In 1997, an unknown Brazilian wearing outrageously colourful outfits took Roland Garros by storm. Eleven years later, the French Open bid farewell to one of its favourite stars, Gustavo "Guga" Kuerten.
The 2008 edition of the French Open got off to a heartbreaking start on Sunday as Roland Garros paid tribute to one of its greatest champions, Brazil's Gustavo "Guga" Kuerten.
Ranked a lowly 1,140th in the world, the three-time Roland Garros champion and former World Number 1 fell in straight sets (6-3, 6-4, 6-2) to the 18th seed, France's Paul-Henri Mathieu.
Though a shadow of his former self, Kuerten still treated his fans to some exquisite shots, including a few of his fearsome crosscourt backhands. His ailing body, however, would take him no further.
The physio made several appearances in between games, in a painful reminder of the nagging injuries that plagued much of Guga's thirteen-year career.
Nonetheless, as he panted for breath after each rally, his unshakeable smile never left the court.
Though playing a Frenchman, Kuerten got most of the cheers from the Grand Slam circuit's toughest and most unforgiving crowd – a fitting tribute to the finest clay-court player of the turn-of-the-century.
Guga broke onto the tennis scene in outstanding fashion in 1997, as he won the French Open despite being ranked a mere 66th. His particular style and explosive personality brought a breath of fresh air to the world's most prestigious clay-court tournament.
Suddenly, Samba-tennis washed away the dour brand of grinding tennis practiced by clay's Spanish matadors. Kuerten had single-handedly put Brazil on the tennis map.
The "Brazilian gentleman" became the darling of the French crowd in 2001 – the year of his third triumph at Roland Garros – after drawing a heart on court following his rollercoaster fourth round win over Michael Russell; a feat he later repeated in the final, where he defeated Spain's Alex Corretja.
A career marred by injury
Guga claimed a career-total of 20 tournament wins, including three French Opens ('97, '00 and '01).
Victories over Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi on an indoor carpet court also helped him finish the year 2000 as the highest-ranking tennis player. His subsequent seasons, however, were plagued by constant injuries.
Recurrent hip problems finally prompted him to undergo major surgery in 2004, though this spelled the end of his career at the top. Virtually absent for two years, he played a total of nine matches in 2007, of which he lost seven.
Still, at times, Kuerten was able to give a taste of his unique talent. Indeed, anyone who witnessed his demolition of World Number 1 Roger Federer at Roland Garros in 2004 must be wondering what might have been had a fully-fit Guga ever played Rafael Nadal.
An exquisite athlete on and off the courts, he will be remembered for the wild ginger curls that had girls screaming, the colourful outfits that kept Wimbledon officials fretting, and the languorous grunts that left opponents cursing.
Date created : 2008-05-26