court title in Paris, Kuerten’s countrymen and women empathise with the boy who came from a simple family and overcame numerous obstacles with just the same attitude as he had when he was a wide-eyed child dreaming of success in sport and life.
“My life was never normal again after 1997 Roland Garros, yet I have tried to preserve and maintain my approach to life,” said Kuerten. “My father was a huge part of my life, my idol and I dedicate my life to him. He really liked to try his best, and he always fought for what he wanted. So I think I got some of this from him. He just wanted his sons - me and my two brothers - to grow up and do well in their lives and have a good reputation."
Guga’s heart permitted him to dream and his tremendous work ethic, which continues to this day through the Instituto Guga Kuerten, allowed him to fulfil his potential. His father would, indeed, be very proud.